Fairy tales are something which we have all grown up with, and yet they retain a strong mystique for many of us as adults. Most of the best-known fairy tales have existed for centuries, so perhaps it is a good idea to ask exactly what it is about the fairy tale which makes it so enduring.

What is a fairy tale?

While the terms „fairy tale“ and „folktale“ are often used interchangeably, the truth is that they refer to two distinct categories, although there is certainly an overlap. Folktales are stories which have been passed orally from teller to teller, with no definite author – although writes such as the Brothers Grimm can be credited with collecting and codifying them.

The fairy tale, meanwhile, is a genre: it refers to a location, a magical land long ago or far away when anything could happen. Stories such as Jack and the Beanstalk and Rumpelstiltskin are both fairy tales and folktales, while Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid and L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz are fairy tales but not folktales.

What elements can be found in a fairy tale?

Fairy tales will never be too old-fashioned.

Fairy tales will never be too old-fashioned.

The true essence of a fairy tale is that it is strange and magical: cataloguing the different parts which make a single story will run the risk of killing it. That said, we can find many key elements by examining the Rumpelstiltskin story. We have the fair maiden as a heroine; we have a villainous character in the gnome or goblin-like Rumpelstiltskin; we have a touch of magic, with the title character’s ability to spin straw into gold; we have a trace of the trickster story, with the heroine’s climactic feat of outwitting the villain; and finally, we have the happy ending, with Rumpelstiltskin defeated and the heroine now a rich queen.

Are fairy tales too old-fashioned for today?

The answer to this question will have to be a firm no. Modern storytellers are finding a great deal of inspiration in the classic fairy tales, which are transformed into everything from animated Disney musicals to adult horror films.

What’s more, there are plenty of classic stories which are still ripe to be reinvented: there has not yet been a major Rumpelstiltskin movie, for example, but is a part of the series „Once Upon A Time„.

Meanwhile, authors of children’s fantasy such as J. K. Rowling and Philip Pullman will continue to write their own fairy tales, original stories which are tailor made for the children of the modern world.