Wicked's Gregory Maguire on What Turns a Story into a Fairy Tale

Hanna looks like a thriller but feels like a fairy tale. We ask Wicked's Gregory Maguire about the form.

While on the surface, Hanna looks like a modern European thriller, the spirit of fairy tales enchants it. “The story as a whole has a lot in common with fairy tales like “The Little Mermaid” or “Hansel and Gretel,” director Joe Wright observes, “There’s a family––of sorts––living in a wood cabin in a forest, and rites of passage unfold in the story; the child has to leave the house and go into the world, and experiences and meets evil––which has to be overcome. Fairy tales to me are never happy, sweet stories; they’re moral stories about overcoming the dark side, the bad.”

To understand what makes something a fairy tale, we went to writer Gregory Maguire, the bestselling author of Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Lost, Mirror Mirror, and the Wicked Years, a series that includes Wicked, Son of a Witch, and A Lion Among Men. Maguire’s Wicked was adapted into Tony Award-winning Broadway musical of the same name. In addition to writing novels, Maguire has lectured on art, literature, and culture both at home and abroad. We spoke to Mr. Maguire about the what makes a story a fairy tale.

Is there a specific setting or time for fairy tales? A friend of mine, a writer, once said, “Fairy tales take place the between the fall of Constantinople and the invention of the internal combustion engine.” That makes a 1400 year swatch of history which is non specific as to place and time, a time definitely after the birth of Christ but before the atom bomb. One of the things that make a fairy tale is the avoidance of specificity, which allows every reader around the fireside to feel implicated. Also a fairy tale is non-specific as to its location. A fairy tale could be a neighborhood story. It could be something that happened last week down the lane, around the corner. It could happen to your neighbors, to your relatives,

What else is constant in fairy tales?

Another thing that makes a fairy tale is the presence of a magical agency––whether it be a talking wolf in “Red Riding Hood,” or a witch who gives three wishes, or a magical lamp with a genie inside. But the magical agency is there as a supporting character, not the main event. The main event is what the protagonist makes of his or her life with the tool of whatever magical agency comes along.

Are they for children or for everyone?

For both. You might say that every fairy tale at its heart is the story of growing up, of a protagonist successfully navigating the treacherous path through the woods from innocence to experience without being eaten by the wolves. For children a fairy tale is about hope. They don’t yet know if they are going to make it. They read fairy tales as being about what might happen, that they might have the strengths to make it through the woods and fight the dragons, and end up in the castle with the princess or the prince. Adults look at fairy tales differently, because, if they are adults, presumably they have made it to that safety zone of having survived their childhoods. They look back at fairy tales with a combination of nostalgia––because don’t we all love something about our childhoods anyway, including the mystery of what was going to be on the other side of childhood––and a sort of clinical curiosity.  We want to  know how is it that the innocent survive when they are really so clueless. We love to read about how people became who they became, how Picasso became Picasso, or how Elizabeth Taylor became Elizabeth Taylor. As adults, let’s face it, even if we have make it to adult life, we are still not sure exactly who we are. To look back at the story of a fairy tale, which is to look back at the story of a path from cluelessness to potency, can continue to give us courage.

Are people creating new fairy tales or simply retelling the same ones?

Eric Christian Hougaard, a Danish writer who is now dead, said in a speech once, “The Fairy tale always takes the side of the weak against the mighty. There is no such thing as a fascist fairy tale. A fascist fairy tale would be an absurdity.” There is something essential about that fact. The protagonist can’t be dominating or mean or the bully of the playground. There might be new fairy tales, but there are some eternals that have to exist. If they don’t exist, what we see is not a fairy tale––it is something else. The absolute requirement of a fairy tale may be that the protagonist has to be in some way less strong and more humble than other people in the story. But as long as that is in existence than the form of a fairy tale can change infinitely and it will always be recognizable by anyone who hears the words “once upon a time.”