How to read a fairy tale

Since most fairy tales have a familiar feel to them, it can be easy to skim over the words on the page and simply “read” what we remember. But it’s important to avoid that; here are some tips on doing so:

  1. Go ahead and skim. Once. Then go back and read more slowly, taking note of things that surprise you, that aren’t what you remember, that seem in any way out of place.  Most fairy tales are pretty short—you should have plenty of time to read most of them more than once.
  2. Make comparisons to other stories. If Cinderella goes to the ball three times in one, and only once in another, think about why that might be. What do the differences mean?
  3. Make comparisons to your own memories. If something is different from how you remember it, is that because you changed it in your recollection? Why might that be? Or is it because you read a different version? (See #2)
  4. Pay attention to the sound of the story. Even though most of these stories were written as much for the eye as for the ear, fairy tales are among the most orally-influenced of literary forms (more on the “oral” vs. “literary” distinction in class). Does the writer/teller make use of repetition, or of certain sound patterns? What effect do these have on your understanding of the story?
  5. Who is the implied audience? Some tales are clearly for a child audience, others may not be. How can you tell? Can you infer anything about the class status or the social or political concerns of the implied audience from your reading?
  6. What kinds of details does the teller include? Can you picture the ball, the dress, the carriage, or is the teller more interested in other elements of the tale? What difference might this make?
  7. When and where is the story set? When and where was it written? What might the relationship between those details be? Does the story appear to have a “timeless” quality, or is it firmly bound in a particular place and time? How can you tell? What difference does it make?

Take notes while you read. You may choose to mark up your text, or you may prefer to take notes in a notebook, but either way, make sure your notes are meaningful to you after you’ve made them. (How often have you stared at a highlighted sentence or paragraph and wondered what, exactly, the highlighting was meant to call attention to?)

As you take notes, you may want to distinguish between a few different kinds of notes. Are you noting something that you think is important to the author in some way, without which (for example) the story or essay could not have been written? Or is it important to you, regardless of its relevance to the story itself? It may, for example, spark something about your research project, even if it doesn’t seem to be a key detail in this version of the story. Or it may just remind you of something else that you want to think about. Both kinds of details are important, and they can, of course, overlap significantly, but it can still be helpful to distinguish between them.

This kind of reading may be awkward and unfamiliar at first, and you may feel that it impedes your enjoyment of the story. But with practice, it can (I promise!) enhance it, and it will certainly improve both your class participation and your written work.