what makes it a fairy tale?

This week, in the first Fairy Tales & Fantasy class of the term, I read the Grimm brothers’ story “Fitcher’s Bird” (1857) aloud to my students. (Alas, I forgot my Story Hat at home–but I intend to share a tale every week, so I’ll have lots more chances to wear it).

Maurice Sendak’s illustration of Fitcher’s Bird


Do you know “Fitcher’s Bird”? It’s a weird one even for the Grimms. The clever and cunning Third Sister outwits the evil wizard who has dismembered her sisters by dipping herself in honey and rolling in the feather bed. Everyone who sees her assumes she’s a giant bird, and when they ask her what Third Sister is up to, she points to a skull she decorated with jewels and flowers and set up in the window, looking out.

After I read the story in class, I ask for a show of hands. No, no one’s heard it before. Yes, regardless, everyone recognizes it as a fairy tale. But how? What makes it a fairy tale? Together, we begin to list the conventions that mark the genre of the fairy tale:

Magic (the blood won’t wash off the egg; the sisters’ limbs, once put in order, are reanimated). Clear poles of good and evil (wizard=bad, bird-girl=good). A happy ending (well anyhow one in which Justice is unequivocally meted out: wizard is locked inside castle and burnt along with all his wedding guests). The weak outwitting the strong (all that business with the feathers). A repetitive narrative structure, often using the number 3 (sisters; elsewhere pigs, Billy Goats Gruff). A refrain, also repeated (“O Fitcher’s Bird, how com’st thou here?”/”I come from Fitcher’s house quite near.”) A damsel in distress, and a (male) rescuer (Third Sister’s kinsmen come to avenge her). A setting involving travel between cottage and castle (the wizard is forced to carry the sisters home on his back in a basket) and/or the dangerous open road between. The motif of female curiosity and disobedience (the sisters use the one key the wizard forbade them).

We will re-do this list again and again in class over the coming weeks. We’ll add to it (the wild woods, the child seer, the magical/animal helper, the false mother, the trickster hero, the collapse of hierarchy) and we’ll explore how various tale-tellers, authors and filmmakers have used the fairy tale for moral education, psychological insight, political critique and sheer literary delight.

But honestly, all the learning is in the stories themselves. The variants that pre-date Disney by half a millennium. The post-modern remixes. Our own creative reinterpretations. And the lesser-known tales read, with the classroom lights down low, by the professor in the crazy hat.

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