Why Are There so Few Fairies in Fairy Tales?
Updated: Nov 5, 2021
There are fairies in some fairy tales, but most don’t have any fairies at all. Why is that?
What are Fairies?
In some stories there are characters that are very tiny but that doesn't necessarily mean the character is a fairy.
In several of the stories by Hans Christian Andersen, he has creatures who are very, very tiny, like Thumbelina—but she's not a fairy.
In J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, Tinkerbell is a tiny fairy (most fairies before Tinkerbell aren't tiny, and don't have wings) and she’s mean!
In Cinderella (in the Mother Goose version by Charles Perrault), her godmother isn't called a "fairy" godmother, but she does use magic so that Cinderella can go to the ball. In the Disney version of Cinderella, she's called a fairy godmother, but not in Charles Perrault's story.
The elves in the Shoemaker and the Elves, might be able to be called fairies— but only because the terms "elf" and "fairy" are sometimes interchangeable.
What about the Lady of the Lake, who gave King Arthur Excalibur?
Tinkerbell wouldn’t even be able to hold Excalibur, nevermind hand that sword to him. If she rose from the lake to hold up the sword, you wouldn't even be able to see her hand.
How many fairies are in the stories by the Brothers Grimm? Or Charles Perrault? Or any of the older versions of fairy tales?
Very, very few.
So why are they called “fairy tales” or “fairy stories” if they don’t have many (or any) fairies in them?
Probably because they take place in the world of Faerie
Fairy (or Faerie) stories can have creatures such as people, animals, plants, even inanimate objects that are magical, and ones that are not. And as Tolkien says in On Faerie Stories, “Faerie is most nearly translated by Magic.”
They’re “fairy tales” not just because of the fairies, but because they take place in the World of Fairy, with the potential of meeting all of the other magical creatures and objects that live in that world.
When the story takes place in our world (or seems to), something from the world of Faerie slips into our world. That gives the story the required magical or impossible element.
An example of a fairy tale that starts to take place in our world and then ventures into the world of fairy, is Jack and the Beanstalk.
Jack and his mother are ordinary human beings, but then Jack encounters and takes possession of magical objects: the magic beans. The beans grow overnight into a huge beanstalk, which allows Jack to enter the world of the giants in the sky. That's when he enters the magical world of fairy.
The story can still considered to be a fairy tale because something that belongs to the world of Faerie (the magic beans) has entered our world, and because Jack then goes into the realm of the giants--which is definitely not in our world.
C.S. Lewis uses both of those ideas in his series, The Chronicles of Narnia.
Most of the time in that series the story takes place within Narnia, but there are times when the entrance to Narnia opens up and people in this world either get a glimpse of Narnia, feel the effects of the magic of Narnia, or something from Narnia (or another world) enters our world.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s “On Faerie Stories” goes into this in a lot more detail, but Tolkien is careful to say that in that essay, he’s only talking about a tiny sliver of the entirety of the world of Faerie. He also makes a qualification about Fairy Tales--they belong to the world of Faerie, but have their own special place in it that's separated from the rest of Faerie.
The rules in the world of Faerie are different, but the beings who live there are not necessarily good or evil—they can be either one. Unless they're human beings, the readers know (or learn) that the characters in the classic fairy tales are either good or evil based on the type of creature they are.
Some are always evil, like ogres and witches.
If the character is a human being, then it's a mix—some are good, some are evil.
Read more of the Posts in the series, Fairy Tale Fridays:
Why Are There So Few Fairies in Fairy Tales? (this post)