Posted to SurLaLune:
I think that “fairy tale” has always carried the connotation of “improbable fiction,” for as long as the term has been around. That’s one of the distinguishing characteristics of a fairy tale, as opposed to a myth or a legend — the listeners understand it as a fiction crafted for entertainment purposes. Legends carry some semblance of belief — they’re usually told in a manner that suggests that somebody, somewhere, believes this to be true, even if the teller doesn’t. Myths are understood to be true on some level, at least in the culture that adheres to them. Of course, none of those categories can be absolutely fixed either, and there’s a lot of overlap. Too, as fairy tales became adapted for children, and then came to be seen as fit ONLY for children, the term became more derogatory. It’s linked, i think, to Andrew Lang and the cultural evolutionists; peasants (the folk) are sort of in the childhood of civilization, and therefore their products are on the same level as those of upper-class “civilized” children. All primitives, think alike, see. This theory died out, rightfully, in the 20th century, but the use of “fairy tale” to mean something juvenile stuck.
Fairy tales differ from more realistic folktales chiefly in the construction of the tale world. In a fairy tale/Zaubermarchen/wonder tale, magic is absolutely taken for granted. Nobody stops and says “Frogs don’t talk!” Strange things happen, and nobody bats an eye; that’s the major difference between a fairy tale and a realistic folktale. The main characters are generally human, as opposed to gods or demigods, and are of stock types. The fairy tale world is amorphous, unconnected to a time more specific than “Once upon a time” or a place more specific than “a faraway kingdom.” Legends, by contrast, take place in our own world — if not the here and now, than some specific time or place.
That’s the definition that I give to my students, and it seems to work well; there are, of course many others, but I’ve found this one the most useful. How’s that for a start?