Why did George Orwell originally call his novel Animal Farm a "fairy story"?

Animal Farm fits into genres of European literature that use animals with human characteristics to make a serious point. By calling Animal Farm a "fairy story" Orwell calls attention to this connection.

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Orwell may have used this subtitle because Animal Farm is, in fact, clearly a "fairy story." It is a story about talking animals who take over their farm and establish their own government. Some of the animals—the pigs—are actually transformed into human beings, or something like humans, at the end of the book. These, of course, are fantastic story elements that one would associate with a fairy tale. Some readers compare Animal Farm to a genre of literature associated with Aesop's fables, which also feature animals with human characteristics. Like Aesop's fables, Animal Farm is intended to make a serious point about human existence.

By calling Animal Farm a "fairy story," Orwell is not suggesting that it is frivolous or silly. Other fairy tales in European literature are quite grim in their lessons about human nature. So there is a sense in which Orwell calls attention to the gravity of his work by characterizing it as a "fairy story." He is making a point about the rise of totalitarianism, and about human nature in general by using talking animals. The traits of these animals—the stubborn donkey, the honest and hard-working draft horse, the intelligent pigs, and the docile and feckless sheep—play important roles in making Orwell's point. Animal Farm makes an important political point without the heft or gravitas of a political essay. Still, the subtitle "A Fairy Story" has been eliminated from later editions of the book.

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Fairy tales, despite being aimed at children, nonetheless contain important adult themes. As such, they are a useful vehicle for conveying moral messages. There are quite a few fairy tale elements in Animal Farm, from the use of talking animals to the widespread belief in the existence of Sugarcandy Mountain. But whatever elements of the fairy tale he chooses to employ, Orwell is always making a very serious point. The form of the book may be that of a fairy tale, but the substance assuredly is not.

There's also something about the whole project of Animalism—meant to reflect Communism—that makes it seem as if it could only really happen in a fairy tale. And yet, when denuded of its allegorical trappings, the events at Manor Farm eerily—and deliberately—parallel those in the Soviet Union under Stalin.

Animal Farm is a fairy tale in that it has all the outward characteristics of a story told to children. But internally, in its themes, characters, and various plot developments it is very much a fable for grown-ups. In other words, the outer shell of the story is a fairy tale which contains the kernel of a withering indictment of Communism. Orwell clearly felt that the fairy tale form was a more effective means of making his political point than a straightforward polemic or essay.

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Orwell's tale could be referred to non-ironically as a fairy story for several reasons. Orwell might have said his subtitle was ironic, but he was well aware of the ways his tale conforms to...

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the fairy story genre. First, it involves animals that talk and reason as humans do. Talking animals are an element of fairy tales. Fairy stories are also folk tales, written versions of oral stories told by and to ordinary people.Animal Farm is likewise written in simple, almost childlike prose, and aimed at the average person.

Like a fairy story, Animal Farm tells the truth, but tells it slant, as Emily Dickinson would say. It is a retelling of a real story, the Russian Revolution's swerve into totalitarian dictatorship under Josef Stalin. But as in a fairy story, it simplifies and universalizes events to highlight the most important points and make them understandable. It is easier to look at a revolt gone wrong among a few animals then to face the complexity and brutality of Stalin's excesses. In the same way, it is easier for children to begin confronting evil (problems of abandonment, exploitation, greed, and cruelty) within the context of a magical world, one step or two removed from reality, than by having to directly face how the adults around them might be evil.

Finally, fairy stories, when not sanitized in modern retellings, are often filled with cruelty and sadness, as is Animal Farm.

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When it was first published in England in 1945, George Animal’s novel Animal Farm carried the subtitle A Fairy Story. The ironies of this subtitle are various:

  • Fairy tales are usually written for, and read by, children. Orwell’s novel deals with very adult topics indeed.
  • Fairy tales usually deal with imaginary events, but Orwell’s novel is a very obvious historical allegory that deals with the history of the Soviet Union.
  • Fairy tales often have happy endings; this is not the case in Orwell’s book, which is almost entirely grim, from start to finish.
  • Fairy tales often help us forget about “the real world,” if only temporarily. Orwell’s novel, on the other hand, was designed to remind readers constantly of unpleasant realities.
  • In fairy tales, the evil characters are often defeated and even destroyed. Orwell’s novel offers no such consolations.

As John Rodden comments in his book on the novel,

Orwell subtitled Animal Farm "a fairy story," but the subtitle was an ironic joke. He meant that his beast fable was no mere "fairy story," but that it was happening, right then, in Stalin's Russia — and that it could happen anywhere.

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Orwell's Animal Farm meets the requirements of a fairy tale for several reasons.  First, it contains many of the common fairy tale elements such as evil villains and noble characters.  At first the villain appears to be Mr. Jones, but in the end the reader discovers that Napoleon is far worse.  Boxer is the noble, hardworking, common character, who tries to defeat evil forces. He is willing to sacrifice his life if need be.  Additionally, there is a castle of sorts--the farm--and royalty (Mr. Jones, who represents the Czar). One could also argue that the reader expects the story to end with the animals enjoying their freedom--a happily ever after ending--much like what the Russians originally expected when they threw off the reign of the Czar.

Secondly, the novellete is a beast fable which brings in the magical element found in fairy tales.  Animals cannot only speak, walk around on two legs, and philosophize, but they also appear to be smarter than humans.  The animals, not the humans, provide a moral (or lesson) at the end.  This characteristic is common to beast fables, but it also works within a fairy tale because often animals or some other magical element provides the moral of the story.

Finally, and more specifically why Orwell describes his work as a fairy tale is because of his view of the Russian Revolution and the resulting rule of Stalin.  Orwell sees the promises made by Lenin and Stalin to the commoners as being much like a fairy tale.  They promised "happy endings" and a sort of utopia to the people, and yet they were the evil villains who stole happiness, equality, and success from their subjects. In Orwell's portrayal of Marxism, it is simply a fairy tale--something that sounds marvelous but is impractical and impossible to achieve.

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By my literature studies, I would be more apt to call Orwell's "fairy story" a fable—but who am I to argue with Orwell?

I believe it is like the Grimm fairy tales because it attempts to show a universal truth about the corruption of power. While the Grimms (as well as Perrault) usually focused on other themes, the fact that a universal truth is being presented in a fanciful manner tends to make it fall in lines with most definitions of a fairy tale.

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