The Fairy Tale is constantly being reborn. The two examples that struck me recently are My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, a collection of forty re-imagined fairy tales by contemporary writers, and a short comic titled Outfoxed, by Dylan Meconis (@quirkybird).
Before today, I didn’t realize that fairy tales contain an essence, something that distinguishes them so clearly from just any short story. It was simply: “I know a fairy tale when I read one.” I’ll be looking for your input, readers, to add to this list of characteristics that clue us in to the fact we’re reading a fairy tale.
1. A fairy tale can happen anywhere.
I find most fairy tales neglect locating themselves in a definite place. There are occasionally generalized locations mentioned in fairy tales; for example, the Just So stories are all said to occur in Africa. A number of the stories in My Mother She Killed Me occur in Russia.
2. A fairy tale is not seated in time or space.
The most I ever get from a fairy tale about our question of “when” is: “Before man.” Or sometimes, “In the days of x.” I think it’s fair to say that part of the essence of fairy tales is that they are timeless.
3. Third-person voice.
We’re telling a tale here, after all. Not a narrative non-fiction.
4. Pivots around a supernatural, extraterrestrial or magical element.
A genie, maybe. A loved one returning from the dead. A person made of snakeskin or juniper berries. Talking animals. A fairy tale is distinct from the real world, but somehow still exists in the real world, using one of these means. It’s that fine element of surreality inside reality that brings a fairy tale to life, where something stands out among the plainness of real life.
5. This last one−I’m not sure if I can quantify it in words, but I’ll try: “There’s something funny going on here, Scully.”
While there may not be something to learn from a fairy tale, as is true with parables (see: the Anansi stories), the reader is left with a strange feeling deep in the belly after reading it. With some, I come away feeling grossed out, or horrified that one person could do such a thing to another person. With others, I feel sad for the characters that participated in the story, disappointed that things turned out the way they did.
It’s really only with Disney re-imaginings of fairy tales that the story ends well. Most of the time, in authentic fairy tales, everyone dies at the end. Or a character loses his mind. Or worse, humans are created.
I’ll do a full review of My Mother She Killed Me when I’ve finished reading all forty stories in the anthology (shout out to Eden Bainter for loaning it to me while I was flat on my back). For now, if you’re interested in the modern take on the classic fairy tale, I recommend picking up this book: