In classic fairy tales, characters are often flat and the stories have a disgusting whiff of social control about them …
Yet there’s a much more attractive, subversive appeal to contemporary fairy tales.
One thing’s for sure – fairy tales aren’t kids’ stuff. Behold the gore, cruelty, sexism, speciesism, racism and tragedy in The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (translated by Jack Zipes), and you’ll probably think twice about reading them to your littl’uns at bedtime.
As Professor Eric Rabkin points out in his excellent lecture series Masterpieces of the Imaginative Mind, traditional fairy tales are simply stories that have been transmitted through generations via the oral tradition.
These oral origins account for their ear-worm quality, as in the well-known opening, ‘Once upon a time …’, and the equally famous (but actually not very common) ending, ‘… and they all lived happily ever after’.
The fact that fairy tales were told aloud rather than written down also means that they exist in many different versions. You’ll see what I mean if you compare the Zipes volume of fairy tales with Philip Pullman’s more child-friendly collection Grimm Tales: For Young and Old.
They exist across different cultures, too, and have their roots in classical mythology, or perhaps in something even deeper.
But my take-home message is that contemporary writers can and should use traditional fairy tales as a foundation to their own contribution to the genre.
Why write fairy tales?
You should consider harnessing the power of fairy tales if you’re a writer who wants to …
Influence or comment on society
Fairy tales are undeniably powerful. Indeed, it has been argued that the purpose behind the Grimm brothers’ own collections was to promote a unified German culture. In the twentieth century, writers like Angela Carter – in The Bloody Chamber, for example – used fairy tales as a basis for fiction that overturned oppressive social norms. There’s plenty of scope for twenty-first century writers to follow suit.
Take an archetypal approach to character
Yes, the characters in traditional fairy tales are indeed flat. But that’s because they’re archetypes. Yet contemporary fairy tales (such as Joanne Harris’s Chocolat) are populated with archetypal characters who have life and vitality while still appealing to our collective unconscious.
Touch readers at a profound level
In his landmark work The Uses of Enchantment, psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim argues that fairy tales work on our unconscious, helping us navigate challenging life events and periods of change or difficulty. Contemporary fairy tales can work well at this level, too: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey is a moving exploration of existential crises such as childlessness, ageing, isolation and loss.
Build on a tried, tested and highly systematic framework
It’s clear that traditional fairy tales are formulaic. In fact, they’re so predictable that the Russian scholar Vladimir Propp managed to outline their common elements in his book Morphology of the Folk Tale. But this doesn’t mean that your fairy tale needs to lack sophistication, life or surprise. After all, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is really a re-telling of Beauty and the Beast, but it could never be called flat or derivative.
The anatomy of a fairy tale
Propp’s book is well worth reading if you’re interested in finding out exactly what makes fairy tales tick. To give a very quick overview, he claims that every fairy tale contains the same 31 narrative elements (which he calls narratemes).
Even at first glance, it’s clear that Propp’s scheme has something in common with The Hero’s Journey, albeit with extra details.
Importantly, the narrative functions are divided between eight main character categories. The action is traditionally led by the male hero, whose function is to set the world to rights by winning the hand of the heroine, and the favour of her father.
But of course, that’s just a starting point. It’s up to you to create your very own fairy tale ending. What does happily ever after look like to you? Get writing.