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Short-Short Sighted — Bruce Holland Rogers

November 2008

Once Upon A Time: Fairy Tales

  Artwork : Photo courtesy of the author.

Artwork : Photo courtesy of the author.

Read Bruce’s previous column here, or visit his author page to see them all.

Like the fable, the fairy tale is a traditional story form that is a good match to the short-short. Although fairy tales can be elaborated with more and more detail, the essential story is always fairly simple, and it’s a rare fairy tale that can’t be told satisfactorily in under a thousand words.

But what is a fairy tale? Madame d’Aulnoy published a collection of tales in 1697 titled Les Contes des Fées, and we’ve been stuck with the name ever since. Then and now, however, a fairy tale need not have fairies. Fairies appear in very few fairy tales. If not fairies, then what, exactly, must a tale have to be a fairy tale? Experts have long disagreed on the answer.

Some folklorists have devoted their lives to cataloging and defining fairy tales that come to us from the oral tradition. The Finnish folklorist Antti Aarne began assigning numbers to types of traditional tales, an undertaking that, extended by other colleagues, has given us the Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) system. Almost any traditional tale can be assigned an ATU number. For example, any story catalogued as ATU 510 tells about a deserving girl who is treated badly by her step-family and then achieves her fondest wish with the aid of her magical guardian. Cinderella is only the best-known example among many European ATU 510 folktales.

Some say that only stories numbered ATU 300 to 749 are fairy tales because only these stories have magic. ATU 1 to 299 are animal stories, ATU 750 to 849 are religious, ATU 850 to 999 are realistic traditional tales, and ATU tales 1000 to 1199 are about stupid ogres, giants, or devils. Other critics argue that the definition needs to be broader, for tales of the other ATU types are included in collections, such as those of The Brothers Grimm, that almost all would agree are fairy tale collections.

Folklorist Vladimir Propp took a different approach to the problem of identifying typical fairy tale features. Based on his study of Russian fairy tales, Propp derived two lists of elements that make up such tales. One gives the thirty-one events that happen in most of these tales, such as “Hero leaves home,” “Hero defeats villain,” “Hero arrives, unrecognized,” and “Usurper tries to falsely claim the hero’s rightful prize.” Propp’s other list identifies seven character types: the hero, the donor who gives the hero a magical gift, the magical helper, the villain, the princess or king who sends sets the hero’s task, the dispatcher who sends the hero off, and the usurper who tries to take credit for the hero’s actions.

Is any of this helping to answer the question? Between the ATU category numbers and Propp’s seven character types, do you now know what a fairy tale is?

That is a trick question, actually. You knew what a fairy tale was before you started to read this column. You’ve known since childhood, since you first heard stories of enchanted salt mills, talking wolves, and the youngest of three brothers. You have fairy tales in your bones, forming some of your earliest memories of story.

“Critic’s tools,” John Gardner liked to say, “are not maker’s tools.” Catalogs of stories with their ATU numbers make for fascinating reading, and Propp’s lists of plot points and character types may give you ideas, too. However, you can throw out every classification, every traditional characteristic, and every bit of advice if your story achieves just one thing: it feels like a fairy tale. And that happens not with a number but with a spell.

The best way to generate a fairy tale is to write down a ritual invocation of enchantment. “Once upon a time….” and then keep going. Write about characters and events that have the feel of a fairy tale. When you get to the end, close with a signal that the enchantment has come to the end, such as “...and they lived happily ever after,” or an ending like this one from Russian tales: “I drank beer at their wedding; it ran down my mustache, but never went in my mouth.”

If readers agree that what you have written feels like a fairy tale, then a fairy tale is what you have, whether there is a quest or not, whether the hero’s victory is challenged by a usurper or not, and whether or not a donor gives the hero a magical object, and whether or not a critic would know what ATU number to give it.

The folklorists do, of course, have a good point to make — there are some general characteristics that fairy tales often share. Knowing these characteristics can help a maker weave an effective enchantment. Although with the words of the opening spell, a larder stocked with eye of newt and toe of frog helps a writer provide the content that give readers the essential fairy tale feel. Contrary to what some critics say, however, I have found that readers are very willing to accept creative substitutes. So these are general guidelines, not inviolable rules.

  1. As already noted, fairy tales use ritualized beginnings and endings to signal that they are stories of enchantment. Writers can use traditional phrases or invent new ones: “In a certain empire, three times nine kingdoms from here and on the other side of high mountains...” “And if the world has not yet ended, he is living there still.”
  2. Simple diction, too, is part of the enchantment. The vocabulary is basic, straightforward, and elaborated with only simple adjectives: the dark wood, the steep mountain, the foolish boy.
  3. The protagonist is generally an ordinary human being and a flat character. Protagonists often do not have names or have very ordinary names like Hans or John. Sometimes they have descriptive nicknames as with Tom Thumb or Little Red Riding Hood. The character’s personality is limited to one or two salient traits.
  4. The protagonists are also emotionally flat. They rarely reveal what they are feeling. If someone weeps in a fairy tale, it’s typically a secondary character. Protagonists are defined not by what they think or feel, but by what they do. This extends to the protagonists’ reactions to magical events. Fairy tale heroes and heroines don’t express amazement when an enchantment turns one thing into another. They take what has happened as a given, and they act.
  5. Secondary characters fall into some predictable categories. They are supernatural beings, talking animals, or people defined only by their work or status.
  6. Supernatural beings might be derived from religious traditions: angels, djinns, water spirits, but fairy tales generally avoid any message specific to a particular religion. Fairy tales are not vehicles for dogma.
  7. Fairy tales happen outside of time and place. Although aspects of a tale may place it in West Africa, Asia, or Europe, that’s about as specific as the setting is liable to be. To help support the timelessness of the story, human characters have roles that are suitable for many different times and places, such as farmer, herder, wood-cutter, soldier, leader, or slave.
  8. While both fables and fairy tales are teaching stories, the lesson of a fairy tale typically cannot be summed up in a simple moral statement. The meaning of a fairy tale is multiple, possibly even complex and ambiguous. Part of the function of the fairy tale is to instruct the reader in the ways of the world, and the same story may demonstrate that some people will try to take advantage of others, that persistence is rewarded, that honesty can bring both short-term pain and long-term benefit, and that good triumphs over wickedness.
  9. Fairy tales unfold in a morally just universe. The phrase “fairy tale ending” generally refers to a story that ends happily, but this is a bit of a misnomer. A real fairy tale ending is one that delivers justice, and sometimes that means a very sad and painful ending for a misbehaving character. Indeed, traditional fairy tales often deliver the kind of justice that no enlightened society would endorse. The wicked character in many traditional tales is tortured to death at the end. One way writers express their originality in fairy tales is by demonstrating, though the outcome of the story, their own contemporary sense of justice.
  10. Things often come in threes. There are three brothers. The first sets out to achieve a task and fails. The second also fails. The third and youngest brother succeeds. Or if a girl is to be tempted by a water spirit, she will refuse the temptation two times before succumbing on the spirit’s third attempt.

If you’ve tried to write a fairy tale and feel you have missed the mark, reviewing this list may show you some ways in which you strayed too far from the tradition and lost the feel of the fairy tale world.

The Dead Boy at Your Window,” the sample story for this column, emerged from a writing exercise. I gave myself five minutes to write a story about a lie. I started writing without knowing what the lie would be or what spell the story would cast. I began with the first line of invocation: “In a distant country where the towns had improbable names...” Event by event, I didn’t know what was going to happen next, but because this was a fairy tale, only certain kinds of things could happen. That helped keep the story on a track satisfying to readers, even if I didn’t know at first where it would lead.

In the initial draft, I got as far as flying the dead boy to the land of the dead, and then didn’t know what to do with him next. It was only after weeks of thinking about the story that my bizarre beginning and middle fermented long enough for me to see what sort of ending would tie them together in completion. If we let them, fairy tales can take us on a journey that is a lot like myth-making. I arrived at this story both by trusting what my imagination gave me under pressure, and then by taking the time to understand how I could shape the strangeness to make the story whole and complete the spell.

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About the Author

Bruce Holland Rogers

The eyes of Bruce Holland Rogers

Bruce Holland Rogers has a home base in Eugene, Oregon, the tie-dye capital of the world. He writes all types of fiction: SF, fantasy, literary, mysteries, experimental, and work that’s hard to label.

For six years, Bruce wrote a column about the spiritual and psychological challenges of full-time fiction writing for Speculations magazine. Many of those columns have been collected in a book, Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer (an alternate selection of the Writers Digest Book Club). He is a motivational speaker and trains workers and managers in creativity and practical problem solving.

He has taught creative writing at the University of Colorado and the University of Illinois. Bruce has also taught non-credit courses for the University of Colorado, Carroll College, the University of Wisconsin, and the private Flatiron Fiction Workshop. He is a member of the permanent faculty at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program, a low-residency program that stands alone and is not affiliated with a college or university. It is the first and so far only program of its kind. Currently he is teaching creative writing and literature at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, on a Fulbright grant.

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