Fairy Tale Motifs

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Motifs using characters, creatures, and settings from classic Fairy Tales to represent characters or ideas, for example, a love interest being equated with a Knight in Shining Armor. Modern day Cinderella stories commonly mine this fairy tale trope as well.

Many of them are, in fact, Dead Unicorn Tropes. Dragons, unicorns, fairies, and knights are in fact exceedingly rare in fairy tales. For tropes actually found in fairy tales, see Fairy Tale Tropes.

Fairy Tale Motifs are used to add romance to a story, especially one set mainly in the grim and gritty real world. The fact that most people have read the fairy tales means that the symbolism isn't likely to be lost.

Fairy Tale Motifs differ slightly from Mythological Motifs. While the former features specific fairy tale characters—such as Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty—it also includes general, archetypal examples, usually a "species" rather than one particular person/animal. The latter tends to use specific characters belonging to a recognizable mythology. For example, most people recognize a unicorn when they see one, but the creature itself has a rather vague history and there is no named unicorn who was the "first of its kind." Therefore, it's a Fairy Tale Motif. Pegasus, the winged horse, on the other hand, is one specific character from Greek myths with a Canon history , making it a Mythological Motif.

Some fairy tale motifs include:

  • Dragons: Western dragons can be used to represent very strong or fierce characters, where as eastern dragons are more likely to be wise.
  • Fairies: The more popular versions of the fairy are carefree, innocent creatures, usually associated with little girls. May indicate a Cloudcuckoolander, since "away with the fairies" is another way to say "constantly daydreaming" or "slightly crazy." The fairies taken from older traditions, such as Celtic Mythology, aren't quite so cutesy—in fact they're downright malevolent at times. Modern literature increasingly employs this version of the fairy-folk, usually as Tricksters.
  • Knights: Often, a very noble character, akin to the Knight In Shining Armor, however, the symbolism linked to a knight could easily be used for a Knight Templar character as well (perhaps due to the association in the trope name).
  • Royalty: Generally used to represent power, wealth or prestige. These are often used in High School settings to refer to "the popular kids".
    • Princess: Often the Alpha Bitch, however, a wealthy or popular girl of any sort will often be equated to a princess (for an example of this comparison, look no farther than this site). A Queen will often refer to the same stereotype, especially if there is a corresponding?
    • King: Generally the leader of a group or organization or the reigning champion of something (i.e. "The King of Table Tennis"). In the aforementioned High School settings, the king will often be a Jerk Jock.
  • Unicorn: The mythological "horse with a horn," although many different descriptions of them exist. Usually pure, gentle and noble, although subversions do exist. Being able to draw a unicorn's attention is generally a Virgin Power. Strongly associated with chastity, and often a motif for young girls.
  • Wolves: While the wolf's image has been getting better in recent times, increasingly being seen as a "spirit of the wild," people can't quite get over "Little Red Riding Hood". While the wolf is an animal motif at the same time, the wolf as a threat to young girls/ sexual predator seems to have its roots in the fairy tale.
    • In Germanic countries, the wolf is (or was historically) the equivalent of the Devil - they even have an expression about them that's interchangable with "Speak of the Devil".
Examples of Fairy Tale Motifs include:

Anime and Manga[edit | hide | hide all]

  • Revolutionary Girl Utena uses a Fairy Tale Motif in order to deconstruct the romance fairy tale of the Prince as male love interest saving the Princess.
  • Skip Beat!! 's Kyouko seems to believes that fairies are real, and very often acts following Cinderella-like Fairy Tales tropes, seeing the (mostly villainous) characters she interprets as princesses under a curse. There is not Wrong Genre Savvyness, just a girl whose life has been so horrible she just prefer to believe she could be rescued and become a Real Princess, even if she knows it isn't. Pity nobody had informed her how The Fair Folk and the Old Fairy Tales truly are...
  • Princess Tutu mixes Magical Girl tropes and fairy tale motifs with references to specific stories and ballets. The first season mostly plays the typical fairy tale structure straight (outside of the fact that the princess is saving the prince), only to deconstruct it in the second season when the characters rebel against their assigned fairy tale roles as the prince, princess, villain and knight and decide to (literally) rewrite the story.
  • Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade draws on (and quotes) the more traditional darker version of "Little Red Riding Hood" for its story of a relationship between a young terrorist girl, and a 'wolf' from the elite Kerberos Panzer police. The anime film makes the point that such relationships are always fated to end badly.
  • Monster uses a fairy tale (or several) to foreshadow the antagonist's modus operandi.
  • Cowboy Bebop uses the tale of Urashima Taro as a constant recurring motif and theme, with most of the characters having connections to it, most literally Faye.
  • Prétear, plain and simple. Although, considering it's based on "Snow White", maybe that's not really surprising.
  • Cyber Team in Akihabara invokes many fairy tales motifs, but the main one is the wish of 13 year old protagonist Hibari for meeting and falling in love with a White Prince and live Happily Ever After with him. Her Character Development is essentially to get rid of that mindset, usually via Be Careful What You Wish For.
  • ARAGO uses a great many motifs from fairy tales and mythology in general, and it tends to go with the older versions of the stories.
  • Gaba Kawa actually follows the theme/basic plot of The Little Mermaid, becoming more obvious about it in the final two chapters.
  • Puella Magi Madoka Magica follows the theme/basic plot of "The Little Mermaid" in Sayaka's arc, to tragic conclusion. The other motif is Faust, but that's most definitely not a fairy tale.
  • Mawaru Penguindrum has had allusions to various fairy tales involving apples, but so far the most prominent motif seems to be the resemblance of the siblings' lives to an in-universe fairy tale about a man named Mary and his three little lambs offending a goddess.
  • Alice from Mahou Tsukai no Yoru possesses magic which revolves around fairy tales.


Film[edit | hide]


Literature[edit | hide]

  • The Discworld revels in subverting and Deconstructing every Fairy Tale Motif it can get its hands on. For example, to paraphrase Granny Weatherwax, unicorns are just big angry horses that come to a point. It does play the Virgin Power part straight:

Granny: I could hold it with a feather.
Nanny Ogg: Oh? Oh!

  • Jacqueline Wilson's Midnight involves an idealistic young girl obsessed with the fairy characters of her favourite author. The fantasy and idealism represented by the fairies are her escape from a world of cynical, self-obsessed people.
    • Also used in The Power of the Shade, an early and now largely-forgotten novel of Wilson's, about a girl who becomes fixated on the idea of having magical powers.
  • It seems that the entire 500 Kingdoms series by Mercedes Lackey was created so she could play with or subvert every fairy tale trope ever created, from fairy godmothers to the dragon and the princess.
  • George MacDonald, in nearly all his fantasy stories.
  • The Chronicles of Narnia: Used as a prominent part of the Fantasy Kitchen Sink.


Live Action Television[edit | hide]

  • The cartoon unicorn on J.D's diary in the Scrubs episode "My Unicorn" was a pretty apt symbol for the head-in-the-clouds doctor. However, it was also there to prove a plot point: J.D. insists that the cutesy unicorn was a mighty horse with a sword on its head, when he imagines the drawing coming to life, saying "You know I'm a unicorn!" Accepting the truth is a major theme of the episode.


Web Animation[edit | hide]

  • RWBY scatters huge handfuls of them all over.