Fairy tales occupy a unique niche in the literary world. They are the subject of intense and extensive academic discourse at the same time as they are animated and commercialized for children by major production companies. The identity of the fairy tale as literature is hotly contested. Angela Carter's view on fairy tales was that they were on the same "cultural level" as classic works like Paradise Lost. In contrast to Carter's view, an experienced librarian at a major metropolitan library informed this writer that the library does not consider fairy tales literature and shelves them on a separate floor from works by major fiction writers. Whatever their place in the canon, fairy tales originate from the oral tradition; they were passed down from one generation to the next by word of mouth, both to entertain and to teach life lessons.
Author Steven Swann Jones traces the evolution of the fairy tale from Boccaccio's highly-regarded Decameron, written in the 1300s, to Maurice Sendak's 1963 illustrated children's classic, Where the Wild Things Are. Despite their compilation and classification by writers such as the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, fairy tales have no definitive versions. Jones explains that because it exists in hundreds of oral and written variations across cultures, a certain fairy tale, such as Snow White, must be "defined as a sum of its versions." The fact that there can be so many versions of the same basic tale proves the story's wide-ranging significance. Fairy tales, Jones explains, endure as they do because they simplify the human experience into a form that anyone can recognize and enjoy. As Carter has added in her writing, fairy tales also contain topics that many people choose to ignore in them, such as incest, rape, and cannibalism. As the essence of human experience, fairy tales inevitably involve aspects of that experience to which people do not want to admit.
Despite their variety, fairy tales tend to follow a limited number of plot structures and narrative styles. Jones divides them by the type of protagonist they employ: myths for "immortal protagonists," legends for "extraordinary protagonists," and folktales for "ordinary protagonists." Readers relate to these stories differently according to the type of protagonist; for example, a reader is likely to relate more strongly to a folktale than a myth because the first resembles his personal experience more than the second. Despite their distinctions, all types of fairy tales validate the existence of "marvelous" or supernatural experiences and give them a place in human life. The very title "fairy tale" reflects this. Indeed, people often refer to overwhelmingly good experiences such as weddings or trips as "fairy-tale."
Fairy tales tend to draw on a small collection of basic themes. These themes include family relationships, succeeding materially, and finding a mate; as Jones and Carter confirm, fairy tales are also embedded with sexual anxieties. Fairy tales tend to revolve around the protagonist's adventure, "quest," or problem at home. In the course of his or her story, the protagonist must conquer or escape evil, usually with the help of magic, in order to "live happily ever after." In its basic structure, the fairy tale reflects the human wish for knowledge, excitement, and eventual contentment. It also sympathizes with people's everyday experiences of evil or negativity, and their consequent wish that they could make these experiences disappear 'by magic.' As a whole, fairy tales confirm righteousness and condemn unfairness, thereby comforting readers with a sense that there is justice in the world.
Fairy tales have been modernized and transformed into many genres, in ways that expose their undesirable hidden meaning for adults' enjoyment or eliminate it for children's enjoyment. For example, Stephen Sondheim dealt with the "latent" themes of adultery, dishonesty, and death in his acclaimed 1986 musical, Into the Woods. In sharp contrast, Disney's animated versions of fairy tales tend to focus on the magical and comforting aspects of the stories because they are marketed towards children. One famous Disney reversal of a fairy tale is its version of The Little Mermaid. While Hans Christian Andersen's 1836 version ends with the protagonist turning into a spirit in limbo, a fate potentially frightening to children, Disney's 1989 version ends with her turning into a human and marrying the man of her dreams. Fairy tales are considered to have given rise to the fantasy genre, which retains many of their motifs. The endurance of fairy tales for so many centuries and across so many cultures validates their importance in human development as well as their entertainment value. Even in a digital age when technology is constantly outpacing itself, it is hard to imagine that fairy tales will ever become obsolete.