Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Fairy or Folk?

I’ve been reading Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. The cover shows a castle floating on clouds, an old woman picking her way up a lane with a long walking stick, a creepy scarecrow (complete with a crow sitting on its shoulder), and a hovering face – blue with wispy flames for hair and sharp, wicked teeth. 
Not the same cover I have, but
great scary face, huh?

Fantasy, anyone?

The style in which it is written immediately reminded me of a folk or fairy tale. It didn’t begin exactly with “Once upon a time…” but it could have. Instead, it begins:

In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.

Right away, Ms. Wynne Jones lets us know a lot about the story to come. We know we are in a made-up location (I’ve never heard of the land of Ingary, have you?). You also know this story has fantastic elements (magic boots and cloaks), and most certainly will be about a character who is the eldest of three who all go out to seek their fortunes.

Will the eldest, our hero or heroine, fail? Yep. Will she fail miserably? Probably. Will she gain her fortune? We don’t know exactly from these two sentences, but I’d hazard a guess that she’ll achieve something good. Some change will come about. She will learn that her supposed misfortune is really…maybe…a fortune in disguise.

Did I give the story away? Or do you think the reader was supposed to learn all of that from those first two sentences? After all – what do we know about folktales just from reading or hearing them all our lives? (And what do we know about beginnings of stories in general?)

We know there will be a hero who will have some sort of challenge or face great adversity, right? (Think Three Little Pigs, Red Riding Hood, or even Jack and the Beanstalk.) We know that the situation we find at the beginning leads us to fear for our hero or heroes…but we also know that the journey the hero takes will lead them to a new understanding – of themselves, if not the world around them. (Speaking of the Hero’s Journey…if you haven’t ever watched or read Joseph Campbell and his interviews with Bill Moyers – do so. As a writer…you should hear what Mr. Campbell has to say. Fascinating stuff…)

So, as I’m musing about folktales and the style in which they are written – and reading Ms. Wynne Jones’s fantastical story about wizards who are full of themselves, witches who don’t know they are witches, floating castles and magical boots – I find myself wanting a strong cup of English Breakfast tea and a biscuit. And I began to wonder about folktales vs. fairy tales…and how myths fit into the mix.

So (to save you the trouble and show that I do more than just ramble aimlessly along in my own grey cells), I’ve collected some definitions.

Folktale: a short story that comes from the oral tradition.  Folk tales often have to do with everyday life and frequently feature wily peasants getting the better of their superiors.  In many cases, like in the folk tales we've selected, the characters are animals with human characteristics.
In their original versions, most folk tales are not children's stories (or at all appropriate for children) because they are bawdy and often violent.  However the themes of little ones having power, venturing out into the world, and good triumphing over evil are common. (WebInstituteforTeachers.org)

Fairy Tale: Fairy tales are a subgenre of folk tales and almost always involve some element of magic and good triumphing over evil.   A good rule of thumb: if there's a fairy in the story, it's a fairy tale. (WebInstituteforTeachers.org)

Well…that seems a little obvious, but I guess I was hoping for more of a definitive difference between the two. And I guess that means I tend to like folktales more than fairy tales. I’m quite partial to giants and witches and youngsters in trouble – hiding in the dark woods, following breadcrumb trails, seeking fortunes, etcetera, etcetera.

For good measure, here is the definition of myth: A traditional story accepted as history; serves to explain the world view of a people. (Princeton.edu)

Howl’s Moving Castle doesn’t truly fit into any of these categories. It is a novel, not a short story. It, I’m pretty sure, didn’t come from the oral tradition of any country. It has no fairies, and finally, it doesn’t explain the world view of a people. But…it is sounds like a folktale and certainly has elements that bellow “FOLKTALE!” throughout. Ms. Wynne Jones has picked her niche and filled it well. She can write these stories so that it doesn’t matter if they fit into the academic definition. In reality – this is a folk tale, by style if not by history.

Do you have any folk or fairy tales you love to tell or read? Have you ever written a folk or fairy tale? Read any from other cultures lately? (I’d recommend this collection of Bengali folktales!)

And we didn’t even talk about Tall Tales, did we? Hmmm. Love that Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. Love them. No matter what type of tale they tell.


  1. hah! thanks for the shout-out! Did you know there was a v. similar conversation happening at Enchanted Inkpot? I actually asked the exact same question - fairy vs. folktale? since it always seems that nonwestern tales (even when involving fairies, say) are "folktales" and couldn't get my head around that...

  2. No! I had no idea a similar discussion was going on elsewhere. Maybe I'm psychic? Or a fairy in disguise? (Still love Cyn Balog's Fairy Tale with the gender switcheroo on the fairy role. Very cool.) I'll check it out.

    Have you read any Diana Wynne Jones? It made me think of your WIP a little bit...and of the myths we've used in our own project.

  3. Great descriptions here, and distinctions between categories. Enjoyed this post :-)