For days, they passed over hills and valleys. The landscape turned from mountains and pine trees, to deserts and rolling fields of sand, to glaciers and frozen ridges, to broken cities and fighting robots. Still, their search was incomplete.
As the pink hues of dawn warmed another day, the grandfather pointed to the horizon. “There it is, my child! At last, we have reached the Land of Fairy Tales.”
The girl peeked over the edge of the basket, glimpsing through the clouds and over the hills. In a clearing children were playing in a cottage made of sweets, in a meadow a girl wearing a red cloak frolicked, by a brook a beast strolled with a beauty. Yet, on the hill was a spiked castle, dark clouds thundering around it. In a valley lay a suburban cul-de-sac with cars driving through, a letter-carrying owl zipping past. A few skyscrapers rose from the forest, a werewolf and a man leaping between them while fighting to the death.
“Are you sure, Grandpa?”
In the epic quest to climb Mt. Publication, I have been exploring what genres to list my first self-published book, The Truebride And The Shoemaker, once I release it into the world.
I began my search with the most obvious: Science Fiction & Fantasy > Fantasy > Fairy Tales, but am perplexed by the eclectic mix of books listed.
In no particular order, here’s a sample:
Dracula by Bram Stoker
The Ocean At The End of the Lane and American Gods by Neil Gaiman
47 Ronin by John Allyn
City of Bones (A Harry Bosch Novel) by Michael Connelly
Classics such as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Frank L. Baum’s Oz series, Alice In Wonderland by Lewis Carrol and Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
And, many books with scantily clad people in romantic poses. These include variations on mermaids, werewolves, demons, angels, and classic fairy tale princesses.
I stared at the web page, wondering how all of these are fairy tales.
Classic Peter Pan and Grimm’s fairy tales are essential. Books featuring mermaid exotic dancers and ‘beasts’ who are really brooding male models with six-packs are at least based off fairy tales, even if not something I am into. 47 Ronin has Japanese fairy tale elements combined with a samurai tale. Neil Gaiman has a fairy-tale-esque style to his storytelling, and so many of his books are modern fairy tales.
As for Dracula and a City of Bones? The first is classic horror, and the second is a crime thriller. Even in the fun post-modern mish-mash our pop culture can be, the last two are not fairy tales.
I am looking at this genre to see if my book is a good fit. When a reader is looking for a similar book to read, where are they going to turn, and how will they find my book nearby? Yet, looking at what Amazon lists, I feel like my book is a triangle and many of the other books are squares, octagons, spheres, and tesseracts.
There are really three kinds of fairy tales: modern fairy tales, classic fairy tales, and re-tellings or derivations of classic fairy tales.
Neil Gaiman’s books Coraline, Stardust, and The Ocean At The End Of The Lane are all modern fairy tales. Their plot and characters are completely separate from classic fairy tales, but they mix fantasy with the normal, every day.
Classic fairy tales are the originals by the Grimm’s Brothers, Hans Christian Anderson, Charles Perrault, as well as fairy tales from other cultures, such as the Arabian Nights.
Re-tellings, of course, are versions of fairy tales set in other places. These are countless, and range from Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, ABC’s Once Upon A Time, to the many Disney animated princess movies. Any setting and twist on trope is possible as these tales play on the audience’s prior knowledge of fairy tales.
This helps explain the eclectic nature of the genre according to Amazon’s listing, but does not explain what makes a fairy tale different than other types of fantasy?
I propose a true fairy tale has the following elements:
- The protagonist is a common, every day person.
- Even in “princess” fairy tales, things are done to make the princess accessible. Snow White is forced to clean and be a servant. Sleeping Beauty (in several versions) lives in the forest, not knowing of her royal heritage. Cinderella is not a princess until the end. Rapunzel is usually a daughter of common parents, and a prisoner in a tower.
- Something magical enters the common person’s life, changing it.
- Usually, the change effects the protagonist’s horrible home life – via a step-parent, foster parent, or destitution
- Protagonist’s life, and often station, is usually improved by magicalness
- Sometimes, the magic element is the antagonist. For example, the witch in Hansel and Gretel. However, in many versions, they have a better relationship with their parents after the traumatic event of nearly being eaten.
- In the end, justice is usually served. Good wins, evil is defeated, and a happy ending is achieved.
- While Hans Christian Anderson often prefers a more tragic, bittersweet ending, there is always a glimmer of hope. For example, while the Little Mermaid fails to gain her prince, her efforts have allowed her to be a spirit floating on the wind, doing good deeds, with the opportunity to gain an immortal soul.
All of Disney’s versions of fairy tales and princess stories follow this format. While there are sometimes complaints over sentimentality, simplicity, and portrayals of femininity, it is undeniably appealing. Frozen follows these classic tropes, while pushing and teasing cliches, and has just joined The Avengers in an elite club of movies that have passed one billion dollars at the worldwide box office. (Also, “Let It Go” has nearly spawned it’s own franchise.)
I think the key element that draws us to fairy tales is the focus on hope. Some original fairy tales go into dark and twisted worlds, and some re-tellings follow those paths. Yet, even after travelling through a labyrinth of death, thorns, and unending mazes, there is still hope.
And so, once my book is ready, I will proceed with hop and list it under Science Fiction & Fantasy > Fantasy > Fairy Tales.
How do you define fairy tales? How do you decide what genre to list your book under? Have you ever been bewildered by books listed together under a genre or under a ‘you may also be interested in’ suggestion? How many versions of “Let It Go” have you seen on your Facebook feed?
Other Notes On Fairy Tales
An exploration of mermaid tales from The True Fairytale.
I would like to take a moment to pay my respects to Aaron Allston, who passed away last week. He was a giving author, providing support and advice to other writers. He wrote the Star Wars: X-Wing: Wraith Squadron Series, one of the most fun and lively series in the Star Wars universe, and one of my favorites. His influence and presence in the Star Wars fandom will be missed.