Saturday, September 6, 2014

A Recipe for Fairy Tales

What makes a fairy tale a fairy tale? There are many different elements that go into a fairy tale that do not seem important at first glance, but nevertheless make the story a fairy tale.

I like to compare this to a recipe for baking.

Just as when you bite into a muffin, you don’t think “Mmm, I taste flour, sugar, and a little bit of baking soda,”; when you read a fairy tale you don’t consciously notice all the different ingredients, or elements, that make it a fairy tale. But if a single ingredient were left out, you would feel like something was missing, just as you would if someone forgot to put the sugar into his or her batch of muffins.

So what is the recipe for a fairytale? First of all, you must have conflict in the story; usually a clash between the good and evil characters. The wicked wise woman curses the infant Sleeping Beauty, but the good wise women are able to circumvent this curse and soften it, saving the princess. Without the clash, there is no story.

Also, fairy tales ignore time. Yes, time will pass, such as in Sleeping Beauty’s 100 year sleep, but the fairy world itself is impervious to the ravages of time. Sleeping Beauty awakes from her sleep as fresh and as young as she had been when she fell asleep 100 years before.

Where would the fairy tale be without the aid of suspense? About this Lüthi says, “The dragon slayer smiles to himself and waits for the last possible moment…The use of every last second of the time limit, with everything working out at the end, is in accordance with the precise and sharp portrayal dominant elsewhere in the fairy tale.” (57) 

Another essential ingredient in fairy tales is repetition. In his book Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy TalesMax Lüthi gives the example of a Swedish fairy tale, where a young man fights a sea troll to save three princesses. Every time he fights the monster it happens the same way, and is told in almost the same words (53). This is part of the fairy tale tradition. Similarly, fairy tales usually have round numbers, such as 3, 7, 12, and 100. If Sleeping Beauty were to slumber for 29 years instead of the round 100, the magic of the tale would vanish, leaving the reader skeptical.

This brings us to the magic itself. When you bake chocolate chip cookies, the most important ingredient is the chocolate chips. Without those, you simply have a cookie without the chocolate. Having a fairy tale without magic is as ludicrous as having chocolate chip cookies without the chocolate. Without the magic, Sleeping Beauty would never fall asleep, Snow White would remain with the dwarves, and Cinderella would be stuck with her stepmother and stepsisters. Without the magic, animals would never talk to the hero, and sometimes evil would win over the good. Without the magic, you do not have a fairy tale anymore.

 What is the definition of a fairy tale? A fairy tale is made up of suspense, conflict, timelessness, repetition, precision, and magic; intangible ingredients that draw the reader inside the tale. Without a single one of these ingredients, the tales would only be stories, and not the beloved fairy tales that have captured the hearts of countless individuals throughout the ages.

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