Fairy Tale Friday: Myth vs. Fairy Tales
As 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.
So 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.