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Fairy tales were handed down orally until the 18th century when the Romantics began to collect them together and write them down. The Brothers Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, are the best-known recorders of European tales. In the classic fairy tale laws of nature are suspended, there is little description of space or time, reality and the supernatural exist close together, language is magical, and a theme or motif exists.
The first component of the standard fairy tale, a suspended law of nature, refers to the magical world in which the story takes place. All of the stories of the Brothers Grimm incorporate some version of this feature. In “Hansel and Gretel,” the children are captured by a witch who lives in a house made of sweets and keeps Hansel locked in a cage so that she can fatten him up and eat him. In “Snow White”, Snow White is living with seven dwarfs and other mystical creatures, and is given a poison apple by her evil stepmother who has taken a potion to change her appearance. In “The Water of Life”, two older sons seek magical water to save their father, but on the way they are rude to a dwarf and get trapped in a ravine. There is also a dwarf in “The Seven Ravens” who tells the daughter that her brothers will return.
Another important feature of the typical fairy tale is that they all seem to be timeless, and the environment is unimportant unless otherwise noted. A character could “sleep” for a hundred years and wake up the same age and appearance she fell asleep with; the characters could be lost in a forest that never ends. For example, Snow White is put into a deep enchanted stupor by a poison apple and cannot be awoken until kissed by the Prince. Hansel and Gretel are lost in an enchanted forest, but we know nothing about that forest. The characters’ age and emotional development are unimportant. The characters are influenced and evolved by external impulses, not through a reflection of emotion. The father in the “Seven Ravens” does not turn his sons into ravens because he hates them; he does it because he thinks they disobeyed him instead. The older sons in “The Water of Life” tell the father that the younger son poisoned him so that they will not be embarrassed for failing to get his medicine, not because they dislike their younger brother. The evil queen in “Snow White” only wants to have Snow White killed because Snow White is fairer than she, not because she truly despises her.
Another feature of fairy tales is that reality and the supernatural exist side by side. A dragon could be living alongside a common mouse, a sorcerer living among peasants, or a magical road set next to a normal one, without dissonance. Forces that would shock or awe normal people, like fire-breathing dragons or benevolent fairies, seem commonplace in these characters’ lives. No one finds it surprising that everything happens exactly when it’s supposed to. For example, a strange dwarf gives the youngest son in “The Water of Life” a magic wand to open the castle gate and loaves of bread to feed the lions so that he could get the magical water for his father. Any normal person might see these events as peculiar, but he seems to regard the events as a perfectly normal occurrence. In “Snow White,” she seems perfectly content to live in a house with and do the chores for seven dwarfs, never feeling for a second that she is out of place. And the prince who comes to kiss her is seemingly unsurprised that his kiss was able to wake Snow White from her lengthy, magical stupor.
Magical words and phrases are a standard feature of fairy tales that have transcended to common knowledge, such as “Abracadabra” for casting spells and “Open Sesame,” for opening locked doors. In “Snow White,” the evil queen asks the famous phrase, “Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” This phrase allows her to speak to an enchanted talking mirror. In “The Seven Ravens,” the father says the magic words, “I wish,” followed by “those boys would all turn into ravens,” and his sons all turned into ravens. The respect for language and numbers in fairy tales is a unique aspect of these stories.
The final common theme between fairy tales is the central theme or motif. This is because the stories were originally intended to teach lessons as well as entertain. The theme of “The Water of Life” is to be polite, as the polite youngest son got the information he needed whereas the older sons were rude and cast into the ravine. Also, lying is dissuaded because when the father finds out that the older sons lied about the younger son trying to poison him he wishes to punish them. The theme of “Snow White” is to be good, the good Snow White becomes queen while the former, evil queen dies. In “The Seven Ravens,” the boys return to human form according to the typical motif of the casting of spell being undone.
The unique fairy tale genre brought the joy of fantasy to children and adults alike. While whimsical, they all teach valuable lessons and can be enjoyed by people of any social class. They are an art form that embodies the imaginative power of the mind. Each tale transcends the real world and allows the reader to escape to a world where poverty and evil do not exist, and justice is always done.
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