Tropes of the Western Fairy Tale

1  Introduction

“Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there lived a princess,” or a king, or a woodcutter, or a miller. Such a beginning is familiar to us all, as are the stories that generally follow. Over the course of the tale, the hero will overcome hardships, deceit, and treachery; rescue the princess; and live happily ever after. At least, that’s what we expect to happen today. In the original fairy tales, however, “happily ever after” appeared rarely. For every prince who wins his princess, there are a hundred more princes who fail and die horrible deaths. We never focus on them, just as we have forgotten the gruesomeness of the punishments that are given to evil doers. Cinderella’s sisters cut off parts of their feet and have their eyes pecked out by doves. Snow White’s stepmother is forced to dance until she dies in red-hot iron shoes.

But those parts of the story are conveniently excluded from the tale as it is told today. Even happy endings must be earned through suffering. The prince who eventually rescues Rapunzel is first blinded by the thorns around her tower, and must spend years wandering the desert.  The ugly duckling is teased and tormented for most of his life, while Sleeping Beauty is woken by the pain of childbirth instead of a kiss in the original version.

Why, then, do these fairy tales still capture the imagination of millions? Many of the tales collected by the Grimm brothers or Andrew Lang, or written by Hans Christian Andersen, have been forgotten.  But others remain popular to this day, albeit in a changed form. They have been adapted for movies, books, and plays in their various incarnations, some of which are hardly recognizable anymore. But the kernel of the story remains, and along with it some of its original messages.

2  What is a fairy tale?

Before any examination of fairy tales can begin, it is necessary to define what we mean by fairy tale. It is a class distinct from folk tale or myth, but related to both.  It is not generally religious, though religious symbolism can be incorporated. According to Tolkien,[13] the one thing that defines fairy tales is the world in which they take place, which he calls the Perilous Realm: the world of the fae. It does not need to be literally Underhill, as the Gaelic myths term the realm of the Sidhe. But it must incorporate elements thereof. Magic must be accepted as real and powerful, accomplished not through sleight of hand but through genuine power. Fairies may not be present, but fantastic creatures generally are. Faerie includes all of nature, even mortal men when enchanted.  It cannot be “caught in a net of words,”[13] but it is recognizable when it is seen.

The characters found in fairy tales are archetypes, roles that remain the same from story to story.[3] That is why so few characters have, or need, names. The men are identified by their station in life (prince), their relationship to others (youngest son), or their intelligence (the fool).[12] The princesses are identified more by their attributes, like Sleeping Beauty, than any real name. There are poor but honest peasants, cruel stepmothers, and brave soldiers; kind-hearted fools, helpful animals, and malicious tricksters. All are nearly indistinguishable from their counterparts in other tales.


Fairy tales were not originally intended for children, counter to popular belief. Before the 1700s, there were no stories written specifically for children[9]; the children’s stories that emerged in the 1700s did not include many, if any, fairy tales. But gradually the tales have made their way into the nursery. Some stories, such as Beaumont’s Beauty and the Beast, were written specifically as models of behavior.[15] Others, as in Andersen’s tales, were more frivolous, designed for entertainment more than moralizing.[9] However, his tales included messages for adults as well as a good story for the children. He followed an older tradition of telling stories for all ages, with content to intrigue any mind. True fairy tales follow this pattern. Fairy tales offer a glimpse of “collective truths, realities that transcend individual experience.”[12] In essence, they allow readers to explore fears, hopes and desires.

3  Fairy tales and gender

When used as instructional tales, fairy tales often encourage strict gender roles. This is not surprising, considering the time period in which they were written, but those messages have not changed in the past three hundred years, and that is more shocking.  Beauty and the Beast is a good example. Beaumont, a governess for young girls from good families, wrote it and other tales to prepare her charges for a “marriage ordained according to the normally accepted bourgeois conventions.”[15] The tale deliberately preaches female submissiveness, as that was expected of the girls of 18th century France. Both the male and female protagonists are expected to behave according to social norms in order to live happily ever after.

The same message can be found in The Frog Prince.[4] The princess must submit to the frog’s will to achieve the desirable state of marriage. Also like Beauty, she has the power to transform the prince back into his rightful form. However, she does so through violence, rather than love. The reason behind this is unclear, and has been analyzed in many different ways. It may be that the tale is trying to show young girls that fear and revulsion is normal when entering womanhood, and that happiness will come afterwards. Or it may simply be drawing from other fairy tale conventions, and have no underlying meaning. Regardless, the tale does appear to imply that female submission is desirable, as do many other tales. Men bear no such burden.

This is not the only way the fairy tales separate the genders.  In fact, men and women in the fairy tale world generally inhabit completely opposite spheres. This antithesis is marked by their association with the elements: fire for men and water for women.[3] Throughout the stories collected by the Grimms, men draw power from and are immune to the flames. The Devil (not necessarily the Christian Devil) is always associated with fire when he appears in the tales.


In The Devil and His Grandmother, the Devil appears as a fiery dragon to claim the souls of three soldiers.[4] He shows up in The Devil’s Sooty Brother as an evil figure who lives in soot and ashes.[4] But fire can also be used by men to break spells and destroy evil. Faithful John burns a deadly bridal robe before his master can put it on, thus saving his master from a horrible death.  Hans the Hedgehog, along with other transformed heroes, must have his hedgehog skin burned when he takes it off at night to free him from the spell. Women, however, do not touch fire more than is necessary. Only one woman, the protagonist of The Lazy Spinner, is ever shown to light a fire, and she does so only to deceive her husband.[3] Witches are burned at the stake, while men escape the wrath of the flames. And in The Juniper Tree, the evil stepmother is killed by a phoenix. The phoenix is the reincarnation of her stepson, who she kills out of spite.[4]


While women are harmed by flame, they possess a special relationship with water. When in the form of the Water of Life, only women can handle it, though men go on quests to find it.[3] When water must be drawn from a well using a perforated spoon, young female helpers are the ones to accomplish the task. The heroine in Mother Holle[8] falls into a well to reach the cottage wherein she performs stereotypically feminine tasks: cooking, keeping house, and cleaning. Her reward is a shower of gold, for being a good girl. Men are not rewarded for such domestic tasks. In fact, those tasks are insults, as seen in The Devil’s Sooty Brother.[4] The hero of the story forces the Devil to wash him and trim his nails and hair after getting the better of the Devil in a bargain. It is often dangerous for men to approach water: in The Golden Bird,[4] the hero is warned explicitly to avoid wells.


Silence and isolation are another two motifs that mark the difference between men and women. While men may need to be silent for short periods of time, women are often forced to be silent for years on end. In The Twelve Brothers, the young girl cannot speak or laugh for seven years, or else her brothers will die.[4] The girl in Our Lady’s Child is cursed with silence as a punishment for disobedience as a child; her silence nearly leads to her death at the stake.[3] Men, on the other hand, voluntarily undertake silence to achieve their objectives, as in The King of the Golden Mountain and The King’s Son who Feared Nothing.[3] This silence does not lead to imminent death, but reward. The silence isolates the girls from society, leaving them as powerless as if they were isolated in a tower. Some princesses, like Rapunzel, end up living their entire lives in a tower, while others are merely trapped for several years. Either way, women are often stripped of their power and volition, made to be no more than objects to be rescued.


Interestingly, Perrault’s stories do not include silence as a motif.[10] However, they do include isolation, as with Sleeping Beauty.  The unhappy princess sleeps for a hundred years, effectively removing her from the world that she once knew. When rescued, she is completely dependent on her prince. This holds true even in the most modern versions of the tale, wherein she is woken by a kiss and not in childbirth resulting from rape.

Punishment and violence

In the Grimm brothers’ version of Rumpelstiltskin, the story ends with Rumpelstiltskin tearing himself in half out of frustration when the princess guesses his name.[4] He is not a likable character, having forced the princess to promise to give him her first child in exchange for his spinning of straw into gold. However, when she bears the child and does not want to keep her promise, the imp offers her a bargain: if she can guess his name, she can keep the child. This act of kindness, however small, is rewarded with his gruesome death.


Joseph Jacobs included a nearly-identical tale in English Fairy Tales, entitled Tom Tit Tot.[5] However, in this version, the imp does not kill himself. Instead, he flies out of the window in a rage, and is never seen again. This exemplifies a common pattern in the evolution of fairy tales: violence decreases over time. The tales with the most senseless violence have left the body of commonly told stories.  Tales such as The Children Who Played Butcher with One Another and The Hand with the Knife were not included in later versions of the Grimms’ tales, nor in any later collections by other authors. Both involve pointless violence and a lack of moral resolution.


However, when violence is meted out as justice, shockingly gruesome violence remains in many of the tales. The princess of The Goose Girl[7] talks to the dead head of her horse Falada after being forced to serve as a goose girl by her maidservant. When the prince finally finds out, he asks the maid what the punishment should be for a treacherous servant.  She says that the servant should be put in a barrel studded with nails and rolled down a hill; the prince carries out that exact punishment. The same thing occurs in many of the Grimm brothers’ tales.


However, when small infractions are punished overly harshly, the stories tend to change or vanish.  In Perrault’s version of Little Red Riding Hood,[10] the first published version, the tale ends with Red Riding Hood eaten by the wolf. The moral explains that young ladies should not talk to strangers, as Red Riding Hood did when talking to the wolf. However, death seems an excessive punishment for such a small fault.  In the Grimms’ version,[4] the mother warns her daughter to stay on the path, but is disobeyed. However, a woodcutter rescues the girl from the belly of the wolf, leaving her scared but unharmed. A later version collected by the brothers has the grandmother and the girl drown the wolf when he tries to come down the chimney, as they had locked the door to keep him out. Other violent tales punishing minor sins have simply disappeared.


Interestingly, violence within the family was apparently considered acceptable, as almost every fairy tale includes it. The Grimm brothers changed this slightly, eliminating the mother in favor of an evil stepmother in many stories,[3] as they disapproved of cruel biological mothers.  Hansel and Gretel is one tale that bore the mark of their edits.  But they allowed cruel fathers to exist, as in Thousandfurs.  In that story, the king wants to marry his beautiful daughter, for she reminds him of his dead wife; she runs away and lives as a servant rather than accede to his wishes.[4] Wilhelm Grimm added a few moralizing comments in later editions, to lay the blame on the king’s councilors instead of the king,[12] but the core of the story remained unchanged.

5  The magic of fairy tales


Magic in fairy tales is almost always tied to nature, and is generally the province of women.[3] It isn’t the magic seen in modern fantasy. There are no lightning bolts or death spells, no fireballs or magic shields or torture spells. Instead, the magic is of transmutation and creation. In Brother and Sister,[4] the streams speak to the young girl, warning her that  they transform any who drink from them into a tiger, wolf, and deer.  Her ability to understand the streams, while her brother cannot, is unquestioned, as is the power of the streams. In Sweetheart Roland,[4] the girl deliberately invokes transformational magic to protect herself and her suitor.


Magic usually works through objects, not by a spellcaster’s will alone. Baba Yaga flies using a gigantic mortar and pestle which carries her through the air.[8] Without it, she cannot fly, though she can still work other spells. The unnamed girl in The Water Nixie uses a brush, a comb, and a mirror to create barriers so she and her brother can escape the nixie.  When she throws the objects behind her, they transform into spiked, toothy, and slippery mountains, respectively.[4] Men can occasionally use magical objects, as in Aladdin.[7] But the power is entirely within the objects, so the men are helpless without them. Women, on the other hand, use everyday objects to channel the magic inherent within them.

Women also have the ability to cast magic unknowingly, often via blessings or curses. In The Twelve Brothers, along with variations on the tale collected under different names, the mother carelessly wishes that her sons were ravens, and thus accidentally causes their transformation. It is years before they regain their human skin.

6  Fairy tales and humanity

Humanity is a fluid word in the context of fairy tales. Humans transformed into animals still retain their human intelligence and personality, often going so far as to be able to speak. The frog prince talks eloquently to the princess when he rescues her ball and later demands that she keep her promise.[4] If his appearance were not described, it would be impossible to distinguish him from a human. Hans the Hedgehog, from another story collected by the brothers,[4] takes this a step further.  Half hedgehog, half man, he takes off his skin to sleep, reverting to a fully human appearance. On the flip side, apparently human characters can display an utter lack of humanizing traits. The Russian witch Baba Yaga looks like an old woman, but eats human flesh and lives in a house surrounded by a fence of bones. Bluebeard, from one of Perrault’s tales,[10] gruesomely murders his wives when they disobey him and open the forbidden door. These villains, despite their appearance, have removed themselves from humanity.


Based on these examples, it would appear as though the tales caution readers against taking things at face value. The worth of a person is not in their skin, but in what lies inside their hearts. Villeneuve’s version of Beauty and the Beast is especially adept at conveying the dangers of desiring an artificial world over a familiar, though unpleasant, reality.[11] But this contradicts another motif in fairy tales, that outward appearance mirrors personality. Witches, evil stepmothers, and cruel stepsisters are invariably ugly; some punishments involve cursing the villains to be ugly or uglier.


So why do the stories endorse two contradictory themes? The difference is gender. Men are not usually judged by their appearances, while women are defined by them. The only beautiful female villains are those who use that beauty to seduce their enemies, and even then, their beauty is usually revealed to be spell-made. Men, on the other hand, can conceal any type of personality beneath their visage. Ricky of the Tuft, from Perrault’s most obscure story,[10] is “so ugly and misshapen that for some time it was doubtful if he would have human form at all.” Yet he is intelligent and achieves the main goal of a fairy tale prince: to win a princess.  So does Hans the Hedgehog, despite his inhuman appearance.[4] On the other hand, Mr. Fox[5] is a handsome man who murders women and eats them. Nor are men punished for crimes by being cursed with ugliness, while girls are. In Mother Holle,[8] the diligent girl is rewarded by being covered in gold, while the lazy girl is permanently tarred with pitch.  The same pattern is repeated in multiple stories.


Humanity or the lack thereof plays a different role in redemption stories like Beauty and the Beast. In those tales, a character who lacks a vital human quality can gain it through true love. In Beauty and the Beast, the missing quality is a human appearance.  The Beast is cursed to look like a monster until an innocent girl agrees to marry him. In Beaumont’s shortened version, the reason for the curse is unknown.[2] Villeneuve, the original author, explains that the Beast is cursed because he insults a fairy.[14] In some way, the curse is designed to make his outward visage mirror his inside.  As the tale has evolved, the reason for the curse has become clearer and the curse itself a more fitting punishment. In the original version, the fairy is evil, and feels insulted when the Beast refuses her seduction.[14] In more modern tales, the Beast behaves cruelly, and is cursed for a reason.[6]

The Snow Queen follows a similar pattern. Kai is cursed as a young boy when a shard of magical glass enters his heart, causing him to see only the bad parts of the world.  He is then easy prey for the Snow Queen, who carries him away to her castle and locks away his emotions and memories. Gerda, his childhood friend, must pass through difficult trials to rescue him. She succeeds, and restores his emotions to him through the power of her innocent love.[1]

7  Conclusion

There is no doubt that the stories evolve over time. Cultural pressures shape them; one only has to look at Disney to see that. But the core of the tale tends to remain the same. A tale very similar to modern-day Cinderella was first told in 9th century China. Even today, the story is recognizable as the classic fairy tale every child knows. This unfortunately means that the patriarchal messages found in many tales are still there. Beauty and the Beast still emphasizes a girl’s obedience as an essential quality, though Disney has concealed it with lovely songs and animation.  Marriage and heterosexual relationships are still the reward for every hero and heroine. Even Frozen, with its unique take on “an act of love” as an act of sisterly devotion, rewards its protagonist with love. Where are our gay or lesbian heroes? What about polyamorous relationships, or people simply uninterested in romantic entanglements at all? Disney may make the stories more acceptable, but they don’t challenge social conventions. Maybe they never will.


[1] Andersen, H. C. The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories. Trans. Erik Christian. Haugaard. Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1983.

[2] Beaumont, Jeanne-Marie LePrince De. “Beauty and the Beast.” The Young Misses Magazine, Containing Dialogues between a Governess and Several Young Ladies of Quality Her Scholars. Comp. C. Nourse. 4th ed. Vol. 1. London: n.p., 1783. 45-67.

[3] Bottigheimer, Ruth B. Grimms’ Bad Girls and Bold Boys: The Moral and Social Vision of the Tales. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987.

[4] Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1993.

[5] Jacobs, Joseph. English Fairy Tales. Illustrated by John D. Batten. New York: Dover Publications, 1967.

[6] Lackey, Mercedes. The Fire Rose. Riverdale, NY: Baen, 1995.

[7] Lang, Andrew. The Blue Fairy Book. Illustrated by H. J. Ford and Jacomb Hood G. P. New York: Dover Publications, 1965.

[8] Lang, Andrew. The Red Fairy Book. Illustrated by H. J. Ford and Lancelot Speed. New York: Dover Publications, 1966.

[9] Lederer, Wolfgang. The Kiss of the Snow Queen:  Hans Christian Andersen and Man’s Redemption by Woman. Berkeley: U of California, 1986.

[10] Perrault, Charles. “The Tales of Mother Goose.” Wikisource, the Free Online Library. Trans. Charles Welsh. N.p., 18 Nov. 2013.

[11] Swain, Virginia E. “Beauty’s Chambers:  Mixed Styles and Mixed Messages in Villeneuve’s Beauty and the Beast.” Marvels and Tales 19.2 (2005): 197-223. Project MUSE.

[12] Tatar, Maria. The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales. 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2006

[13] Tolkien, J. R. R. The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine, 1966.

[14] Villeneuve, Gabriel-Suzanne Barbot De. Four and Twenty Fairy Tales: Selected from Those of Perrault and Other Popular Writers. Trans. James Robinson Planch. London: G. Routledge,1858. 225-329.

[15] Zipes, Jack. “The Dark Side of Beauty and the Beast:  The Origins of the Literary Fairy Tale for Children.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 1981.1 (1981): 119-125. Project MUSE.

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