What Makes a Fairytale?

As we discussed The Happy Prince and Other Tales on Wednesday, I found myself drawn to the question “what makes a fairytale?” It’s a question I had not thought of before, mostly because I think that we learn fairytale stories when we are young and accept that the stories that we learned are fairytales. But as I thought about it further, I found that that explanation is unhelpful. For example, if asked whether Disney princess movies are fairytales, I would say no but many people would say yes. I would insist that they are adaptations of fairytales, not fairytales themselves, but if pushed I could only say that when I was a kid my parents read to me books of fairytales that told many of the traditional stories Disney used as inspiration for their films, so I consider those stories to be “true” fairytales, while someone who only watched Disney movies and did not read fairytales might say that the Disney films themselves are fairytales. “This is what I learned when I was a kid” is not a good enough justification for how to define a fairytale.

As I pondered this question, I came up with a variety of potential definitions. A fairytale has to have a Happily Ever After? Anyone who has read the Brothers Grimm know that’s not the case. A fairytale has a princess in it? Jack and the Beanstalk, the Three Little Pigs, and Little Red Riding Hood are only a few examples that show that’s not true. Perhaps a fairytale is simply a fantastical short story intended for young audiences. That is the most satisfactory definition I could find after trying to classify books I read as a kid into different categories and looking in various dictionaries to see what they had to say.

With that definition in mind, in order determine whether “The Happy Prince” is a fairytale, we must reflect on whether Wilde intended for children to read the collection. I think it is fair to say that they are short, fantastical stories. Birds and statues speak to one another; rockets are personified; giants exist. It is more difficult to determine whether the stories are directed towards children. We talked in class about how critics are divided on this question. Vyvyan Holland said that the stories are more poetry than they are fairytales, but other people have argued that Wilde wrote these stories for his own children. Ultimately, I think that stories can work on multiple levels. These stories are entertaining for children to read, and they can also appeal to adults, regardless of which group was meant to appreciate the tales. With that in mind, I think that it is fair to categorize The Happy Prince and Other Tales as a collection of fairytales.