One of the remarkable things about fairytales is that you can know almost everything you need to know about the characters from the first few lines of the story. So, when The Frog King begins, “Once upon a time, when wishes still came true, there lived a king who had beautiful daughters,” you know that the story will revolve around one or more archetypal “fairytale princesses,” and will end with at least one of them marrying an equally archetypal fairytale prince. Or, when we are introduced to a character in Hansel and Gretel with, “suddenly the door opened, and a woman as old as the hills, leaning on a crutch, hobbled out,” then you know you have just met the wicked crone and also know that she will get up to no good.
What is more, you can remove these characters from their refuge within the covers of Grimm and Perrault and Lang, and still recognize them. The Wicked Witch in the Oz books could have walked right out of the pages of fairytale. When we meet the White Witch’s Chief of Secret Police, Fenris Ulf, in The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe, our ability to mentally trace his character back to the Big Bad Wolf of Red Riding Hood needs no stretch of imagination. Time and again, the characters of fairytale arise in new stories, whether it is Cinderella, in the form of Fanny Price, in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, or the fairy godmother come back to life as a Harry Potter’s advisor, Prof. Dumbledore.
To help identify the archetypes when they do arise, I present the top five fairytale characters.
The Guileless Fool
“The giant read the letters: “Seven at one blow!” and he thought it meant that the tailor had slain seven men. He began to feel some respect for the little guy before him…”
–The Brave Little Tailor
The guileless or honest fool is one of the most common recurring characters in fairytale. This character type is typically marked by an uncommon lack of common sense, an honesty of spirit, and an almost preternatural luck. The Brave Little Tailor is the quintessential “guileless peasant” story in that it pits a naïve peasant hero against incredible odds including not one but two giants, a killer unicorn, a rabid boar, and his less than enthusiastic princess bride. All of these challenges he manages to overcome without a scratch and without any particular skill, but simply by being so simple that he is cunning and by being so clueless that he is courageous.
The Grimm Brothers were particularly enamored of allowing simpletons and fools the chance to best the wise and win the day. Jack, playing the titular role in Jack And The Beanstalk is a surpassing fool, as can be seen from his brief exchange with the merchant in the story.
‘Oh, you look the proper sort of chap to sell cows,’ said the man; ‘I wonder if you know how many beans make five.’
‘Two in each hand and one in your mouth,’ says Jack, as sharp as a needle.
‘Right you are,’ says the man, ‘and here they are, the very beans themselves,’ he went on, pulling out of his pocket a number of strange-looking beans. ‘As you are so sharp,’ says he, ‘I don’t mind doing a swop with you—your cow for these beans.’
Of course, Jack does not pay a price for this foolish transaction. Instead, he is rewarded with riches, a princess, and of course a happily ever after. The lesson that can be learned from these guileless fools is best summed up by the final line of The Poor Miller’s Boy And The Cat, which is also presented as the moral of the story, “Don’t let people tell you that a simpleton will never amount to anything in life.”
The Meddlesome Fairy
For in those days the one thing to be thought of in governing a kingdom was to keep well with all the Fairies and Enchanters, and on no account to stint them of the cakes, the ells of ribbon, and similar trifles which were their due, and, above all thing, when there was a christening, to remember to invite every single one, good, bad, or indifferent, to the ceremony.
–Heart of Ice
The Meddlesome fairy is, at the moment, the most high profile of the fairytale character types. She is at the heart of Disney’s Maleficent, and will, in her “good” form, inevitably arise in the upcoming Cinderella movie. What is interesting about the fairy character is how different they are from our modern view of fairies. In modern tellings, fairies are naturalistic and wise, but in most of the original stories they are petty to an extreme.
The story of Sylvain and Jacosa is a fine example of the meanness of the fairytale fairy. In the tale two young people grow up under a fairy’s protection, and seemingly become favorites of the fairy. She asks in return for her friendship that they return to a particular fountain every morning and clear away every stone and every dead leaf or broken twig before the sun rises. They do this for quite some time, but one morning they are late and the fairy causes the stream to rise up into a mighty river that separates them. For three years the young people try to find a way back to each other with no luck, and are on the verge of throwing themselves into the river to drown, when the fairy finally relents.
In Princess Featherhead and Princess Celandine the character Celandine asks that her fairy protector take back all her gifts (wit and beauty, etc.) so that she can know if her accomplishments in life are really her own, or merely the result of the fairy’s power. A reasonable request to most, but it enrages the fairy.
I thought she deserved a little lesson, so to begin with I have whisked her off into the desert and left her!
The absurdity of the fairy’s reaction and the disproportional response are hallmarks of the meddlesome fairy. The most famous example being, of course, the dark fairy from Sleeping Beauty, who, for lack of an invitation, was willing to kill an innocent girl. It makes you understand a bit better Neil Gaiman’s famous copyright notice,
This is a work of fiction. All the characters in it, human and otherwise, are imaginary, excepting only certain of the fairy folk, whom it might be unwise to offend by casting doubts on their existence. Or lack thereof.
The Wicked Crone
Now the evil stepmother, as it turns out, was really a witch and, when she saw that the children had decided to leave home, she followed them in secret, sneaking along behind them the way that witches do.
–Little Brother And Little Sister
The wicked witch or old crone is standard fare for fairytales. In fact, these magically malevolent beings pop up in alarming numbers. In Hansel and Gretel she builds a house of candy in the woods to entrap little children, and, “as soon as a child fell into her hands, she killed it, cooked it, and ate it.” She transforms her stepchildren into swans out of jealousy as in the Six Swans. Perhaps most cruel though is the witch in Rapunzel, who for the price of some stolen lettuce, forces a father to give up his daughter to her. She then locks the daughter in a tower, and when she discovers that the girl is sneaking a prince in to see her “banishes poor Rapunzel to a wilderness where she had to live in a miserable, wretched state.”
The best thing about these stories, though, is that you can count on the wicked crone being punished terribly for her crimes. This typically entails the witch being burned to ashes at the stake. However, the punishments can be most inventive. The wicked mother-in-law in The Twelve Brothers is “put into a barrel filled with boiling oil and poisonous snakes.” The story adds, unnecessarily that, “she died a painful death.” Still, the most glorious description of a just ending of a wicked crone comes from the classic Hansel And Gretel, where you can almost hear the glee of the narrator in the words as he says,
Gretel gave her a big shove that sent her sprawling. Then she shut the iron door and bolted it. Phew! The witch began screeching dreadfully. But Gretel ran off, and the godless witch burned to death in a horrible way.
The Charming Prince
At first Rapunzel was terrified when she saw a man coming in through the window, especially since she had never seen one before. But the prince started talking with her in a kind way and told her that he had been moved by her voice that he could not rest easy until he had set eyes on her. Soon, Rapunzel was no longer afraid, and when the prince, who was young and handsome, asked her if she wanted to marry him, she thought to herself: “He will be more loving that old Mother Gothel.”
This quotation from Rapunzel perfectly summarizes the charming prince character in fairytale. They are inevitably dashing and handsome, usually well spoken, and somehow manage to convince young ladies to marry them nearly as soon as they’ve met. All of the classic princesses, Cinderella, Briar Rose, and Snow White all marry their prince after at most a single meeting.
Take the story of Snow White, this is the entire interaction between the girl and the prince before she agrees to be his wife:
She came back to life. “Good heavens, where am I?” she cried out.
The prince was thrilled and said: “You will stay with me,” and he told her what had happened. “I love you more than anything else on earth,” he said. “Come with me to my father’s castle. You shall be my bride.” Snow White had tender feelings for him, and she departed with him. The marriage was celebrated with great splendor.
And quite often these princesses reward their princes for doing very little. In the passage above, Snow White is awoken because the piece of poisoned apple in her mouth happens to fall out when the prince kisses her, while in the original telling of Briar Rose the prince just happens to show up on the day that she is to wake.
It so happened that the term of one hundred years had just ended, and the day on which Briar Rose was to awaken had arrived. When the prince approached the briar hedge, he found nothing but big, beautiful flowers. They opened to make a path for him and to let him pass unharmed, then they closed behind him to form a hedge.
The best you can say for these princes is that they are lucky and have excellent timing, but that is another lesson that fairytales often repeat, that good luck is sometimes better than heroic feats.
The Beautiful Damsel
Not surprisingly, the number one most repeated character type in fairytale is the beautiful damsel. It is also the most diverse of the character types. Although most often they are royal and rich, they can also be poor peasants, as in The Peasant’s Wise Daughter or Rapunzel. Although they are usually cherished, they can be treated cruelly, as in Cinderella, or even more notoriously in the story Furrypelts where the daughter has to pretend to be a beast for years to flee her incestuous father. They can be pure of heart and noble, as in Snow White, or the can be petty and spoiled as is the princess in The Frog King. They can passively await their rescuing prince, as in Briar Rose, or they themselves can be the rescuer, as in The Seven Ravens. However, there is one thing that all fairytale damsels hold in common, they must be beautiful, in some cases surpassingly beautiful, and in a few embarrassingly beautiful.
While all of the tales describe their respective maidens as “beautiful,” in a few stories the praise is more evocative. Rapunzel is described as, “The most beautiful child on earth.” In Sleeping Beauty, Briar Rose is, “so beautiful, kind, charming, and sensible that everyone that set eyes on her could not help but love her,” while Snow White is, “as beautiful as the bright day and more beautiful than the queen herself.” Amongst all the superlatives, my personal favorite is from The Frog King, where the princess is described as, “so lovely that even the sun, which had seen so many things, was filled with wonder when it shone upon her face.”
Ultimately, this is the universal truth of the princess character, her virtue must be reflected by her outward appearance—she must be beautiful. At least in this one way fairytales have, unfortunately, remained current, reflecting in their pages the same values perpetuated in the pages of fashion magazines.
Jack Heckel is the writing team of John Peck, an IP attorney living in Long Beach, CA who is looking forward to the upcoming release of Once Upon A Rhyme, and Harry Heckel, a roleplaying game designer and fantasy author, who is looking forward to the publication of Happily Never After.