What is a Fairy Tale?

Once upon a time, the people tried to define fairy tale. They are still trying.
The truth is, like all storytelling, the form and nature of the fairy tale is
changeable. The roots of fairy tale reach deep into the past of myths, legends, and
old wives’ tales. Ancient Greek stories of Rhodopis and Cupid and Psyche, for
instance, merge into tales of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. Whether you
think fairy tales emerged from a collective unconscious, universal in appeal, or
were passed along time-worn trade routes, carrying debris from specific
cultures, were told by old peasant women by the hearth, or sung by troubadours
in the courts of kings and queens, it is likely there is truth to all the theories.
Fairy tales come to us as a ragbag of histories.

But what are fairy tales? The term fairy tale is the legacy of Marie-Catherine Le
Jumel de Barneville, Baroness d’Aulnoy, plucked from the title of her fairy-tale
collection, Les Contes des Fées (1697). She and her fellow French women writers
initiated a fairy-tale vogue in France in the later years of Louis XIV’s reign. They
wrote about female fairies who called the shots in romance and politics. Of
course, not all fairy tales feature fairies. Fairy tales can include magic,
supernatural creatures, metamorphosis, happy endings, true love, superstitions,
swordfights, cross-dressing, and even morals, but there are no rules and no
definitive claims on authenticity. A tale can be simple and spare, generating
uncomplicated archetypes like a king or princess, or a tale can be complex and
sophisticated, filled with a myriad of well-developed characters. There are many
kinds of fairy tale: they are bound less by what they have in common than by
their capricious nature.

Australia’s fairy tale tradition is rooted in the experience of colonialism and, of
course, exists distinct from Indigenous storytelling. In the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries, many attempted to create Australian fairy tales – authors
and illustrators like Sister Agnes, Atha Westbury, Ida Rentoul-Outhwaite, May
Gibbs, and Hume Cook. A selection of their works are in the public domain and
may be found online. As the twentieth century progressed, more authors
engaged with Australia’s landscape and national identity, but frequently in
dialogue with the European fairy-tale tradition. Today, our fairy tales
increasingly reflect our diverse population and traditions from Japan, Malaysia,
India, Sudan and elsewhere are emerging in new Australian fairy tales.
The question, in the end, is less what is a fairy tale and more… what can a fairy
tale be?

Dr Rebecca-Anne Do Rozario