Cheat from my homework: Fairy tales, motifs and Harry Potter!

This post expands on what I talked about in the first part, Cheat from my homework: Why you need to know fairy tales. Before I get into anything, I’m going to define a “motif” because before I had a class on fairy tales, I had heard the word but forgot the meaning. So, a motif is:

a distinctive feature or dominant idea in an artistic or literary composition —

In layman’s terms, it’s a recurring feature in a story.

Please excuse the horrible mash of motifs. I never claimed to be an artist.

Here are motifs that are present in many fairy tales. This list is what my teacher shared so I have to give credit to her for that, but I’ve added my own examples from fairy tales. Notice how Harry Potter (HP) appears alongside … Every. Single. One:

  • Forest or woods — HP, Little Red Riding Hood, and Hansel and Gretel
  • Uneven/unstable numbers e.g. 3/13 — HP, The Three Little Pigs, and Goldilocks and the Three Bears
  • Talking animals — HP (i.e. Aragog, the spider), Little Red Riding Hood (with the wolf inside the grandmother), and The Three Little Pigs
  • Evil stepmother/father, wicked Queen, King or Giant — HP (I.e. Aunt Petunia, Dudley), Cinderella, and Snow White
  • Gold — HP (i.e. Gringotts bank), Jack and the Beanstalk (Jack steals a bag of gold coins), and Rumpelstiltskin

There are plenty more, but you probably get the hint and I don’t want to risk losing you. The outstanding thing about the above list is that all those features are what fans of the Harry Potter series remember most.

Forbidden Forest

What would Harry Potter be without the forest?

How different would the series be? I mean, the forest almost becomes a character in itself. And true to fairy tales, it represents all that’s evil, dark and mysterious in the world.

What would Harry Potter be without Albus Dumbledore, the “wise old man”?

Albus Dumbledore

I didn’t have the space to cover it, but another motif in fairy tales is the wise old woman/man. Like the forest, Harry Potter would be dead without this figure in his life.

The magical number 3!

I’m running these off as they come to me: Harry, Ron and Hermione; Draco, Crabbe and Goyle; in book 1: the three-headed dog;

Super hot -- the trio

Hermione’s hour-glass necklace requires three turns; the Triwizard Tournament … etc.

So what are your thoughts? I respect fairy tales and Harry Potter tremendously. It’s crazy to think that from nine-years-old I was smitten with the Harry Potter series and it took all this time to realise why!

  1. Fairy tales connect with children.
  2. Harry Potter is written for children.
  3. Children connect with the heavy use of fairy tale themes and motifs in Harry Potter.


The next time I write or edit I’m going to think about how powerful and effective fairy tale themes and motifs are because it isn’t just children who are attracted to these stories. Remember, these children — like us — grow up. And guess what they’re drawn to?

Once again, please leave your comments/thoughts/suggestions/additions below. Thanks!

20 thoughts on “Cheat from my homework: Fairy tales, motifs and Harry Potter!

  1. I love forests and woods. I guess they are where all fairytales originated from thanks to the Brothers Grimm. There’s something sinister, dark and dangerous about them, a place where modern technology can’t penetrate.

    • Yes, thanks to the Brothers Grimm, we have pre-conceived ideas and notions about many aspects of our lives. They (Brothers Grimm) are so powerful in shaping children’s lives.

  2. I have always loved fairy tales. My favorite books are those that have a distinct fairy tale “feel” to them, and I agree, the elements you mentioned can all add touches of that to a story. My own works are, more or less, Y/A fairy tales, and I see these motifs woven through them as well.

    Thanks for the interesting post!

    Laura Ritchie

  3. I’ve always found that things tend to go in three’s, even outside of stories – but that is a whole other discussion.

    Great post, I completely understand the points you’ve raised here and concur without doubt that all these things are as key/iconic/trope-y (or what have you) to most story-telling.
    It’s also somewhat related to a theory I’m fond of that most every kind of story has at its most basic level already been told (waaaay back when!) but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to tell now! :D

    I would like to add that while these things are often seen in fairy tale context as you have done here, it’s not limited to just that genre (though they often give the best examples) – the dark/mysterious/unknown space, the wise old man/guide/leader/father figure, a trinity, a single destined hero (willing or otherwise), an evil paternal/maternal/monarchial figure and other such details are in a sense archetypes I would venture. They are more easily notable in fantasy and related genres, but they apply to a far broader specturm I think.

    Thanks for sharing, really enjoyed this post.

    • I haven’t analysed enough stories to tell but I’m with you on this one: I think the fantasy, magic realism and paranormal genres (etc) probably have more in common with fairy tales. They have that fantastical element to them that contemporary fiction can’t have.

      • In my mind, fantasy and scifi have a certain edge in that literally anything can be possible to make a story go in the desired direction simply BECAUSE the genre allows for the surreal or the fantastic – something contemporary fiction cannot do without crossing a line.
        Both have their up and down-sides but Im more inclined to writing speculative, science and fantasy fiction because it allows me to explore the ideas Im trying to get across in a more interesting and entertaining way while really having fun with my imagination and allowing others to do the same.

  4. I remember learning in my Children’s Literature course in college that the forest is often used as a symbol to represent children’s fears, and as you can see, it’s found throughout most of the popular children’s fairy tales we know and love. I think it’s a great visual for our dream world, too.

    • My teacher (for Literature) also said the same thing about forests. I feel so shallow because I passed off “looking deeply into things” as silly and overrated. Analysing such things makes us better writers.

  5. Wonderful post. I never realized it before, but I see many of those things in my current work. The woods, gold, three friends, evil witch (mother-in-law actually) etc.

    I will recall fairytales more often. I need to pull out my copy of Grimm’s and read for a while. Never know what it might bring to mind.

    • Exactly! It’s uncanny. I wish I knew this stuff earlier. When we grow up we are influenced by what we learned in our childhood. And fairy tales make up many adults’ childhoods.

      Thanks for commenting!

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