Mary Magoulick, folklorist and Associate Professor of English at Georgia College, posted a great description of what a fairy tale is. Let me just quote her here:
“Fairy tales, also known as wonder tales or märchen (from the German), are a sub-genre of folktales involving magical, fantastic or wonderful episodes, characters, events, or symbols. Like all folktales they are narratives that are not believed to be true (fictional stories), often in timeless settings (once upon a time) in generic, unspecified places (the woods), with one-dimensional characters (completely good or bad). They function to entertain, inspire, and enlighten us. In these episodic narratives the main characters are usually humans who often follow a typical pattern (as in a heroic quest) that is resolved partly by magic. The fact that these wonder tales still appeal to us attests to their richness and effectiveness as symbolic communication.”
This week I’ve been examining our personal library of films, comics and books for stories that have anything to do with fairy tales, and been surprised to find a plethora of works that easily fit into the above description. Characters that are opportunistic and hopeful, themes often dealing with socio-economic struggle and lower classes seeking power, and/or a transformation process, such as the frog to prince, or the rags to riches. Aside from Disney films and literary-based works like Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, there are an incredible number of stories that use magic to teach a lesson or help complete a quest. We love magic. Star Wars is 100% fairy tale, is it not?
The trick is to use fairy tale character archetypes while still keeping the character and the story interesting. We KNOW that innocent Luke Skywalker must SURELY triumph over the black hearted cloak wearing Darth Vader from the first moments of the trilogy, but we keep watching because he is an Everyman in peril, and the circumstances of his life interest us. Magic? Monsters? A “road movie” set in space?! Sign me up!! Today Star Wars is looking just a little bit hokey, but I love it just the same, and it grabs me every time. I know EXACTLY what happens in the films… but I want to watch it again and again. Fairy tales seem to scratch some deep-seated story itch for almost everyone.
When the cartoonist Seth visited the Center for Cartoon Studies two weeks ago, he said “The only chart you have for what is interesting is your own taste.” I am realizing that I have quite an appetite for fairy tales. My thesis already is a fairy tale of sorts, but this research may help me to turn up the volume and figure out the appropriate staging. I feel like I’m on a good track.