Tuesday, April 28, 2015

What's in a name?

I've been thinking about this topic for a while.  It's basically about language and could serve as an insight into how I choose what I choose to post about on Fairy Tale Fandom.  So, since I seem to have an extra week in this month to play with, I decided to make a post about it.

First a question, though: What is a fairy tale?

Now, I've looked at a lot of sources both online and among my own books and the answer generally comes down to this: it is a type of folk story that includes elements of magic and wonder.  In fact, From Cover to Cover by Kathleen T. Horning, a book about evaluating and reviewing children's literature defined it thus:

"Fairy Tales: Also called "magic tales" or "wonder tales," stories with elements of of magic and enchantment.  They may include supernatural characters such as witches, wizards, elves, dragons, and even occasionally fairies."

Now, most scholars will go on from this point and start to talk about motifs.  For example, there are patterns of three in many fairy tales (Three trips up the beanstalk.  Three trips to the king's ball.  Three attempts on Snow White's life, etc).  Or they may talk about character archetypes like the "fool" or "witch" or "princess" or the presence of "magical helpers".  They may even talk about how the main character transforms throughout the course of the story, moving from servant to royal or poor to rich.  All of these things are in fact true earmarks of the fairy tale as scholars describe them.  They're what set them apart from other folk tales like cumulative tales (like "The House that Jack Built"), pourquoi stories that explain how things in nature came to be (like "Why the Hyena Laughs") or beast tales (like "The Hare and the Hedgehog") or even more realistic tales.

However, there are "Fairy Tales" and then there are "fairy tales".

The English language is a funny thing and has been a funny thing for quite some time.  Even the modern, scholarly definition of the term is a bit odd.  It is of my personal opinion that when Madame D'aulnoy coined the term by naming one of her books Contes des Fees, I believe she was being entirely literal and straightforward.  She was telling "tales of fairies".  However, it's just that at the time of writing in 17th Century France, the term "fairy" seemed to translate more to "magical person".  It's a trend that carried through the work of most of her contemporaries.  The Fairy Godmother in Charles Perrault's "Cendrillon" was literally a fairy who was Cendrillon's godmother.  It's only as our definition of fairy moved more to the delicate winged pixies of Victorian children's literature or to the more earthy, morally ambiguous pookas and hobgoblins of the old fairy lore that we moved away from this and more toward fairy tales only occasionally having fairies in them.

Now, the word has continued to evolve.  So, while "fairy tale" still means what it means to folklorists and scholars, it has also developed a second meaning to the general public.  Basically, the term fairy tale has come to be applied to any old story, song or rhyme usually containing fantastical elements that they have probably encountered in childhood.  This tends to include fairy tales, pourquoi stories, beast tales, fables, legends, nursery rhymes and classic works of children's fantasy literature.  Don't believe me?  Check out Fables, or Ever After High or Shrek or Once Upon a Time (at least Once Upon a Time had the wherewithal to admit that Frankenstein is not a fairy tale).  They all include characters from a wide range of these things despite being considered "fairy tale" works.  Heck, look at how we title some classic collections of folk stories.  The Grimms collected all different types of folk stories but now we call their collection Grimm's Fairy Tales.  This type of linguistic condensing isn't all that uncommon.  It's why many people will refer to any extinct ancient animal as a "dinosaur" even if it isn't or how any frozen treat might get termed "ice cream" for convenience's sake.

Now, what does this have to do with me and Fairy Tale Fandom?  Well, have you ever noticed what a wide range of things I post about?

When I started this blog I was a storyteller and a specialist in folk tales.  True fairy tales were part of that repertoire but not the only part and they still aren't.  Now, when I started this blog I had a few things to consider.  Was I just going to post about folk tales?  Was I going to pick which type of folk tale to post about?  However, as I started thinking about the term "fairy tale" and what it has come to mean, I realized what a whole lot of cultural punch it had.  So, thinking about this double meaning and its implications I decided something: it would be far easier to embrace the beast than to slay it.  The popular value of the term fairy tale has gained far too much weight in the world to ignore.  It also would be far more interesting and fun to embrace the wider value.  After all, I love children's fantasy literature and legends too and knew I wanted to write about them (I still haven't figured out any way to tackle the subjects of fables and nursery rhymes, but I'm working on it).  At the same time I thought "Would it be too much to acknowledge the true natures of these stories as well?".  And so, my different columns were born.  So, when I talk about obscure folk tales, they fall under "Folk Tale Secret Stash".  When I talk about children's literature, it falls under "Fantasy Literature Rewind" and so on.  I also realized in my musings that most people's knowledge of what they called "fairy tales" still consisted of a few household names.  So, I thought that while embracing that wider net that I could still push on the boundaries of what people "knew" about the tales.  It became a question of "Why not do a series of posts about the story from Swan Lake?" or "Why not introduce people to stuff like Rootabaga Stories or The Princess and the Goblin?" or "Why not spend October just posting about ghost stories?"  Folk Tale Secret Stash was a direct result of one of such "why nots".  The idea was to be inclusive rather than exclusive without painting every story with the same brush.

Yet, sometimes it's best to not be too inclusive.

There are times when being inclusive can just go a little too far.  For example, I've seen supposed "fairy tale" derived works that included characters like Ichabod Crane, Ebenezer Scrooge and Long John Silver as well as certain characters out of Shakespeare.  As far as I'm concerned, that's going too far (though, maybe you could make a case for A Midsummer Night's Dream).  Real people that are more history than legend (like say . . . Pocahontas) are also off-limits.  Need a more practical example?  Well, okay, let's talk about my Fairy Tale Media Fix and Fairy Tale Fandom Book Report columns.  For these, I like to keep it restricted to works based on actual real-deal fairy tales or that include fairy tale motifs.  Now, you may remember that not long ago ABC had a little series called Galavant.  All the ads described it as a fairy tale musical comedy.  I really enjoyed this show.  I thought the jokes were funny.  I thought the songs were very catchy.  I still really want a season two.  There was just one thing that kept me from covering it on Fairy Tale Media Fix.  Despite the description used in the ads, it really wasn't like a fairy tale at all.  It was more like a parody of medeival romances than fairy tales.  So, I had to let that one go.

So, that's my piece.  Now I'd like to know what you think about the term "fairy tale" and all its various meanings over the years.  Am I right in thinking that the popular culture definition of the term "fairy tale" has gotten too big to ignore?  Let me know in the comments below.

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