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!

Cheat from my homework: Why you need to know fairy tales

Put your hands up if your parent or guardian never read you fairy tales as a child. No one? Okay, how many of you remember the morals to the stories? I promise these answers are really easy:

Little Red Riding Hood (LRRH): Be careful when visiting people’s houses and don’t trust a stranger.

Rumpelstiltskin (R): Don’t be greedy.

The Three Little Pigs (TTLP): Do hard work and it will pay off–do it right and it will last.

Have you considered how other details are pertinent to a writer’s knowledge-bank as a modern storyteller? The “cheat from my homework” part comes into this post because fairy tales was the topic of my class today. It was after I had an uh-ha! moment that the class’ message began to click into place.

Since numbers make up a large part of symbolism in fairy tales, when the teacher was talking about symbols, themes, etc, I thought this:

What if the three-act-structure evolved from fairy tales?

This may or may not be so; however, legions of advice has been published about fairy tales and their meanings so what I wanted to hone in on are two aspects which were brought up in class.

  1. Recurrent themes (today’s post)
  2. Recurrent motifs (future post)

I’m going to run through various themes that are common amongst many fairy tales. As you read through the list, remember each story, notice how they give a different spin on each theme, and how this applies to us as storytellers today.

  • Quest — LRRH: A little girl is travelling to visit her sick grandmother; TTLP: sent out by their mother to “seek their fortune”.
  • (includes breaking) Law — Cinderella: must be home by midnight (Cinderella knew she had to be home by midnight according to her fairy godmother’s rules); LRRH: The girl’s mother told her to go straight to her grandmother’s place (breaking the law/promise: instead, she stopped to pick flowers and this is how the wolf caused her trouble).
  • Death of a parent — Cinderella: Cinderella is an orphan; Snow White: Snow White’s mother, the original queen, dies almost as soon as her daughter is born.

Here are others, which I’m sure you will recall the fairy tales where they occur in:

  • Love
  • Dungeon/Tower
  • Birth
  • Separation
  • Adolescence
  • Injustice

You know what I’m going to say next, don’t you? As I wrote this post, I realised that my favourite series is all the above!

Wait for it (if you haven’t guessed) …

The main trio in the first film and the final installment

The Harry Potter series

As I did above, here’s the list relative to the Harry Potter series. (Note that the ending of the series featured fairy tales directly, via the Brothers Grimm fairy stories, which tied up the point of the series!)

  • Quest — Harry Potter and his friends must find a way to kill Lord Voldemort without Harry dying too.
  • (breaking) Law — Harry constantly breaks the school rules (usually ends up costing him 50 points for Gryffindor at a time) to save the day.
  • Death of a parent — Pretty much self-explanatory. Harry’s parents are killed–not just at any time, but when he is a baby (similar to the way it happens in fairy stories).
  • Dungeon/Tower — Moaning Myrtle in the girls bathroom, Sirius in Azkaban, basically the whole darn Hogwarts is a dungeon trapping them in sometimes.
  • Adolescence — We, the readers, watch as Harry and his friends grow from little children to the adult age in wizardry.
  • Injustice — Throughout books one to six, Professor Severus Snape is overly mean to Harry no matter what he does, for no solid, known reason to the reader.

And it goes on!

Now: HANDS UP if Harry Potter has influenced you as a writer or as a person significantly more than any other book you’ve read.

Harry Potter isn’t just a success because of the amazing trio (Harry, Hermione and Ron), or that children can overpower strong and magical adults, or that the trio go on cool adventures. The moral/message/themes/motifs/etc in Harry Potter are so powerful because they share commonalities with fairy tales.

Fairy tales have been told for centuries because they teach messages to children that help them grow into better people — and they tell it so easy to understand in an effective way through story.

Harry Potter is still one of the most popular series (and I expect will be in centuries to come too) fifteen years after it was first published because it teaches us more about life, people, morals, etc. Understanding and expanding your knowledge of fairy tales will help you develop your storytelling skills too.

Remember to stick around because I’ll be following up this post with another one on “Motif”.

Follow my blog to stay updated or bookmark this site.