rachelatarms (rachelatarms) wrote,

What Makes a Fairy Tale?

I love fairy tales. 

That should surprise absolutely no one at this point. 

But I've been thinking a lot about exactly what it is that makes fairy tales so lovely, and the distinctions between modern YA retellings as opposed to original works that feel like (or really are) fairy tales. 

Note that I said have been. I stopped, because I don't know what I ought to say about it. It's an issue of authors writing magical books, and how do you pinpoint and describe a book that is magic?

There are fairy tales from all around the world, and I'm very fond of many of the lesser-known ones, but in the end I always come back to the Grimm tales. There's nothing quite like magic and creepiness and other worlds mixed with absolutely unconquerable spirit and people facing the odds relentlessly, all wrapped into one delightful package. 

That could describe Doctor Who, couldn't it? Hmm. 

Ultimately, the issue with writing about characters is that they're people, and people come with baggage. All sorts of baggage. Moral shades of grey, conflict internal and external, improbable motives, backstory...endless possibilities, and so little time to share the story. But stories need a resolution—something at least satisfying, if not necessarily happy. For satisfaction and/or optional happiness to matter, there has to be an equal or greater amount of darkness to make the resolution shine all the brighter. 

And fairy tales are very good at that. 

There are some stories where the bad guy receives due recompense, but equally many in which the protagonist goes through awful things—if I recall correctly, the heroine of the Norway Bull story actually needs iron shoes nailed to her feet in order to climb the glass hill—before some kind of resolution comes about. 

So, in this sense, an original fairy tale needs to be dark. It's in the story's genetic code, so to speak—a part of its nature. To an extent all books need a "dark"—some opposing force, that is, but in fairy tales it's especially important for this dark force to let its influence bleed over into the rest of the story. 

My first assertion, then, would be this: an original fairy tale needs darkness. 

My second is really a personal preference, and also entirely subjective. But, for what it is worth, I also think that an original fairy tale should be creepy. The core notion of "creepy", for me, rests upon what is known in part—but more heavily on what isn't. There are things in fairy tales we don't know, and the absence of certainty about these things has an impact on the core of the story. Something that's creepy straddles the lines between true and false, known and unknown, our world and someone else's. It blurs the lines, changes distinctions until you're not quite sure which world this story is in—a core factor in many traditional fairy tales. While much of traditional fantasy asks you to suspend your disbelief and step into a whole new world, fairy tales (since many original fairy tales—I think—are probably classified as fantasy in bookstores) take your hand and pull you from your world gradually along, slipping and slipping along a pond of iced-over words until you're quite dizzy—and not sure if, when you stand up, you're in the same place as you began. Perhaps you are, and perhaps you're not—and the only signs that can tell you for certain are those little nagging shadows in the corner of your eye. 

The third thing is stylistic, and hence also a personal preference and subjective, but I feel very strongly that original fairy tales ought to be poetic in their nature. Traditional fairy tales were passed down through oral tradition, on one hand, so it seems fitting to pay attention to the meter and the way your tongue feels as you pass through word after word. Language is very magical, and what kind of story is more magical than a fairy tale? Might as well double up on the magic, and have a beautiful fairy tale in the process. Because fairy tales and poetry and language are all tied so closely, the words themselves ought to be really beautiful. Because of their ancestral heritage in traditional fairy tales, I think original ones should be tied closely to the senses—to how it sounds aurally, to how the words feel in one's mouth, to the image painted by the pattern of the syllables and consonants and vowels*. In a sense, this means that—to me—an author's voice alone could make a novel a fairy tale. 

But fairy tales are so multifaceted, whether traditional or original YA, and I can't possibly cover everything that goes into them. So tell me, readers—what do you think makes an original YA fairy tale? Leave a comment with your thoughts, and I will send the spirits of goodwill to you with brownies.**

*Classics diversion: there's this bit in the Aeneid where Virgil is describing a depiction of the whole Minotaur incident, and the words he chose are brilliant because their sound matches the imagery exactly. Gawking at the ways ancient poets used hexameter to influence the coloring of their words is a very informative hobby.

**Due confession: I do aspire to write these. I love original fairy tales, and would be a Very Happy Writer if I could imbue my WIPs with the kind of fairy tale quality that I know and love from other works. It would make me terribly happy, I think, before it made me terribly nervous. 
Tags: blood brothers, cuddle monsters, fairy-tales, fiction, perfectionism, stories, writing

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