What’s a Fairy Tale?

When I tell people I write fairy tales they typically say, “Ooh, I love fairy tales!” From what I know of those people, I believe they are talking about the Disney animated classics type of fairy tales—Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, etc. There’s a handsome prince, a beautiful princess (or princess to be), and a happily-ever-after ending. We’ve all heard how the old fairy tales (and other children’s tales and songs, like “Ring around the Rosie”) weren’t so cheerful as the Disney-inspired idea of fairy tales would have us believe. Some stories were happy but were also more focused on presenting a moral lesson than simply entertaining. However, if you go the library now and ask for young adult fairy tales, the librarian will tell you (at least this was my experience) that fairy tales these days are generally dark and involve elves and fairies (not the Flora, Fauna, and Meriwether type) and other magical creatures. And live action movies, tv shows, and Broadway productions that rewrite the story to have sword welding heroines and often less than heroic male protagonists or non-happily ever after endings, or annoying “heroines” and sympathetic villains are common as well.

I’ve heard that Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) is doing a live-action retelling of Beauty and the Beast starring Emma Watson. Since Pan’s Labryrinth has been described as a dark fairy tale, I question how similar his Beauty and the Beast will be to the familiar Disney story. The original French version La Belle et La Bete was one of the happier, moral lesson focused tales, so a dark version would not be going back to the original.

So, all this leads me to wonder what exactly is a fairy tale? I think noble heroes and heroines, castles, and happily-ever-afters. What do you think of when you hear fairy tale?