Editorial: Five Stories Which Aren't Fairytales
(And Need To Stop Being Used As Such By Television.)
First, let's define what a fairytale is. A fairytale is a short story and self-contained story involving a succession of motifs and archetypes. The term, coined by writer Madame d'Aulnoy, has been debated often, with J.R.R. Tolkien describing it as the stories men tell about the realm of Faerie, while Steven Swann Jones identified magic as a major feature.
Either way, it can generally be agreed upon that there are four major criteria:
1) The story must have a folkloric origin, but not a mythological one.
2) It must involve a succession of motifs and archetypes.
3) It must involve magic of some variety.
4) It must be short and self-contained.
So, there are necessarily some stories which are most certainly not fairytales, yet are often framed as if they are. Here's five of them.
Robin Hood seems to often be lumped in with fairytales, and you can kind of see why - it is folklore, after all. Unfortunately, that's the only criteria it fulfils. It doesn't involve a succession of motifs and archetypes - many of the archetypes we apply to it are ones which originated in the story - and it doesn't involve magic of some variety, unless you count the very end of the 1917 Paul Creswick retelling, where Robin Hood appears as a ghost.
It isn't short and self-contained, either. In contrast, it is a series of very loosely connected stories built up and altered over a six-hundred year period of time, with the earliest ballads dating back to about 1450, making it a very young example of folklore.
The fondness for making Robin Hood into a fairytale seems to stem partly from an inability to distinguish folklore from fairytales (looking at you, Once Upon A Time), and partly from a slightly jingoistic need for American companies to deny everywhere else their very geographically centred folklore by shifting it to a generic fairytale land (looking at you again, Once Upon A Time).
Also, by repeatedly mispronouncing 'Nottingham'. The 'h' is silent, guys.
Here's another one that Once Upon A Time has framed as a fairytale, despite the fact that it's clearly not. It involves magic, and there are some motifs and archetypes within, although not as many as your average fairytale, sure. But it isn't a short, self-contained story. Like Robin Hood, it's a loose collection of many stories built up over time.
It's also mythological, not folkloric. King Arthur isn't a folk hero like Robin Hood, he's a mythic hero akin to Hercules, and the story of his life parallels the rise and fall of other mythic heroes: He has a royal and semi-divine origin, being born with the aid of (very skeevy) magic, and when he becomes a man completes an impossible feat that marks him to be a king. While he completes many great feats (see also Hercules), his greatest work is seen completed not by him but by those he had trained, and his tragic flaws (jealousy, in his case) are ultimately his downfall (see Hercules again).
Like any mythic hero, there is the idea present in his stories that he has attained a kind of immortality - in Arthur's case, that he might one day return. Compare and contrast with Robin Hood, whose death when it appears in fiction is final, and who is brought down not by a tragic flaw that represents an imperfect human nature overtaking a perfect divine nature, but usually just by the narrative fiat that it is the end of his story and that he thus needs to exit it permanently.
King Arthur isn't a fairytale. He's a myth.
Alice in Wonderland.
Alice in Wonderland is not a fairytale. It's not folkloric, it doesn't present a sequence of motifs and archetypes, because imagery associated with theoretical mathematics and Latin grammar doesn't count, and it isn't self-contained. It doesn't really even contain magic, because the reveal of it being all a dream (or was it?) at the end places it into the 'totally mundane story of a child's imagination' category, even if its place there is rather fuzzy.
But it's understandable why people might think it is, if they've maybe never read a book before or don't understand the difference between a novel written barely a century ago and actual folklore. Alice in Wonderland clearly draws heavily from fairytales - they are the grist and substance of its absurdist narrative, and Alice's interactions with talking animals and flowers, as well as her conflict with an evil (or at least spiteful) queen all reek of fairytale influence.
But fairytale influence doesn't equal fairytale. To be fair, Once Upon A Time, which I mentioned before as an offender in this regard, has the world of Alice in Wonderland be a completely different world. But then, it also has Victorian Britain be a completely different world, and that's just weird and vaguely offensive.
I've talked about Peter Pan before, so here we go again on that count. Peter Pan is not a fairytale. Peter Pan is just a novel, and like Alice in Wonderland, a fairly recent novel. Like Alice in Wonderland, it isn't folkloric, and like Alice in Wonderland, it doesn't really present a sequence of motifs and archetypes. Like Alice in Wonderland, it isn't self-contained.
But let's be honest, the reason for pretending that Peter Pan is a fairytale is a lot more commercial and sinister than the reason for thinking that Alice in Wonderland is.
Specifically, that fairytales are in the public domain. For someone like Disney, that's a very attractive thing, since they are intent on milking Peter Pan until it's dead without paying a penny to Sir J.M. Barrie's chosen recipient of the money raked in by his novel, Great Ormond Street Hospital. Because, hey, those sick kids may need that money so that they can get the best standard of NHS care possible, but Disney really needs that money so that they can keep making uninspiring, bland 3D films or, better yet, fairly racist adaptations of comic properties.
Roman de Reynart.
This one is the fuzziest of the lot, to be honest. The stories of Reynard the Fox are fables, and fables are - pretty similar to fairytales. Both tend to involve magic and draw off folklore, although fables usually less than fairytales.
Of course, the Reynard stories aren't self-contained, so that rules it out, but the difference between fables and fairytales is, according to some scholars, that fables revolve solely around their moral lessons, and any magical elements are to make those moral lessons more palatable. For fairytales, the moral lessons are quite often later additions to stories which aren't about morality at all.