A Fairy-Tale Approach to Developing a Critical Analysis of Literature

Getting an assignment to do a critical analysis of literature can be daunting due to those scary words critical, analysis, and literature. Yet, if we approach that assignment in an exploratory manner, it becomes quite doable. That would be to pull apart a story, poetry, or drama and then put it back together in a way that shows your exploration. While it might still seem overwhelming at first, as the unknown can be, the assignment becomes manageable as you examine the literature, create some sort of point about it, and discover that you have backup. Make an argument that you can stand up for and then work to defend that idea. Then the only frightening entity is the library, and we’ll work on that.

Getting Started

It’s a good feeling to complete an analysis-sort of like taking apart a clock and putting it back together, the difference being that you can throw away the parts that are left over. But, you have to start somewhere, and without a plan you easily fall into procrastination. So, become clear that your starting point is the literature itself. Begin by examining that literature, the era, and the author, and consider what issues might be involved. That, of course, requires reading, and some literature can be terribly hard to read due to length and/or archaic language. It helps to lean on summaries and analyses to get you into the literature. But you must force yourself to read through the piece and to gain as much understanding as possible. Don’t labor over the fact that it’s hard to understand. Make notes on issues and points that stand out for you, and give yourself time to think until you’ve formulated an idea.

Once you have a fairly good grasp of the target literature, you are ready to start pulling it apart; for example, if your target literature is “The Three Little Pigs,” you will note that pigs, a wolf, and three houses are involved in the story. Also, there are issues of how to build a house, and there’s a lot of huffing and puffing. What are some other possible issues? Was one of the pigs smarter than the others? Was there truly a physical threat, or was the big bad wolf just a bully full of hot air? When was the story written and by whom? What sorts of things were going on in that time, and did those events drive the story in some way? How was the author(s) related to those issues and events?

Now you want to know more. You have already been warned to not rely on un-authored or questionably-authored websites, but the Wiki temptation is far too great. So why not sneak a look. A quick scan lets you know that, not only is the story of three pigs shrouded in mysterious meaning, its origins are in questions, and much like the pants in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, the story continues to reappear, and this has been going on for centuries. It appears you have plenty to write about, perhaps too much, so it’s time to narrow down the topics to one topic with an angle and manageable issues. Issues might include the elements of the story, interpretations, origins of the story, and the fact that the story is persistently ongoing. Those are issues, but something is missing-the argument! What’s the point? What point could you possibly make about a silly little fairy tale? Or is it only that-a fairy tale? Perhaps it’s a living thing that sprung out of mortality and culture-a living morphing entity about animals that are really people, written by everyone over time to help people avoid being such inhuman animals that aren’t that smart and/or who occasionally act like hot-air bullies.

As you think about all the issues you realize there are plenty of angles to be taken, and the more you learn the more possibilities will emerge. Your perspective on the knowledge will determine your angle; that angle is your theory, and you will become ready to defend it with resources far more credible than Wikipedia. So, start with the few issues that have quickly become clear: 1) the lesson in “The Three Little Pigs” is meaningful to humans and it’s anthropomorphic, 2) the story is deeply embedded in culture, 3) and it continues to morph and thrive. Now you must encapsulate your idea into one sentence; for example: “The Three Little Pigs” is meaningful to humans though it’s anthropomorphic; it is deeply embedded in culture, and it continues to morph and thrive. That is a strong idea that contains several parts: lessons-story morals as teaching tools, humanly meaningful, animals as humans, embedded in culture, and morphing and thriving. But it is only the first draft, a working version of the thesis statement, and it’s open for change as you learn more.

You now have enough to create a first draft of an outline, a working outline. At this point, it could be as follows:

I. Introduction

II. Lessons

III. Humanly meaningful

IV. Anthropological

V. Embedded in culture

VI. Morphing and thriving

VII. Conclusion


Now you have your working thesis statement and outline. Of course, each of the entries in the outline needs to be developed, and the question is where can you go for reliable information? You have already been warned to not rely on un-authored or questionably-authored websites. If you don’t know who wrote the information, how can you be assured it is credible? We are so fortunate that the college library is so well organized and accessible through off-site access via the internet. Go to Galileo and begin your search. You need to be patience and take an approach of exploration. Many students give up on the library quickly if they cannot figure out what to search for and how to sort through the stacks. The trick is to learn where to search and what key search words to use. It’s often a chore of trial and error, so you must be patient and continue trying until you have several substantial resources.

You might begin by doing a general search of the title “The Three Little Pigs.” That’s easy, but it turns up a mind-boggling number of retold and adapted versions and at least one graphic novel. There doesn’t appear to be an actual original book entitled “The Three Little Pigs.” This is telling you something about the origins of the story. There are books with architectural perspectives on the story, one article entitled “What if the three pigs tried conflict mediation?” and one entitled, “Wolf is the victim in the ‘Three Little Pigs’ tale.” The search reveals little pigs stories from Germany, England, from Italy, African-American, and on and on. Galileo yields some scholarly information about the oral origins of fairy tales and the early-1800s collections of stories by the Grimm brothers. Also, you find articles on the lesson-teaching aspect of stories throughout centuries. Though there is nothing specific about “The Three Little Pigs,” you can assume much from studies on the cultural rootedness of the oral-tradition fairy tales. From this cursory search you now have two resources: Kinder-und Hausmärchen, (1812, 1815; revised, 1819-1822) (English translation, 1823-1826), and “‘Mind you stay on the path!’: The representation of the parent-child relationship in stories for children” by Gabrina Pounds. In the prefatory information to their collections, the Grimm brothers explain how and why they put the works together. Also, other commentaries speak to the issues of the stories being embedded in European culture and specifically German culture.

Now as you revise your outline, you might want to move some issues around and consider the order of issues in your thesis statement as it becomes clearer that there are actually three primary matters: origins of the story, the lesson of the story, and the continued morphing of the story. So, you are tightening the outline in that sense; yet, you are also adding to it for a more detailed version of the working outline.

I. Introduction

A. Reason for interest

B. Thesis argument: Though “The Three Little Pigs” arose out of the cultural needs of its time through oral tradition as an anthropomorphic survival lesson, it continues to morph and thrive today.

II. Origins and author(s) of the literature

A. embedded in culture via oral tradition

B. early collections of fairy tales

I. Lessons

A. Story morals as teaching tools

B. Anthropomorphic

II. Continued morphing and thriving

A. Retellings and Disney

B. New reasons for telling the story and new angles on morals

III. Conclusion

The Order of the First Draft

This is the time to begin the first draft. While you may not yet have all the necessary resources, it is clear that you have the points and you can develop each idea. While it seems logical to begin with the introduction, it’s more reasonable to start with the body and then come back to add the intro. The body of the paper is comprised of the elucidation and justification of your issues; in other words, explain them. Once those issues are buffed out in the body of the paper, you can think more clearly about how to pull in the reader to your argument. That’s the best time to create the introduction. The introductory paragraph(s) should provide a strong overview of the issues, and it should contain your thesis statement. It’s difficult to deliver a clear overview of the issues before you have fully fleshed them out. After you have a solid introduction, begin writing your conclusion, which is a reiteration of your analysis with your final inferences and then words to encourage the reader to explore more. So, there’s the logic to writing the paper in that order. Wait until you have the body of the paper drafted before you try to pull in the reader and offer up a conclusion.

The Body

The body of the paper is made up of your defense of the issues of your thesis argument. The first is the origin of the story, which becomes apparent despite all the folklore fogginess of fairytales and oral traditions. A story of three pigs attempting to survive a known predator rose out of culture from before the 1800s in Europe. Though research does not yield specific evidence of the exact origin of any one fairy tale, you find that fairy tales all evolved in that manner, as teaching tools for agricultural families who hoped to put the fear of predators into their children so they would avoid danger. The story of the pigs, as the story of Little Red Riding Hood and her wolf, were eventually, in the early 1800s, anthologized by the Grimm brothers, and of course, they were not written by the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm. Those facts are defended by literary historians such as Jack Zipes in “The Vibrant Body of the Grimms’ Folk and Fairy Tales, Which Do Not Belong to the Grimms,” his introduction to The Magic Spell of the Grimms’ Folk and Fairy Tales.

These tales that were not the Grimms’ tales-that is, all the tales in their corpus were not theirs and were not even the property of the informants-fascinated the Brothers, and they felt that the unique qualities of the tales ultimately came from some divine source. They also believed that the common people were the carriers of these narratives. This is the reason why they insisted on their purity while rewriting or even censoring them so that the stories would illuminate and enlighten readers. (Zipes 18)

Most farmers did not read and write in those earlier centuries, and they had reasons to fear harm for their children from critters, the forest, roving strangers, and even neighbors. That was the culture of pre-modern times, and oral moralistic stories grew right out of that farming culture, with animals and threats, and parental warning, as discussed by Gabriel Pounds in “Mind you stay on the path!” (143)

So, who wrote “The Little Pigs”? The answer is everyone! Each teller and writer of the story added his and her augmentation, hyperbole, total retelling, and illustrations. All of those things happen before the story was ever published, and they continue beyond its publication. The Grimm brothers, of course, did not write The Three Little Pigs,” but it’s clear they augmented it to fit their collection.

Although the Grimms maintained that they did not alter the words of the tales that they collected from the lips of their informants, and that all their tales stemmed from the oral tradition, none of this is true. A simple comparison of the tales in the Olenberg manuscript of 1810 with the tales in the first edition of 1812/15 reveals that the Grimms made or had to make substantial changes because it was difficult for them and their contributors to copy down on paper the exact words of the tales that they heard. Moreover, the Grimms also began adapting tales from books published from the fifteenth through the eighteenth century. In short, none of their tales could ever be designated as “pure,” “authentic,” or “original.” The Grimms actually knew this, and yet they used those terms because they believed their tales bore the traces of a profound oral tradition. They felt justified to proclaim that their tales were “genuine” and “pure” because the changes that they made were based on their understanding of the “natural” poetics of oral storytelling, and the more they did research about the oral tradition, the more they felt confident in their skills as writers to re-present the unique elements of traditional stories. Incidentally, most collectors worked this way in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (Zipes, pp.8, 9)

The theory of the origins of “The Three Little Pigs” can be extrapolated from a study of the oral tradition and fairy tales in general, and that has already been done. For your analysis it’s simply a matter of summarized the studies and perhaps paraphrasing main points (as shown above), and adding a sparse quotes when they truly hit the nail on the head, being careful to document carefully with in-text citation.

Now you can move on to the second issue, that of the humanness in the meaning of the story and its anthropomorphic nature. Remember, there are architectural issues related to the structures of houses and there is bullish huffing and puffing. That brings us back to its agricultural origins and the availability of farm animals and their predators. We can imagine the children of that time and their familiarity with animals and their adult-induced fear of predators. We can formulate our own interpretation if we’re able to put ourselves into the era. Naturally, parents want their children to use human smarts to outwit marauders. Along with that, there is the notion of building on firm foundations, a dutiful concept and a human need. Our children need safety, and they can relate to safety issues of animals, perhaps even more than to themselves. While these concepts are embedded in German culture, they exist in all cultures. They transfer to other cultures easily.

In today’s globalized world the connections are such that the Grimms’ “German” legacies have had a binding effect in other cultures. The bonds created by the Grimms’ tales that entail an understanding of the “we” in cultural memory, tales that did not belong to the Grimms, are highly unusual and account for the their remarkable popularity because they touch us in profound ways that break down national barriers. (Zipes, 31)

Other ideas arise as you continue researching; there are theories about what the wolf represents, and while there may well be issues behind that, most of the original storytellers and audiences would not have had awareness of them. It’s only through hindsight and with painstaking scrutiny of cultural history that such issues begin to take meaning. Nevertheless, the more complex and theoretical must wait for another more extended assignment or, perhaps, lifetime. For this assignment, it’s important to confine your analysis to manageable issues.

The third issue is that of how the story continued into modern literature and how it now continues into the contemporary American canon. Due to The Grimm Brothers Anthology of Fairy Tales, the story became a staple of children’s stories, and an early reader for many children, and one that is easily read to children. It seems most children even today, literate or not, can provide the gist of the story. The pigs managed to show up in the Disney movie, Shriek, and in the words of poet Roald Dahl:

The Three Little Pigs

Ah, Piglet, you must never trust

Young ladies from the upper crust.

For now, Miss Riding Hood, one notes,

Not only has two wolfskin coats,

But when she goes from place to place,


Back to the Library

With all those daunting things out of the way, we still have the library to revisit. It can become our nemeses or our best friend, our adversary or our advocate. It can slow you down in a rush to find resources, or it can cut through the weeds and offer strong scholarly good stuff to boost your argument and a grade.

As I began this little piggy lit exercise, the first step was to do a quick internet search, which brought up titles of retold versions of the story and a Wikipedia article. Though I cannot count those sources as scholarly, I definitely learn something from the search. I discovered that the accounts of the three little pigs are all retellings and there is a literary history of fairy tales from European oral tradition, perhaps back to the twelfth century and up to the Grimm’s anthologies. The Wiki article also lists scholarly references, helping me to realize this is not a futile venture. The next library step was frustrating because when I searched Galileo for “The Three Little Pigs,” it continued to direct me to all those retelling of the story. That required a bit of walking away from Galileo and returning to it later with fresh ideas. I then tried several more precise searches, such as who wrote the story of The Three Little Pigs, the origins of the three little pigs, and fairy tales, and others. The longer I played search, the more I tripped over articles that flanked my thesis issues. I also looked into those scholarly references that Wiki provided. I did not find one meaty article that defiantly explained those issues, but I had credible articles with peripheral information enough to support the argument that the story is a work in progress. Library searches can feel like hard work or they can be approach as exploratory play. Pick the approach that works for you.

The Final Draft

Once you have completed your first draft you have much of the work done. It’s now a matter of buffing up, smoothing out, and tweaking. Then, once you see what have, you can carefully and sparingly add summary, paraphrases, and quotations from the scholarly library resources to boost your argument. Be sure to document each one with in-text citations and list your resources on a works cited page. Then you can complete the final draft of your outline. Go through the paper paragraph by paragraph several times to be sure you have good sentence structures, cohesive paragraphs, and effective transitions from paragraph to paragraph, and good overall flow. Finally, do extremely careful proofreading in three steps: one as line by line, a second as word for word, and a third for formatting issues.


Writing a critical analysis of literature is simply a mental process, and once it is seen in manageable parts, the process is not the big bad wolf it might have been. As does a smart porker’s house, it requires a strong foundation of a thesis statement and primary issues, library research for scholarly resources, and a human brain to think it through. Try it; you’ll like it or at least be able to tolerate it to complete an assignment. The great part of doing this sort of critical analysis is that it develops our brains, yielding skills that are amazingly transferable.


Aesop’s Fables. Edited and with an introduction and notes by D. L. Ashliman. Translated by V. S. Vernon Jones. Illustrations by Arthur Rackham. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003. ISBN 1-59308-062-X. xxxiv, 269 pp.

Dahl, Roald. “The Three Little Pigs.” All Poetry.com

Grimm, Jacob and Grimm, Wilhelm. The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2014.

A Guide to Folktales in the English Language: Based on theh Aarne-Thompson Classification System. Bibliographies and Indexes in World Literature, vol. 11. Westport (Connecticut), New York, and London: Greenwood Press, 1987. ISBN 0-313-25961-5. xvi, 384 pages.

Kinder und Hausmärchen, 1812, 1815; revised, 1819-1822 (English tr

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