Fairy Tale Friday: Myth vs. Fairy Tales

October 16, 2009 at 12:00 am 4 comments

mythfairyAs I sat here wondering what I should write about for this Fairy Tale Friday, it struck me how little I know about fairy tales as compared to how much more I know about myths. This is not the first time I’ve had this thought (shall we say every time I’m on Fairy Tale Friday duty?), but it did get me thinking about the difference between myths and fairy tales a bit more closely. What makes them so different as to give them a different name?

When looking at the differences and similarities between the two, there are a lot of the same tropes running around. You have the wicked step-mother (Hera to almost all of Zeus’ illegitimate offspring), the vain Queen (Gerana), the beautiful but good-hearted girl (as Katie mentioned last week, Psyche comes to mind), and, of course, the hero or good prince (although he tends to be more flawed in Greek myth than in fairy tales: Hercules, Jason, Perseus, etc.). Not to even mention the magical beings running around Greek myth that could easily take the place of fairy godmothers, fairies, leprechauns, and dwarfs.

In addition to this familiar cast of characters, both myths and fairy tales tend to serve the same purpose in society: to teach lessons, to learn from past mistakes, and to instill certain values in those listening to the stories.

medusaSo what are the real differences that separate these two genres? To me, the difference is primarily that of tone and audience. Myths make no attempt to portray an alternate, more magical reality: they are purportedly real stories. Because of this, myths have a darker tone and deal with heavier topics, like rape and other forms of violence. Additionally, because they are “real,” myths do not provide a clear happy ending and thus leave listeners with also less clear moral at the end. People become victims of the gods’ whims rather than their own moral or immoral actions (although immoral actions are often punished by the gods, so maybe that’s a moral right there).

The difference in tone may actually be a result of the difference in audience. Fairy tales are, by and large, intended for children. They present a simple, oftentimes magical otherworld where crazy things happen and then the story is wrapped up neatly with a lesson or moral at the end for children to take home. Myths, meanwhile, while now the purview of academics and Classics nerds, were originally intended for everyone. Adults believed them just as much as children. “Believed” might even be too much like something you would say about a fairy tale; people knew them to be true more than “believed.”

In thinking about this, I am looking solely at Greek myths and modern/Victorian fairy tales (more Disney than Grimm), so I’m almost certain my argument holds little water more broadly, but I still enjoy pondering the differences between these two forms, even as a casual non-academic observer.


Entry filed under: Fairy Tale Friday, Musings and Essays. Tags: , , , , , .

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. KT  |  October 16, 2009 at 12:27 am

    I think also it’s hard to overlook the religious element in myth! While some fairy tales feature the Virgin Mary, myths tend to be more cosmic and more religiously based than fairy tales. Fairy tales more often have to do with everyday events that turn drastically wrong (a girl going to visit her grandmother, a young woman lying in order to marry well, a little boy playing a trick on his parents) than some sort of cosmic dynamic that seems to be present in myth.

    I disagree, however, that fairy tales were originally intended for children. You’re right that in the Victorian era they were relegated to the nursery, but before that, fairy tales were actually for everyone. They were much darker and more disturbing at the time, more akin to folk tales, and very little was neat, simple, or uncomplicated about the stories. For example, Red Riding Hood is a cannibal in an early version of her story, and her grandmother remains dead throughout.

    But by the time Victoria gained the throne, fairy tales had been cleaned up and passed on to children (much to the chagrin of Tolkien, I might add, who believed that adults had a lot to learn from fairy tales).

    Myths, on the other hand, still begin and end with the bizarre and dark, I feel — swans and bulls having sex with women, babies hatching out of eggs, etc. And I think they have an oddly more historical feel, as don’t many Greek or Roman myths supposedly chronicle the Trojan War?

    • 2. Corey  |  October 16, 2009 at 6:12 am

      I knew you’d have clever things to say to this post. :)

      I was actually also thinking about the religious aspects of myth (they were for everyone because they were basically a religion), but decided the post was too long to include it!

      And thank you for the info on who fairy tales were for before the Victorian era! I knew my comparison of Greek myth vs. Victorian fairy tales wouldn’t hold academic water in any broader sense.

      Yep, Homer is all about chronicling the Trojan War!

      • 3. KT  |  October 16, 2009 at 10:38 am

        I THOUGHT Homer was the Trojan War guy! I can’t get over how things like Achilles being dipped in the Styx are totally accepted as historical fact in myths, though I suppose it’s really no crazier than an immaculate conception, etc. I figured you had the religious aspects in mind as well with your point that myths were accepted as fact.

        And no problem on the Victorian fairy tales clarification! I have a theory that folk tales were abandoned as part of the growth of scientific knowledge in the Victorian era, but that’s not really based on any sound research.

        Tolkien is so bitter about fairy tales and what the Victorians have done to them! You should really read his “On Fairy Stories” if you can get a hold of it.

  • 4. Amusing Search Queries « Literary Transgressions  |  February 14, 2011 at 12:02 am

    […] for children Well, my dear, you seem to be mixing your genres here: I doubt anyone would refer to Greek myths as fairy tales unless your idea of “happily ever after” involves being carried off by a god […]


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