Fairy Tale Contract Law

Welcome to Part 7 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the titular panel were: Kathleen Jennings as moderator, Sascha Stronach and AJ Lancaster. The panel description was as follows:

Our panellists consider various bargains made in fairy tales and fairy tale fantasy, and what that means for the laws of the land of fables: How could Rumpelstiltskin’s contract been enforced? What court could hold Jack (of Beanstalk fame) guilty of trespassing? When does a promise become a curse, or a quest a contract?

I love fairy tales, fairy tale retellings, and creating my own, so when I saw this panel was going to happen, I knew I didn’t want to miss it.

Who Makes The Rules?

When reading fairy tales, it can be rather nebulous to determine if a law is intrinsic or something instituted by a peoples.

The power dynamic is sometimes part of the story. Who knows the rules and can enforce them (Baba Yaga or Rumplestiltskin)?

In folk horror, the rules are unclear, and the rules will come and bite you. In fantasy, the rules typically come from the author or the rulers, something a little more knowable.

Although?

The punishment doesn’t always seem to fit the crime.

Like a force of nature itself. Fairy tale contracts are a way of reassuring people — if they follow the rules, they’ll be safe.

But, the saving grace of fairy tale law is there is usually a loophole. The petty details are what keeps the capricious being from completely destroying you.

Consent Matters

While in the modern era, a contract cannot be legally binding if the signer doesn’t understand it, that rule is clearly not true in fairy tale law. Perhaps, fairy law represents a shift in culture… whether one’s word is something that can be trusted?

However, the fairies can’t demand something for nothing. In order for it to be a contract, no matter how capricious it seems, the fairy has to have given you something. This is why folks are warned not to eat or drink anything in the fae realms.

No matter how ignorant of the rules the victim of fairy tale contract law might be, the mortal has usually done something to — consciously or not — agree to the contract.

Even if they don’t believe in it themselves: think of Sarah in the movie, Labyrinth, bargaining her little brother away.

One way to get trapped is either making false claims, or having someone make them on your behalf, such as the woman in Rumpelstiltskin. Her father’s claim that she could spin straw into gold started the whole mess and dragged the titular character into the story.

But? Cheating can get you out. While the fairy folk might rant and stomp until they stomp their way out of the mortal realm, they can’t deny your win. Likely because they cheated you into this contract in the first place. But, by doing the impossible, the character is shown to deserve their prize.

Common Tropes

Firstborns are often promised in fairy tales — perhaps as a way of winning back land that the humans stole from the fairy folk? With these tales being written in a time when the first born often was the sole (or primary) inheritor.

The youngest — of three, or seven, or nine usually — is typically the one to save the day. Because, in a time where the firstborn inherits, by the time you get to the last-born, they’re expected to get by on nothing but their wits.


While fairy tale contract law can be cruel and capricious, one can usually escape if you follow the rules, and think outside the box.

What are your favorite fairy tales? What loopholes have stuck with you?

2 thoughts on “Fairy Tale Contract Law

  1. I absolutely love Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, and it is a masterful example of this. Set in Eastern Europe in the time of the Tzars, using Eastern European folklore and a touch or two or recognizable Western tales (one character claims to be able to turn silver into gold, setting off the chain of events that make the story.) The core of the story is the classic tale of clever protagonist(s) outwitting supernatural beings and beating them at their own game, but unique and interesting enough to feel like a totally new tale instead of just a slightly modified retelling.

    Liked by 1 person

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