Elements of Fairy Tales

Unit 3
The discourse organization of stories
Story telling is an oral activity, and stories have the shape they do because they are
designed to be listened to and, in many situations, participated in. The first, obvious, key
organising feature of stories is that events happen in different points in time. They occur in
a temporal sequence. The other key organizing feature of stories is their thematic structure
i.e. there is some central interest factor (theme) that changes over the timescale of the
story: difficulties and evil are overcome, or a major event is survived. Very often the
thematic structure of a story can be characterized as the resolution of a problem (Hoey
1983). A narrative does not need a thematic structure rather than the unfolding of time, but
it is then a kind of commentary rather than a story. These two central features of a story
can be illustrated by considering a children’s story well known in Europe and beyond,
“Little Red Riding Hood”. Fairy tales like this have existed for many years, and have
spread from one culture to another and one language to another. In this evolutionary
process, they have retained and developed features that we now think of as prototypical of
stories for children. In other parts of the world there are parallels to the European fairy tale
tradition: Ashanti tales in West Africa and the Caribbean; Mouse Deer stories in south-east
Asia; and Nasruddin stories in Arabic countries in the Middle East, Turkey and north Africa.
In the story of Little Red Riding Hood (LRRH, for short), the main characters are a little girl,
who has a red coat with a hood, hence the nickname, and who lives with her parents near
a forest, and a big bad wolf, who wants to eat people and who provides the problem. The
story covers the events of one day, when LRRH visits her grandmother and on the way,
despite her mother's warnings, leaves the path to pick flowers, and meets the wolf. She
tells the wolf where she is going and he rushes ahead, eats the grandmother, dresses in
her clothes, and waits for the girl to arrive. LRRH does not notice that it is the wolf in her
grandmother's bed, and is about to be eaten by the wolf, when, just in time, her father
arrives and kills the wolf. The grandmother jumps out of his stomach, and all ends happily.
The story has two morals: that wickedness will be overcome and, at a more specific level,
that children should do what their parents tell them.
The structure of typical stories was analysed by Propp (1985) and many of the same
features have been found in analyses of how people tell stories in their conversations
(Labov 1972). Prototypical features of stories, that will be found in most versions of LRRH
 an opening: often formulaic in fairy tales e.g. “once upon a time ...”
 introduction of characters
 description of the setting
 introduction of a problem
 a series of events
that lead to
 the resolution of the problem
 a closing: often formulaic in fairy tales - “They all lived happily ever after”
 a moral: which may or may not be explicitly stated.
LRRH illustrates yet more features of stories, that are common, but not always all found in
every story. Firstly, the way that the story is told sets up a dramatic irony, in that the reader
knows more than the central character. In this case, the reader knows that the
“grandmother” who LRRH finds in bed is really that wolf dresses up, and also knows that
LRRH does not know. A sense of suspense is created by this knowledge gap between
story characters and audience, motivating listeners to want to find out what will happen
when LRRH arrives at her grandmother's house.
Secondly, there is predictability built into the narrative, through a kind of lock-step
progression in which one incident seems to lead inevitably to the next:
mother warns LRRH not to leave the path or talk to the wolf
=> LRRH leaves the path and talks to the wolf
=> LRRH tells the wolf about her grandmother
=> the wolf goes to the grandmother's house
=> LRRH tells the wolf/grandmother she has big teeth
=> the wolf tries to eat LRRH.
Thirdly, this predictability and sense of inevitability is broken by the surprise event of the
arrival of LRRH's father to save her. The pattern of the sequence of familiar and
predictable events, interrupted by a surprise, is probably a pattern that suit human
psychology: a degree of comfortable familiarity combined with just the right amount of
surprise and change. In other stories, the predictability and continuity is constructed by the
repetition of events, with just a small change: as when, in another familiar tale, Goldilocks
tries out firstly the beds, then the chairs, and finally the porridge of the three bears. In each
of these episodes, she first tries Daddy Bear's bed/chair/porridge, then the Mummy Bear's
and finally the Baby Bear's. And in each instance, the first and second are unsuitable but
the third is “just right”.
Language use in stories
Children's stories contain uses of language that are typical of poetic and literary texts.
The pattern of predictability+surprise, or repetition+change, is often reflected in patterns of
repetition of language. For example, when LRRH arrives at her grandmother’s house and
talks to the wolf wearing the old woman's clothes, their dialogue goes like this:
LRRH: Grandmother, what big eyes you've got! BBW: all the better to see you with, my
LRRH: Grandmother, what big ears you've got! BBW: All the better to hear you with, my
LRRH: Grandmother, what big teeth you've got! BBW: all the better to eat you with...
This repeated pattern or parallelism creates a way into the story for the active listener...
Rich vocabulary
Because stories are designed to entertain, writers and tellers choose and use words with
particular care to keep the audience interested. Stories may thus include unusual words, or
words that have a strong phonological content, with the interesting rhythms or sounds that
are onomatopoeic. The context created by the story, its predictable pattern of events and
language, and pictures, all act to support listener's understanding of unfamiliar words.
Children will pick up words that they enjoy and, in this way, stories offer space for growth in
Alliteration is the use of words that have the same initial consonants. For example, red
riding and big bad. It can offer a source for developing knowledge of letter sounds.
Stories for children often contain strong contrasts between characters or actions or
settings. In LRRH, the innocent girl and the bad wolf are clearly contrasted characters,
representing good and evil; the old woman and the young girl contrast youth and age.
Placing ideas in such clear opposition may well help children’s understanding of the story
as a whole.
In LRRH, the forest can be seen as metaphorically representing life outside of the safety of
the family, and the wolf as representing threats to safety and innocence. Bettelheim (1976)
suggests that our early experiences with fairy stories map subconsciously on to our real
world experiences, and become a kind of script for our lives.
This is the term used to describe making references within one text aspects of other texts
that have become part of shared cultural knowledge. When children begin to write their
own stories, or little dramas, they may, just as adult writers do, involve familiar characters
or pieces of language from stories they know. This appropriation of the voice of a writer is
an integral part of first language development (Bakhtin 1981).
Within a story, we can distinguish two main uses of language: for narrative and for
dialogue: narrative text concerns the series of events: the little girl walked through the
forest; the wolf ran to grandmother’s house. Dialogue is use of language as it would be
spoken by the characters: “all the better to eat you with”.
Some stories are entirely narrative; in others, the text is entirely dialogue, with the pictures
contributing the narrative as they show something different happening on each day. Most
stories, though, move between narrative and dialogue, and the way they intertwine in a
story does much to create its particular atmosphere.
Narrative and dialogue are clearly separable to listeners and readers. They are
distinguished by their time-frame, and hence by the tense of the verbs used: narrative
language recounts what happened and verbs are typically in the Past Tense, while
dialogue captures characters in their present time-frame, and uses whichever tense is
appropriate to what they are talking about.
Quality in stories
The issue of what makes a good quality story is important but is clearly bound to
somewhat subjective. A good story is, at one level, simply one that listeners or readers
enjoy. However, stories that appeal more than others, and that remain favourites with
children and parents over many years, do demonstrate some common features that can
be identified as characterizing quality.
Quality stories have characters and a plot that engage children, often the Art work is as
important as the text in telling the story, and they create a strong feeling of satisfaction
when the end is reached. A convincing and satisfying closure includes the reader in those
who “live happily ever after”.
Children need to be able to enter the imaginative world that the story creates. This means
that they can understand enough about the characters and their lives to be able to
empathise with them. So, a story about being lost in the desert that is to be used with
children in arctic countries will need to contain lots of detail that enables them to imagine
what a desert looks and feels like to be in. Many stories for children include fantastical
beings or animals in imaginary worlds, but these characters and setting usually bear
enough resemblance to children and their real worlds for readers to imagine them:
monsters tend to live in families, tigers come to drink tea in the kitchen, frogs and ducks
get jealous- all act in ways familiar to children!
Text reproduced from: Cameron, Lynne. 2001. “Teaching Languages to Young Learners”. CUP. (pp160-167)
Comprehension Questions
1. Mention the basic features of the stories and some of the features that are present
in many, but not all, stories.
2. How can children benefit from the different linguistic features we can find in most
fairy tales?
3. What elements should a story have in order to have “quality”?
Vocabulary Exercises
1. Match the words in Column A with their meaning in Column B.
Column A
Column B
1. knowledge
A. to make the meaning of sth clearer by
giving examples; to be an example that
shows that sth is true or that a fact exists; to
put pictures in a book
2. integral
B. sth you say or write that mentions
another person or thing
3. familiar
C. to be able to recognize and understand
the difference between two similar things or
4. distinguish
D. the fact of being not guilty of a crime; the
state of not having much experience of life
or knowledge about evil in the world,
especially so that you are easily deceived
5. reference
E. forming a necessary part of sth
6. innocence
F. the state of being certain to happen and
impossible to avoid
7. opposition
G. the facts, skills and understanding that
you have gained through learning or
8. inevitability
H. strong disagreement with, or protest
against sth
9. feature
I. easy to recognize; common; too friendly
10. illustrate
J. a part of sth that you notice because it
seems important, interesting or typical
2a. Put the following words under the corresponding column and find their
derivatives.Participate, provide, motivate, predictability, comfortable, construct, repetition,
interesting, imaginary, separable
2b. Now, using the words from the table above, fill in the blanks.
1. The results of those experiments is not always entirely _____________
2. Children have a very vivid __________________
3. All ___________to the contest are asked to come forward.
4. LRRH was _____________ warned by her mother not to go through the forest.
5. I'll _______________the food, if you bring the wine!
6. Supply and demand are not easily ____________
7. Jack is an intelligent student, but he lacks ____________
8. This book will be of particular _____________ to those studying Greek Literature.
9. I don't mind ______________ criticism, but if you're just going to insult me, i'm not
10. I looked to my family for ___________ when things got difficult at work.
Did you know that…..?
A genre is a division of a particular form of art or utterance according to criteria particular
to that form. In all art forms, genres are vague categories with no fixed boundaries. Genres
are formed by sets of conventions, and many works cross into multiple genres by way of
borrowing and recombining these conventions. The scope of the word "genre" is usually
confined to art and culture. In genre studies the concept of genre is not compared to
originality. Rather, all works are recognized as either reflecting on or participating in the
conventions of genre.
Learning About the Genre of Fairy Tales
The Elements of a Fairy Tale
What is it that makes a story a fairy tale?
As with folktales, fairy tales have an oral tradition,
and they usually take place "long ago."
There are several elements present in most of these stories,
however, that identify them as part of the genre of fairy tales:
The Elements of a Fairy Tale Chart
Special beginning and/or ending words - Once upon a time...and they lived
happily ever after.
Good character
Evil character
Royalty and/or a castle usually present
Magic happens
Problem and a Solution
Things often happen in "threes" or "sevens"
Use this chart when being "element detectives"
with books from the genre of fairy tales.
Place an X under each element you find in each story.
Problem 3's
Special Good
and/or Magic and
Fairy Words Character Character
Solution 7's
Fairy Tale Alliterations
An Alliteration is a phrase or sentence that starts with the same letter sound. They are
often tongue twisters. Using characters and ideas from the Fairy Tales you have read,
write some tongue twisters. They are often silly. Be ready to read some aloud.
Examples: wicked witches want wriggling worms
dangerous dragons dragged distressed damsels
Now it is your turn. Try to write a few alliterations. Remember to use the same beginning
sound or consonant. Use a dictionary and your Fairy Tale books to help you find words.
Good vs. Evil
Fairy tales have a theme of good vs. evil. Sometimes it is the prince against the evil
monster, or a bad pirate. Sometimes it is a wicked witch or a crafty wolf and a young girl or
Think about the fairy tales you have read. Pick five of them and write them in the table
below. Write the good and evil characters from each.
Fairy Tale
Each of these Fairy tales is built around a conflict between the good and evil characters.
Pick one of the Fairy tales you put in the table above and explain the conflict of that tale.
Vladimir Propp, in his study, The Morphology of the Folk Tale (1968), outlined thirty one basic
functions of a folk tale which typically move the action forward. Propp suggested that there are
several recognizable functions, which may be fulfilled by various character types or motifs; and that
these functions, when they are present, always occur in the same sequence, although there may
be some repetition of particular sequences, as may be seen, for instance, in the threefold repetition
of journeys or tests in many tales. However, they are too many to remember without a prompt, and
probably too many to be applied easily. Jack Zipes has formulated a summary of them (five of
them are included below).
1a. Read the 13 distinct functions by Vladimir Propp below and decide which of
them might fall under the following five headings by Jack Zipes.
A. Departure or banishment of the protagonist, who is either given a task or assumes
a task related to the interdiction of prohibition.
B. Encounter with (a) villain; (b) mysterious individual or creature, who gives the
protagonist gifts: The gifts are often magical agents, which bring about miraculous
C. The endowed protagonist is tested and moves on to battle and conquer the villain
or inimical forces.
D. The villain is punished or the inimical forces are vanquished.
E. The success of the protagonist usually leads to (a) marriage, (b) the acquisition of
money: (c) survival and wisdom; (d) any combination of the first three (Zipes 3-4).
1. One of the members of a family absents himself from home.
2. An interdiction (prohibition) is addressed to the hero(ine). [OR: (s)he is ordered to do
3. The interdiction is violated.
4. The villain makes an attempt at reconnaissance.
5. The villain receives information about his/her victim.
6. The villain attempts to deceive his/her victim in order to take possession of him/her
and/or of his/her belongings.
7. The victim submits to deception and thereby unwittingly helps his/her enemy.
8. The villain causes harm or injury to a member of a family.
8a. One member of a family either lacks something or desires to have something.
9. Misfortune or lack is made known; the hero(ine) is approached with a request or a
command; (s)he is allowed to go or (s)he is dispatched.
10. The seeker agrees to or decides upon counteraction.
11. The hero(ine) leaves home.
12. The hero(ine) is tested, interrogated, attacked, etc., which prepares the way for his/her
receiving either a magical agent or helper.
13. The hero(ine) reacts to the actions of the future donor
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