Well, this seems like an easy question to answer, now doesn’t it? However, there is not a definitive definition for the term fairy tale, which was first coined to describe a French tale about, you guessed it, fairies. Over the course of many centuries “fairy tale” has been used to describe a wide range of stories.
Fairy tales evolved from folktales. Folktales are oral narratives that circulate among a group of people that share similar interests and beliefs. These tales illustrates the group’s culture by highlighting certain areas of their traditions such as their actions (hula dance), beliefs (the land is treated as an older sibling), knowledge (how to make an herbal tea to treat a cough), skills (lei making), and sayings (Aloha). These are examples from Hawai’i as a folk group.
Fairy tales are fictional narratives that contain magical elements such as a witch or talking animal. They are a source of adventure for the readers and address latent hopes, fears, and anxieties of the common person. Originally, fairy tales were intended for adult audiences, told around knitting circles, watering holes, etc. The oldest oral versions are much more erotic and grotesque than the sanitized Disney versions we all know and love today.
A system has been devised in order to group folk and fairy tales. The Aarne Thompson Uther (ATU) index categorizes tales by recurrent components such as narrative (same plot), similar themes, and motifs. A motif is an identifiable pattern that is repeated. For example, all versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” contain the motif of a wolf disguising himself as a grandmother.
There are several other ways to describe a fairy tale, but for the purpose of my project this is how I will approach the widely used term.