Fairy Tale or Myth? What’s the Difference?

A Midsummer Night's Dream Movie Image

Curious about the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe referred to in William Shakespeare‘s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I looked up the tale’s origins. I found it in a copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology: The Age of Fable. But it made me focus in on the category. Was the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe a myth or a fable? Could it be considered a fairy tale? And just what differentiates a myth from a fairy tale?

A good place to start might be in defining each one.

Starting with the fable, the most common definition I found held that a fable is a short story about animals given human characteristics told to illustrate a moral lesson. Pyramus and Thisbe are human, not animals, and I cannot see a direct moral lesson in the tale, so I will dismiss fables for now and move on to myth.

Botticelli's Birth of Venus

According to William Bascom, the classical definition of myth is “tales believed as true, usually sacred, set in the distant past or other worlds or parts of the world, and with extra-human, inhuman, or heroic characters.”

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines a fairy tale as “a story involving fantastic forces and beings” or, alternately, as “a made-up story usually designed to mislead”. Hmm, well, I suppose that simplistic definition will do for our purposes here, although there really is quite a lot more going on in fairy tales than this.

What immediately catches my eye with these two definitions is that myths are believed to be based in truth . . . while there is no expectation of truth in a fairy tale.

Theft of Fire by Christian Griepenkerl

The Greek myths may be the most well-known, and they certainly provide support. Zeus, Athena, Demeter and Apollo are all found throughout Greek mythology and, although we might think they never existed, the Greek and Roman religions worshiped them as gods and goddesses. The tales we hear about them would be considered to be a “history” from the viewpoint of an ancient Greek citizen.

Little Mermaid Statue in Copenhagen

On the other hand, I do not think the Danish people came to believe in the existence of mermaids after reading Hans Christian Andersen‘s fairy tale, The Little Mermaid. Nor that Germans believed six brothers had turned into swans at some point in history (see The Six Swans, a Grimm Brothers Fairy Tale). Nor that the British ever believed bears would eat porridge, sleep in beds, and live in a house . . . . You get the picture.

In his book, The Great Fairy Tale Tradition, Jack Zipes says of fairy tales that “It is this earthy, sensual, and secular sense of wonder and hope that distinguished the wonder tales from other oral tales as the legend, the fable, the anecdote, and the myth.”

Cellini sculpture of Perseus holding Medusa's head

Indeed, it does seem as if fairy tales do give us a sense of wonder and hope that myth does not. For example, I love the story of Perseus and Medusa from Greek Mythology, but it does not leave me with this sense of wonder and hope in the same way that say, The Ugly Duckling does. Hearing of how Perseus slays Medusa and then uses her head to make Atlas turn to stone is engrossing, but I do not feel like I am made any more brave than what I already am. Perseus is the son of a god and goddess, after all, and therefore a bit elevated over the rest of humanity. If there is any doubt, we have the tales of his exploits to prove it. But there is nothing in the myth that gives one reason to believe they could stand on the same plane as Perseus.

the ugly duckling by angeline valentius on http://angeline-valentius.deviantart.com/art/the-ugly-duckling-269759246

However, the duckling is another story; he is just like one of us. He encounters some pretty rough times, and he is often not welcomed by other animals. We root for him the entire time, and in the end, he not only overcomes his circumstances, but shows us wonder as we realize right along with him that he is not an ugly duckling at all, but a beautiful swan. Somehow, through the ugly duckling, we are left with a profound sense of hope that we, too, might rise above rough circumstance and come out better for the experience.

Both myth and fairy tale can each provide engrossing storylines. Myth gives us a sense of what exists, though, while fairy tales provide a sense of what might be.

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