Fairy tale is a country of the mind where there are many inhabitants stretching back into deep time, and we're like people before Babel, we speak a common tongue: fairy tales exist in a symbolic Esperanto, with familiar motifs and images and characters and plots taking on new shapes and colors and sounds. One of the happy consequences of this shared ground is that when I give talks, the audiences aren't lost in the landscape — they know the forests of fairy tale and have taken their bearings and are going deeper in with a strong sense of the way. They ask searching questions and show real commitment to the subject. For example, at the Cambridge Literary Festival recently (in England, not Massachusetts), I was asked how would I define fantasy in relation to fairy tale? It's a puzzle, but I'll try a few more thoughts now that I didn't have time for then.
In Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale, I suggest that, on the one hand, there are individual fairy tales, some of them very familiar — "The Snow Queen," "Hansel and Gretel" — and, on the other, many, many more much less well-known — one of my favorites is "The Love for Three Oranges," a witty, spirited story of metamorphosis and retribution which Giambattista Basile features in his 17th-century collection, Il Pentamerone, and Prokofiev later turned into an opera. But the very mention of such individual works shows that the same fairy tale will keep migrating into different forms, leaving the voice for the page for the screen for the stage and then back again. "The Snow Queen" lies behind C. S. Lewis's enchanted Narnia and its queen, as well as giving Jennifer Lee the inspiration for Frozen, but Frozen is funny and sweet at times in ways that Hans Andersen's poetic tale never is. There are numerous other differences, of course, yet the "Snow Queen" lives on inside Frozen, rather as a tune still makes itself heard even when set for a full-blown symphony orchestra.
In Once Upon a Time, I try to define this larger territory of fairy tale beyond such single stories, and give some historical context: Lewis Carroll referred to his book, Alice in Wonderland, as a fairy tale, but few people would do that today. The Alice books do, however, include fairy tale features: the dreamed quality, above all, and the setting in "Secondary Worlds," down the rabbit hole and through the looking-glass. Other defining features of fairy tale include magic (especially spells, animism, and transformations) and hope and the promise of reprieve (the happy ending).
If fairy tale covers a vast territory, fantasy is an even broader umbrella term; it gives shelter to sci-fi, porn, ghost and vampire stories, Gothic fiction — both from the past and its newer guises — steampunk, many computer and role-playing games — and even fancy dress. It is also a genre label, used by publishers and booksellers as a convenient way to market the titles and arrange the shelves. Fairy tales, by contrast, are (still) placed in the children's section, or sometimes with Folklore, which is a kind of crossover category and stretches to Myth and Legends as well as fairy tales.
But the target consumers shed only a little bit of light on the difference between fantasy and fairy tale. I prefer to single out other features.
First, fantasy presents itself as original whereas fairy tale tends to invoke a tradition: Harry Potter has many mythic and fairy elements but it is a full-length, individually authored novel from out of J. K. Rowling's exceptional and singular imagination. Contrast this to the marvelous film Blancanieves, directed by Pablo Berger in 2012, which openly takes on the famous 1937 cartoon Snow White and performs a dazzling and passionate revisioning of its predecessors — the Grimm Brothers and Disney. Secondly, fantasy, as cognate with imagination, presupposes a greater depths of interiority: the storyteller takes us into the minds of the characters in a way that runs counter to the stark matter-of-factness of fairy tale (no reason why the king in the Grimms' "The Twelve Brothers" decides, on the birth of his daughter, to kill all his sons, or why the ogress in "Foundling Bird" decides to cook the hero — things just are the way they are). Fantasy often implies subjectivity, even delusion or madness: Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is a fantastic and marvelous dream-like tale, but it is not a fairy tale nor does it belong to fairy tale more generally.
The literary scholar Tzvetan Todorov, in a very useful analysis of The Fantastic (1973), distinguishes between: first, wonders produced by divine powers in which the audience believes, as in miracle stories told about Jesus and the saints; secondly, wonders brought about by natural forces, which are then explained by recourse to science, as in the prodigiously inventive tales of H. G. Wells (this is fantasy as science fiction, utopian dreaming, thought experiment), and — this is Todorov's most illuminating suggestion — a third kind of fantasy, which has grown more and more popular since the late l9th century: the marvelous story which offers no explanation for the wonders it relates, but leaves the question of their cause indeterminate and the reader undecided as to whether the fantastic happenings are all in the mind of the dramatis personae, or indeed have happened at all.
The most dazzling example of this type of modern fantasy is Henry James's tale of possession (or not, that is the point), The Turn of the Screw. Another enigmatic masterpiece of this kind is "The Circular Ruins" by Jorge Luis Borges, in which a magician dreams a boy into being and then realizes that he has himself been dreamed... the circular plot and its thrilling fathomless fantasy about existence have inspired many films, including 12 Monkeys, The Matrix, and Inception, all key works of the computer age.
I would like to add another, very contemporary gloss to the distinction between fairy tale and fantasy: enchantment defines fairy tale, but the belief in magic that the stories excite does not correspond either to religious faith or to scientific verification or to insights into the instability of the psyche. When J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan asks children in the audience to clap their hands to show they believe in fairies, most of them — and the grown-ups with them — do so enthusiastically, but we know at the same time that he is having us on. This fully aware complicity in a game of make-believe now extends to very young children today; we/they are players who know where we are, and it is ultimately a safe place, however dark and frightening the encounters there might be; there is a way out of this forest. But the larger territory of fantasy extends into the unknown, without the security of the known pattern or the familiar plot. When it comes to "believe it or not," fantasy weighs in with the believers while surprisingly fairy tale keeps its distance.