For several years I’ve thought about the distinction between myth and fairy tale. It’s an interesting conversation and this is just a blog post on what could probably be an entire college course.
In some ways the two might seem unrelated. Especially since we exist in a culture that recognizes the stories that are myths and the stories that are fairy tales, by their titles if nothing else. There are, however, similarities. Both are forms of fantasy narrative. We don’t really create either anymore (and the how and why of that is an entirely different post). And we retell both frequently.
So what makes one a fairy tale and another a myth?
There’s the simple distinction of grandeur – fairy tales tend to be smaller, more intimate stories. A brother and sister lost in the woods, a princess in a tower; the sort of story where one person’s heart, one kingdom’s hope is all that matters.
Myths are about the making or breaking of the world. Even the smaller ones about a girl turned into a tree for refusing to love or a boy turned into a flower aren’t just a single tree or a single flower. For the rest of time every flower of that sort is a narcissus.
Then there’s the reputation of fairy tales for carrying messages; the moral of the story about the importance of kindness or the virtue of cleverness. Some of them are more obvious than others but we always walk away knowing implicitly that honesty, good and right will find their rewards in the end, as will cruelty and malice.
Myths are more subtle and in many ways more powerful. Myths use supernatural interactions to explore a multitude of humanity’s issues, from jealousy to lust, heroism and consequences as large as life and death. Joseph Campbell would say that myths teach us who we are, both individually and collectively as a society. Unlike fairy tales, they don’t teach lessons, they embed themselves into our psyche and define the unwritten rules of our behavior. At least the ones told over and over again.
Light and Dark
The more subtle distinction lies in their tone and setting. Myths are an ancient sort of magical realism. They are mostly stories set in our world, but they are tales of what happens when something divine steps into this world. The Greeks had a rather bleak perspective; full of unrelenting tragedy and few happy endings. And to be fair, they’re the myths I know the best.
Older fairy tales happened in our world then gradually as the genre evolved we stepped beyond this world, through the looking glass or into the wardrobe. Perhaps as we stopped believing in magic in this world, we needed to be transported somewhere else to encounter it. We could no longer wake up to find that our bedroom had become the enchanted forest. Whether here or there, nothing is what it appears to be in a fairy tale, which is one of the lessons. When all is revealed by its true nature in the end, everyone receives what they truly deserve.
And so of course there is darkness in fairy tales. There is also wonder which is perhaps the true magic of any fairy tale. That moment where light enters the darkness, where hope quickens your heart, has been reduced to this idea of a happy ending. Something in our modern world we see as trite and unreal instead of something wonderfully inevitable.
We are a city of myths, much more content in tragedy and grief because the hardships of life are all too real and the eventual outcome of magic, in spite of and also because of the hardships and trials, is a world away.
But not all myths are Greek. C.S. Lewis tells us,
“The value of myth is that it takes all the things you know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the veil of familiarity.
Once that familiarity is stripped away, we see the world anew. And perhaps we see a bit of that wonder fairy tales continue to remind us of. Both Tolkien (in On Fairy-Stories) and Frederich Buechner (in Telling the Truth) explore that sense of wonder and hope and the importance of it in our lives.
Perhaps the best distinction between fairy tale and myth (or at the very least, my favorite) is the one given us by Tolkien in On Fairy-Stories. Tolkien tells us that myth has the presence of divinity – of the right to power as opposed to the possession of power. Fairy tales (fantasy) have magic and enchantment.
I could do an entire separate post on the distinction between the right to power and the possession of it; of the evolution in our society from one to the other in our stories and our accepted worldviews. But this is not that post.
Myths are about gods and demigods, whose power is not in the soldiers they command or the magic they wield. It is an inherent power that bends the world to their will, even when it cannot bend a human heart. They are stories of people who are larger than life and gods who are all too flawed.
Fairy tales are about the woodsman, the young girl, the hero who could be you or me caught up in a moment of magic. They are about animals who guide and who taunt; about women and fairies who wield enchantments and disguises but who only possess power. And somehow, without ever having to be spoken, it changes the size and shape of the playing field.
Despite their differences, we talk of fairy tales and myths because they are both about what happens when something ordinary is touched by the extraordinary; when we come face to face with something beyond our understanding or beyond our world. And perhaps that’s why we keep retelling them. Because, despite all reason, even though we say we don’t believe in magic, we keep hoping that Once upon a time… might be today.