Have you ever wondered what the difference is between fairytales and fantasy? How do we know that Harry Potter is a fantasy, and Cinderella is a fairytale, and not vice versa?
To start, a fairytale is a story within the fantasy genre. Fantasy, on the other hand, is the genre itself.
Harry Potter may be a fantasy, but not a fairytale, while Cinderella is a fairytale within the larger genre of fantasy. Harry Potter also has romance in it, and mystery … will you find it in the “romance” or “mystery” section of your library? Nope. Those things are the sub-categories that fall under its fantasy classification. And “fairytale” is a sub-category as well, as far as I’m concerned.
A fairytale is always a fantasy, whereas a fantasy need not be a fairytale.
While the above answer is a good one, I believe, it also leaves much to be desired in answering for the differences between fantasy and fairy tales. Even if we approach a story realizing that “fairytale” is a type of “fantasy,” that still doesn’t go far in cluing us in to what type of story we are actually reading. What are the tangible differences – the characteristics – that let us know which is which?
That’s a difficult question to answer, and not one that has any solid, black-and-white answers, unfortunately.
There do seem to be some generalized, commonly accepted characteristics of both fairytales and fantasies. Many of them overlap, which tends to make the differentiation even more fuzzy, but some of them are helpful.
What about fairies, for starters? Need these fae creatures, in whatever form they take on according to the whims of their authors, be exclusively in fairytales? Can they flit about in stories of fantasy that aren’t classified among fairytales?
I believe they can.
Fairies may appear here and there throughout the more general fantasy genre, however I do believe that if a story focuses primarily on a fairy world in which the main characters are fairies themselves, you are most likely reading a fairytale.
Dragons, unicorns, wizards, princesses and knights in shining armor? These show up in both fantasies and fairytales as well.
It’s not, then, the characters or creatures themselves that are the key. At least, not wholly.
SETTING & THEME:
For me, fairytales happen locally. No, I don’t mean my next door neighbors are princesses or witches or goblins … well, not all of them, anyway! I mean that fairytales usually (note the word usually!) take place in a more confined space. The events within them do not affect the fictional world or universe on a large scale. A princess may taste a poison apple and fall into an enchanted sleep, but her sleep does not affect any but herself and the one who enchanted her. A prince may be pushed from a tower as he tries to find the long-haired girl he loves, but his falling and consequent blindness do not turn anyone’s world upside down but his own.
Fantasies, on the other hand, usually (usually!) tend to deal with sagas. Epic journeys, earth-changing drama and action that commence in the potential destroying or saving of a people, country or even a world. Frodo has to destroy the ring – yes, to save his own life and his beloved home in the Shire – but more so, to save the lives of every person and creature living in Middle Earth. The ring itself is no simple poisoned apple, used for someone to gain a petty throne. It’s a living and evil magic, created by one who would destroy the world as it is, and rule the one left in its place.
Although fairytales mostly happen “far away” or “long ago,” they seem to take place mainly within our own world. They don’t require such extensive world-building as fantasy authors employ to create their stories. There is rarely the need to explain different or foreign elements or magics that appear in fairytales. Partly because we are so familiar with them, and partly because they are fairly straightforward.
Fantasies often happen in worlds of their own – separate entirely from the “real” world. Middle Earth, Narnia, Wonderland, Oz, Earth-Sea, Westeros, Never-Never Land. These all require explanation, mapping out, building and shaping with words, pages and chapters. They are not a part of our own world, Earth, and in the fantasies where Earth is the setting, there is normally some outside magic or force at work that changes the Earth into a strange, often unrecognizable, place.
Fairytales originated as oral tales, told centuries ago and passed down through the generations. They were told for many reasons, among them entertainment and a way to teach a virtue or lesson. Their time period of origin can be said to be long ago; and that’s most obviously true for what are called the “original” fairytales. But there are fairytales still being written today – old ones being re-told and new ones being forged.
Fantasies are a newer type of story. While it’s debatable exactly when they originated, they seemed to not really take off until less than a century ago. The stories within fantasies themselves can be placed in settings of long ago, such as Juliet Marillier’s historical fantasies, or one of the many sub-genres of modern-day fantasy (Rick Riordan, J.K. Rowling).
This is a subtle one, I’ll admit, and I almost didn’t mention it. But for me, there is a difference in the way fairytales are told, as opposed to fantasies. And I’m not talking only about the old or original fairytales. There are such books today told in fairytale style, among them two of my favorites: Treasure at the Heart of the Tanglewood by Meredith Ann Pierce, and Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt. You only need read the first chapter of each of these amazing books to realize that the style of language when telling a fairytale can be quite different than in a fantasy book.
These examples are all only my opinion – all my own thoughts and ramblings about what I feel to be the sometimes almost indistinguishable differences between fairytales and fantasy. You can’t base the differences between them on any one category, on any one characteristic or sign. And as we’ve seen, above, there are exceptions to every rule. So … where does that leave us? Instinct? Guesswork? Fairy dust?
Maybe a bit of each.
When you are reading fairytales and/or fantasy, how do you distinguish between them?