Fata, goddess of fate in Latin, became the namesake for the fee, better known to us as fairies, creatures of magic who became popular characters in folklore. But many of the stories we call fairy tales involve no fairies, though they include magic. “The Shoemaker and the Elves,” “Cinderella,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Snow White,” “Beauty and the Beast.” So what is a fairy tale?
A few blogs ago, we looked at myth, stories of gods and magical creatures who manipulate each other in the human realm. Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment says, “…the dominant feeling a myth conveys is: this is absolutely unique … grandiose, awe-inspiring, and could not possibly happen to an ordinary mortal like you or me….By contrast, although the events which occur in fairy tales are often unusual and most improbable, they are always presented as ordinary, something that could happen to you or me or the person next door when out on a walk in the woods…”
“In fairy tales, unlike myths,” says Bettelheim, “victory is not over others but only over oneself and over villainy (mainly one’s own, which is projected as the hero’s antagonist).” More significant, he says, “is the ending, which in myths is nearly always tragic, while always happy in fairy tales…. The myth is pessimistic, while the fairy story is optimistic.” Fairy tales are really about the inner world of the protagonist, about confronting and overcoming obstacles, about growing and changing for the better.
Reading is much like going on a journey. Each reader enters a story carrying his or her own backpack full of experiences, needs, beliefs, and longings. That same reader leaves the story having added to the backpack whatever treasures he or she was ready to pick up along the road. If the story was a fairy tale, whether it included fairies or not, the treasure is most likely reassurance, courage, and hope for the future.