Fairytale Archetypes

Marina Warner has a great way of thinking about fairytale archetypes: Imagine them as pieces on a chessboard. We know all we need to know about them just from their appearance. Moreover, their position on the board limits the number of possible moves they’re able to make.

Even modern stories make use of the stock characterisation of fairy tales, or what I’m calling ‘fairytale archetypes’. There is no need to shy away from using these in your own stories. Audiences love them. The trick is to expand upon them, or, according to your purposes, to subvert expectations and challenge the reader’s prejudices.

Fairytale Character Archetypes

Archetypes arrive in statu nascendi (without backstory). This is a huge storytelling advantage, saving time. The reason they have no (on-the-page) backstory: their lives until this point have been predictable.

In fairy tales, famously, character is destiny. Who the personages are, and what happens to them, are completely inseparable. You can predict what will happen to a good princess, just from the fact that she is a good princess. Her identity in the story maps out her future. Conversely, her goodness has no other aspects except those that are revealed by her marrying a handsome prince. That’s all her goodness really means; though we will of course have seen it in action  in acts of kindness or victimhood at the beginning of the story, so we know that it is there. In true fairy tales, as opposed to literary hybrids smuggling in the techniques of the novel, there are no individual characters, only types.

Good princess; bad princess.
Witches.
Fairy godmothers.
Genies.
Kings who set tasks for suitors.
Ogres and giants.

These beings do not exist in the environment of the child who, at the same time as hearing about Snow White, is also thrilled by stories of door-opening. But the vocabulary of types is actually easier to acquire, in some ways, than knowledge about the child’s own world, because the fairy-tale world is so perfectly self-explanatory. Every appearance by a witch is a complete, sufficient demonstration of what a witch is. In life, knowledge of other people’s natures is both important and relatively hard to come by; it depends on a long loop of inferences moving gradually from the things people do and say, to conclusions about what they’re like. Children can afford to be much less cautious about the information in stories much quicker to decide. Arthur Applebee asked a group of pre-school children to tell him the characters of a list of animals. They were more certain of the stereotypical personalities of animals they could only have met in stories, such as brave lions or sly foxes, than of the characters of dogs or cats, where experience of specific dogs and cats came in to complicate the picture. Story characteristics are prepared for reception, so to speak; they’re consistent, they don’t contradict themselves, and they’re dispensed at the pace that understanding demands.

The Child That Books Built, Frances Spufford
Vintage Paper Toys

CHARACTERS ARE ‘NOT ACTUALLY CONSCIOUS’

“Conventional stock figures”: there is no psychology in a fairy tale. The characters have little interior life; their motives are clear and obvious. If people are good, they are good, and if bad, they’re bad. Even when the princess in “The Three Snake Leaves” inexplicably and ungratefully turns against her husband, we know about it from the moment it happens. Nothing of that sort is concealed. The tremors and mysteries of human awareness, the whispers of memory, the promptings of half-understood regret or doubt or desire that are so much part of the subject matter of the modern novel are absent entirely. One might almost say that the characters in a fairy tale are not actually conscious.

They seldom have names of their own. More often than not they’re known by their occupation or their social position, or by a quirk of their dress: the miller, the princess, the captain, Bearskin, Little Red Riding Hood. When they do have a name it’s usually Hans, just as Jack is the hero of every British fairy tale.

The most fitting pictorial representation of fairy-tale characters seems to me to be found not in any of the beautifully illustrated editions of Grimm that have been published over the years, but in the little cardboard cut-out figures that come with a toy theatre. They are flat, not round. Only one side of them is visible to the audience, but that is the only side we need: the other side is blank. They are depicted in poses of intense activity or passion, so that their part in the drama can be easily read from a distance.

Philip Pullman, The Guardian

BOYS AND BROTHERS

Brothers in a fairy tale will often manifest a different aspect of personality. This provides a moralistic tale about which traits will get you far in life and which will lead to your downfall.

For example, the lazy brother, the haughty brother and the smart brother. The youngest is usually the best. This is because the youngest brother was the least privileged — in a culture of primogeniture it was the eldest son who inherited everything. These tales teach younger brothers that they can still do okay on merit — we’re still telling ourselves this today.

GIRLS AND SISTERS

When it comes to fairytale sisters, good and evil are connected to how they look. Pretty girls are good girls. This is an obvious case of physical discrimination but is in line with other fairytale archetypes in which What You See Is What You Get, and if that’s not the case, it’s because you’ve been deliberately deceived.

In the best-known folktales there are several possible roles for the adult male protagonist. He may be a prince, a poor but ambitious boy, a fortunate fool a traveling vagabond, or a clever trickster. But if you are the female protagonist of one of the fairy tales most popular today, there are only two possibilities: either you are a princess or you are an underprivileged but basically worthy girl who is going to become a princess if she is brave and good and lucky.

If you are already a princess when the story starts, you usually have a problem. Very likely you need rescuing from some danger or enchantment. Maybe you have been promised to a dragon or promised yourself to a dragon; or you might have been kidnapped by a witch or enchanter, who asks impossible riddles or sets impossible tasks for your would-be rescuers. Possibly it is your father, the king, who has set these tasks. Or perhaps you are just very difficult to please, like the princess in “King Thrushbeard,” and set the tasks or riddles yourself, to drive away possible suitors.

Alison Lurie: Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The subversive power of children’s literature

Before fairy tales were written down by men, the heroines of fairy tales were very often courageous young women who retained their wits during times of adversity. A look into the history of Little Red Riding Hood is a good example of a heroine who was deliberately stripped of power, in this story’s case, mostly by The Grimms.

KINGS

There’s not much point separating the father from the king — they’re basically the same archetype. They’re either the head of their household or head of their kingdom.

VILLIANS

Villains often have seductive powers, as in the witch who is an ugly old crone underneath, but can shapeshift and trick men into thinking she’s attractive to them.

The rise of the fairytale created a tectonic shift in children’s literature and revealed that something had long been off kilter. Fairytales—sometimes referred to as “wondertales” because they traffic in magic—opened the door to new theatres of action, with casts of characters very different from the scolding schoolmarm, the aggravated bailiff, or the disapproving cleric found in manuals for moral and spiritual improvement. Books were suddenly invaded by fabulous monsters—bloodthirsty giants, red eyed witches, savage blue beards, and sinister child snatchers— and they produced a giddy sense of disorientation that roused the curiosity of the child reader.

Maria Tatar, Enchanted Hunters

Villains are also very often cannibalistic, especially ogres.

WISE WOMEN

Good witches.

The wise women of modern fiction come from all classes of society. Some, like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Ramsy and E.M. Forster’s Mrs Wilcox, are upper-class or upper middle-class. Others, such as William Faulkner’s Dilsey and the cook Berenice Brown in Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding, are servants. Many of them are also in a sense nature goddesses whose power is related to a semi-magical connection with the earth, the seasons, and the processes of growth and creation. They can be recognized by their knowledge of plants, their instinctive sympathy with children and animals, and their intuition, which sometimes operations at the level of ESP.

Alison Lurie: Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The power of subversive children’s literature

The wise woman archetype can also be found in:

  • Of The Farm by John Updike
  • Wise Child by Monica Furlong

She couldn’t be a prince, and she’d never be a princess, and she didn’t want to be a woodcutter, so she’d be a witch and know things.

Terry Pratchett

FOOLS

From Tibet to Africa, and places in between, many cultures have set aside a special place for fools. We may be most familiar with this from Shakespeare’s plays where court jesters appear, like the wise one who has a role in King Lear. And to all appearances, court fools had an enviable job since they could say what they liked with impunity and be pranksters without fear of reprisal. Protected by their special status, given room to act up, making acute but silly comments from the side of the stage, not taken very seriously–the fool, in many ways, resembles the child. Hence, the appeal of this figure to children: the fool is their cousin. Hence, too, the childhood business of “playing the fool.”

Jerry Griswold

A story all about the foolishness of a fool is sometimes called a ‘noodlehead tale’. Contemporary sit-com characters take elements from the classic fool or noodlehead tale, in which the audience takes delight at watching a character do one stupid thing after another, never learning from their mistakes.

But there’s a difference between the sort of fool an audience likes to watch and a real life fool. The fictional, comedic fool may be bumbling and stupid but they also have a certain wisdom.

George Kostanza of Seinfeld is a good example of this archetype. Though he never learns from his mistakes (at work, with women etc.) he also has a certain pragmatic wisdom about him. He knows that lying can get you a long way, and it often does. We like watching him get away with things, and we also like watching him fail. Succeed, fail, succeed fail; that’s the fool cycle.

These fools exist to show the audience that the world is a foolish place in general. Everyone is a fool in their own way. Win some, you lose some.

The Fool Archetype In Picture Books
  • Soap! Soap! Don’t Forget The Soap! (1993), illustrated by Andrew Glass
  • Flossie and the Fox (1986) illustrated by Rachel Isadora
  • Lazy Jack (1995) illustrated by Russell Ayto
  • Piggie Pie! (1995) illustrated by Howard Fine

There’s a subcategory of the fool which is a very old archetype in folk tale, in which a character understands the world in an overly literal way. In contemporary stories, this character is often read as autistic, whether on or off the page.

Header painting: Frederick Judd Waugh – Chess Players

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