Is magic in fairy tales the same as magic in fantasy?
In fairy tales, magic is ultimately ‘normalized,’ as Kate Bernheimer tells us: “In a traditional fairy tale there is no need for a portal. Enchantment is not astounding. Magic is
We see this in numerous fairy tales, from pots that spring endless porridge to birds that bestow young maids like Cinderella with beautiful gowns; from beanstalks that grow up into the clouds to wolves and even mirrors that talk.
All of this is considered normal fairy tale substance. Magic exists everywhere in the fairy tale. Yet it is never highlighted or discussed. Magic is not ‘learned’ and it is never the subject of education. Witches and fairy godmothers simply have magical skill. We don’t know how or why. In a fairy tale, magic just ‘is.’
In many fantasy stories, on the other hand, magic often lives in the foreground. Rather than simply existing as a part of the landscape, it becomes a crucial part of the plot, and often a part of the central character’s journey, like in Harry Potter or the Wizard of Earthsea. A lot of the time, in fantasy, magic is craft. And only a few lucky ones are able to master it.
But what about other fantasy stories that don’t place the element of magic in the foreground, as something to be learned or mastered? In tales like Alice in Wonderland, the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, it would seem that magic is an intrinsic part of the background, too. After all, caterpillars smoke, fauns and lions talk, and scarecrows desire brains.
But all of these stories have one thing that fairy tales do not – a framing device. Each story takes the characters out of their ordinary, everyday realms (where there is no magic) and into fantastical ones. Alice falls down the rabbit hole, Lucy passes through the wardrobe and Dorothy is whisked away by a cyclone into Oz. Unlike that of fairy tale, the real world and the magical world are still separate in these narratives.
So, I suppose when it comes to definition – is the theme of magic something that we could use (in addition to form, history, discourse etc.) to truly differentiate fairy tale and fantasy?
Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairytale by Kate Bernheimer in The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House. Tin House Books: 2009.