Source and activity 1

'My book of favourite fairy tales' cover
'My book of favourite fairy
tales' cover.

This image is the cover illustration from 'My book of favourite fairy tales' by Jennie Harbour published in 1921. Download book cover illustration (PDF: 1.92 MB; 1 page).

Defining fairy tales

What makes a fairy tale different from other types of stories?

What do different fairy tales have in common?

There are examples of fairy tales from across the world, and the stories often have common themes and motifs.

Traditional fairy stories were created by unknown authors at a time long before many people could even read or write.

People told the stories to each other, or acted them out. They were passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. The details of the stories might have changed slightly with each re-telling, but the main message remained the same.

Collecting and adapting

The stories were later collected, written down and adapted by writers and scholars like Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875), Charles Perrault (1805-1875), Andrew Lang (1844-1912), Jacob Grimm (1785-1863) and his brother Wilhelm Grimm (1786-1859).

Today, we often associate fairy tales with children's literature, but they were originally intended for a mixed audience of adults and children.

Fairy tale elements

A set phrase used at the beginning and end of the story:

Most fairy tales begin with 'once upon a time' or 'a long time ago', and end with telling the reader that the characters 'lived happily ever after'.

Fairy tales are often set in the past, but not in a defined period of history, and they usually have a happy ending where the hero triumphs over adversity.


There is often a lot of repetition which creates a certain rhythm to the story, and also helps people to remember and tell the story. Particular phrases or words might be repeated and events often happen in groups of three or seven.

For example, Rumpelstiltskin spinning the straw into gold on three occasions and demanding three rewards from the miller's daughter.

An element of magic:

For example characters who possess magic powers which they use for good or evil, or objects which can be used to make a wish. Some characters are able to change shape, such as the frog who is transformed into a prince.

Fairy tales often feature characters who are mythical or magical, such as witches, elves, and fairies.

A problem which needs to be solved:

For example a physical challenge that can only be undertaken by the hero or central character.

Typical character types:

  • Hero
  • Villain
  • Helper.


For example a forest and/or castle setting are common to many fairy tales.

Suggested activities

  • Draw a table or grid with titles of favourite fairy tales along one side, and some or all of the following elements along the other side:
    • Magic objects or powers
    • Villain
    • Helper
    • Hero
    • Problem to be solved
    • Repetition — groups of three or seven; repeated phrases
    • Set phrases at beginning and end of story
    • Royal family — king, queen or princess.
    Read the fairy tales aloud in the class and, for each one, put a tick or some notes against each story element on the grid. How many story elements do the fairy tales have in common? Ask the pupils to think of any other story elements which might be common to all or some of the fairy tales.

    Literacy and English experiences and outcomes: [LIT 1-15a; LIT 2-15a; LIT 1-09a; LIT 2-09a; LIT 1-07a; LIT 2-07a; LIT 1-05a; LIT 2-05a; ENG 1-31a; ENG 2-31a]
  • Print out the large version of the cover illustration for 'My book of favourite fairy tales' above. Ask your pupils to look at it . What is it about the picture that tells you that this a book of fairy tales?
  • Compare this illustration with other, more modern, covers of fairy tales books in your school or local library. Ask the pupils which style or illustration they like best, and which book / edition they would prefer to read.
  • Ask your pupils to design their own book cover for 'Grimm's fairy tales'. You might like to provide a design brief. Pupils will need to consider the design of the whole cover, including the font and lettering of the title as well as the layout of the page. The design of the back cover could also be included, including the synopsis.Consider how important book covers are in encouraging people to buy the book. The design should aim to be attractive and eye-catching.

    Expressive Arts experiences and outcomes: [EXA 1-06a; EXA 2-06a; EXA 1-02a; EXA2-02a; EXA 0-05a; EXA 1-05a; EXA 2-05a]
  • Choose one fairy tale, and research how it has been illustrated by different artists over ti me. Which parts of the story does each one emphasise? Ask the pupils to decide which key scenes they would choose to illustrate from this particular fairy t ale.

    [EXA 1-05a; EXA 2-05a; EXA 1-07a; EXA 2-07a]
  • Create a class fairy tale book. Each pupil, or group of pupils, can produce a page or illustrate a favourite fairy tale.

    [EXA 1-05a; EXA 2-05a]
  • Explain that fairy tales were traditionally part of the oral tradition, and were passed on by word of mouth. As a class, listen to Macastory's audio re-telling of 'Hansel and Gretel'. Over subsequent days, ask individuals or groups of pupils to retell (and perhaps perform) the story from memory without referring back to the original story. How does the story change with each telling? Listen again to the original version. Did the pupils add any details or descriptions to the story? What might be gained or lost if the story was written down.
  • Ask the pupils to think of fairy tales that they might know from film versions or pantomime shows. Compare a film version with a more traditional version of the story. Which elements do both versions have in common? How does the film differ from the traditional story? Think about telling a story in a different format — through dance, performance, or in a graphic novel / comic format.

    [ENG 1-31a; ENG 2-31a; EXA 1-13a; EXA 2-13a; EXA 1-05a; EXA 2-05a; EXA 1-02a; EXA 2-02a; EXA 1-07a; EXA 2-07a]
  • Draw a grid with 26 boxes, one for each letter of the alphabet. Ask the pupils to brainstorm / think of a fairy tale-related word for every letter. Use the words to discuss how to define and describe the genre of fairy tales.

Download fairy tale mindmap activity (PDF: 134KB; 2 pages)


Source and activity 2



Themes in focus — Fairy tales


Related material at the Library

Find out more about fairy tales and the Brothers Grimm in our collections:


Search our main catalogue for books about fairy tales and the Brothers Grimm.


Discover more about the Brothers Grimm in our past treasures display.


Hansel and Gretel creative writing competition winners.


Read a news story about the Grimms' Scottish connections in a letter that Jacob Grimm wrote to Sir Walter Scott.


Elsewhere on the web

Find out more about storytelling duo Macastory.


Learn more about traditional tales and stories with the Scottish Storytelling Centre.

Library learning for you

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