A fairy tale is built around a kernel of real life that reflects the culture of its origin. But elements of fantasy are woven in to bring in the mystery and excitement that real life may not provide.
Fairy tales fall into some broad categories. The first is the rags to riches story, where a poor person rises above their station thanks to an individual with magic powers, who watches over them. The best example is Cinderella, where a girl who is treated shabbily by her family marries a prince, thanks to a fairy godmother.
The second is the tale of the trickster. A clever man or woman tricks a rich but unintelligent person out of his wealth. Alternatively, the clever person uses his wits to escape from a trap. In many cases, this character is a young child, a person of slight build, or a small animal like a fox or a rabbit.
Another common theme is the cautionary tale. A person does not obey instructions and is faced with great danger because of his or her insolence. Many of these kinds of stories are thinly varnished efforts to tell children to obey their parents, to tell wives to obey their husbands or to tell peasants not to revolt.
While the first two categories are somewhat escapist in nature, the third serves a definite, if somewhat dubious, purpose. However, no fairy tale belongs entirely to any one of these categories, and is usually a mix of these and some of the other themes we have introduced in previous weeks in our “How to tell a story” series.