Is Gillian Polack‘s The Time of the Ghosts a fairy tale?

by Nadja Marek, Renee Czyganowski, and Danny Tran

If a fairy tale is considered to be a tale about a fairy and since one of the main protagonists in The Time of the Ghosts is a fairy, the simple answer would be yes. But if we are looking at the definition of a fairy tale, answering that question is a bit more difficult.

Cambridge Dictionary describes a fairy tale as “a traditional story written for children that usually involves imaginary creatures and magic”. And if we are looking at different tales and folklore it is noticeable that these often go beyond the namesake “fairy” and commonly include other magical beings such as ghosts, werewolves and even dragons. Contrary to popular belief, fairies do not always play a pivotal role within fairy tales, with some stories forsaking fairy characters all together. Therefore the term “fairy” presumably refers to the overarching theme of a fantastical or magical setting, rather than the direct appearance of a fairy. 

Since these tales often involve fantastic elements, these stories are primarily intended for children. These stories commonly incorporate valuable life lessons, teaching those who read them certain morals and adequate behavior. In line with their playful setting, they are used to appeal to children in an appropriate yet fun manner, educating and entertaining them simultaneously. Fairy tales appeal to children because of their mystical creatures and in modern times their often happy endings. Traditionally, not all fairy tales do have a happy ending, but ended rather cruelly, which has changed throughout the years to not scare children away. The softened versions, which usually work with metaphors and o ther stylistic devices, still have a great impact on children these days and help them understand culture and heritage more easily.

The Time of the Ghosts

The novel The Time of the Ghosts written by Gillian Polack has two main protagonists, one for each narrative: The tales of Melusine and Kat’s story. These two stories can be viewed as one coherent story because one of Kat’s grandmothers, Lil, turns out to be Melusine who has settled down in Australia. Melusine’s tales end in 1967 (Polack 269) and Kat’s story begins in the 21st century and since Kat is Melusine’s great-great-granddaughter (Polack 311), it is reminiscent of fairy tales such as Rapunzel and Snow White, where the story of the parent or older generation is being told in the beginning and then there is a skip in time and the main story is about the next generation. But because the tales of Melusine are not a sequential story and are littered throughout the novel, the typical structure of a fairy tale is not given, making The Time of the Ghosts a deconstructed fairy tale.

Fairy tale beginning

Usually, fairy tales start with the saying “once upon a time…” and even though the novel does not start with this saying, it appears in the beginning of three tales (Polack 13, 37, 118). The tales are numbered but these numbers do not indicate the order of their appearance. It is also stated in Tale #1 (Polack 152) that it is unclear which tale Melusine wrote first. Therefore, it is possible that one of the three tales that start with the saying were the first one she wrote.

Magical numbers

The magical number three is a common theme throughout the novel. As said before, the saying “once upon a time…” appears three times. In her story, Kat meets three grandmothers who help her get back on her feet and give her a place to live (Polack 5). Furthermore, the author uses repetition of three to emphasize bad feelings or uncomfortable situations, for example “Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Badkatbadkatbadkat” (Polack 52) and “We saw you, you, you. You walked our streets, streets, streets.” (Polack 172).

Mythical creatures

The most prominent mythical creature is Melusine who is a fairy. Fairies are also the mythical creature that are most common in European fairy tales (Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella), while the other creatures in the novel are from different folklore. The werewolf, which appears both in Melusine’s tales as a wolf-boy who has been enchanted to be a wolf (Polack 13) and in Kat’s story as a werewolf who has been bitten (Polack 130). Werewolves are common for Swedish folklore. Another mythical creature is the ghost. Many ghosts appear in Kat’s story (Polack 53, 99), as expected of the novel’s title. A known example for ghosts in fairy tales is Mulan which is based on Chinese folklore.


Fairy tales often teach morals to the reader and the moral of The Time of the Ghosts is that communication is important and to be true to oneself. The werewolf in Kat’s story bit one of her grandmothers, Mabel, and they thought that he did it just to hurt her because werewolves are vicious creatures (Polack 131). But then Mabel went back to talk to him again and it turned out that he was just lonely and wished for a mate for himself. After talking to each other, he did not attack again, and they found common ground which emphasises the importance of communication to understand each other (Polack 268). The characters face a lot of prejudice and there are many instances where people must lie about their identity to fit in. Throughout her tales, Melusine often must hide the fact that she is Jewish and a fairy. At a time, she pretended to be Christian for twenty years because she would have been an outcast without any friends otherwise (Polack 234). Once she helped a boy who was stuck being a wolf to become a boy again and as he grew up, she was open about being a fairy. He then man married a woman who was prejudiced against her magic, and she lost her friend because he chose his wife (Polack 15). The only other instance where Melusine did not hide that she was a fairy was when she had two children, Owen and Gwendolyn. But then, one of them died and even with magic, she could not revive him. When her daughter was grown up, she blamed her mother and the fact that she was a fairy for her brother’s death (Polack 214). After losing both of her children, she settled down in Australia to die as a human (Polack 269). She grew old and did not think that she was even capable of becoming her old fairy-self again. In the end, Kat and the ghost of her husband helped her to see the value of life and she transformed into a radiant fairy. This emphasises that once you find your true self, you have the power to live a fulfilled life.

Happy ending

Even though the novel does not end with the saying “happily ever after”, Melusine has found herself again which helps Kat to try to do the same. She tells Melusine that her real name is Gwendolyn, and she is Melusine’s great-great-granddaughter. Due to that fact Kat’s story became Melusine’s story and it ends with a happy Melusine because she had three things: friends, a lover and a great-great-granddaughter.