What can fairy tales possibly teach us?

I didn’t get to go to Disneyland until I was a grown woman – and I was wholly unprepared for the rushing feelings that swept over me as I stood there and watched the real-life incarnations of some of my childhood fairy-tale iconic images come dancing down the road in the parade. I was practically in tears watching Sleeping Beauty wave from her float, preceded by those three ditzy fairy guardians in their little pointed hats and color-coordinated outfits.

But the Disney princesses were just the most obvious, most prevalent, most visible and recognizable avatars of stories which, for me, had far deeper roots.

When I was young, I read the actual fairy tales. The fearsome, bloody, no-holds-barred, emotional ones. In my childhood fairy tales, Cinderella’s stepsisters sliced off bits of their feet to fit into the glass slipper. In my childhood tales Sleeping Beauty wasn’t just wakened with a kiss, but something far more visceral than that.

And in my childhood I wept over the tale of the Little Mermaid – and perhaps it was this that crystallized it for me because to this day I can’t watch what Disney has done to it. Hans Christian Andersen’s original story is full of power and drama and pathos and poignancy – and I simply cannot bring myself to accept a singing lobster sidekick with a Caribbean accent.

I read Oscar Wilde’s wonderful dark fairy tales, when I was a little older, and there were things in there that pierced me to the heart, just like the rose thorn did his immortal nightingale.

I think that fairy tales are a deep and visceral influence, and they are handed out to young minds which they then help shape. A famous paraphrase of a G K Chesterton quote applies – Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten. The lessons of fairy tales start with that – with courage. They also teach wisdom, and strength, and compassion, and an obstinate refusal to give up hope, because in fairy tales even the worst possible things that happen work out in the end. In some way.

Maybe not the obvious way – not in Hans Christian Andersen, at least – but in some way. It might sound overblown if fairy tales are credited with the formation of the inner moral creature of the human adult by shaping the still malleable stuff that is the child, but in some ways that is exactly what they do. That is what they are for.

It has become fashionable to shield and shelter the child from many things and this is where the Disney Princesses come from, a sanitized and often saccharinised version of a more rough-hewn and visceral original tale. But there are generations who grew up with those older and rawer stories and who didn’t end up damaged by them. Children have far more strength and intelligence than they are given credit for. In some ways it is a regression when they grow up through all the Disney fluff and fairy dust and end up faced with grittier life realities afterwards, anyway, inevitably, as we all are.

When I was growing up with fairy tales I was not shielded from the bitterness and pathos of “The Little Match Girl” because some adult did not wish me to know that it was possible for a child to die cold and hungry in the street.

The best fairy tales had a hint of a happy ending, not just a happily ever after slam where everything just ended on a nice high note and nobody ever questioned the ever-after. I learned young to question the “happy ending” as such – because I had an early suspicion that somebody had to lose for someone else to win absolutely everything. Yes, every story has an ending and you have to be able to close the book in a satisfying way when you are reading the tale to your child and say, yes, here we conclude and here this story is ended.

But fairy tales, the best fairy tales, are not just pieces of cake which exist separately and are delicately snacked on one at a time. They are a part of a greater fabric of Story, and they are formative, when they are encountered at a young age.

We learn how the world works from inside a fairy tale. We learn that the world isn’t always fair. We learn what we are supposed to want in order to make us happy – but we also learn that on the way to that handsome Prince, the Princess-in-waiting first has to have friends and allies, be they a fairy godmother, a bunch of dwarves, or animals who can communicate only with her. It’s okay to be offered help. It’s okay to accept it. There are a lot of smaller moments of happiness on the way to the happily-ever-after.

I wept at the Disney parade because it brought fairy tales – their own versions of it, which I don’t always agree with but still – to life, and breathed existence, actual existence, into characters which had hitherto lived only in the imagination. But it is in that imagination that the real power remains. Those stories read by flashlight under the covers when you were very young – or were read to you by people who loved you – remain with you. Always.

You carry the fairy tales of your childhood into the adult world with you. And they will always be your friends – even the dragons which they have shown you how to defeat – because a fairy tale is a fundamental building block of the world. With them, we build ourselves.

Faerie Magazine cover

This article first appeared in Faerie Magazine, a quarterly print magazine celebrating enchantment.

It’s website is HERE



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And now, the REAL book!

Welcome Were WorldLook, I fully understand that the world is a-changing. And in order to deal with that change, I am fully committed to the fact that my books, my stories, are out there in electronic form as ebooks read on tablets and e-readers and smartphones – on a bloodless, scentless, weigtless screen.

I just finished reading a book I got for Christmas – a big, fat hardcover, more than 600 pages in length. It’s awkward to read, it’s hard to hold and to maneuver, it’s difficult to position and then turn the pages, when you’re right at the beginning or close to the end and one end of the book is disproportionately heavy and unwieldy you wrists feel as though they’re about to shatter into a bowlful of small bones that you could use as gaming dice.

But I savored every moment of holding that book, that substantial book, that glorious story between two covers, lines of print marching up and down the pages, knowing that I can linger over a particularly powerful phrase or something that made me smile or tear up, or turn back to a favorite passage and caress it as I read it again and it goes silkily into my spirit through my eyes and my fingers and my nose alike as I inhale the words and the new-book smell.

Shoot me, I’m a book Luddite. To me, holding that book in my hands is part of the act of reading..

This is why I am so very very happy to tell you that – after being available in electronic format only for some time – my latest, ‘Random’, is today finally available as a proper book.

It’s paperback to be sure and not the weighty hefty hardcover but still – words, on paper, held in your hands while your fingers turn the pages. A book which, if you loved it, you can put back on your shelf and take solace in knowing it’s there – a book you can go back to, knowing exactly where in its pages a passage you particularly enjoyed resides, and which will eventually fall open at those favorite passages of its own accord, as though it is reading your mind.

Welcome to the world, dear ‘Random’.

(You may buy a copy here)


21 Women Writers From Before 1500 That You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Al-KhansaAl-Khansa (575 – 645) was an Arabic poet and contemporary of Muhammad, whom she met in 629 and converted to Islam, Entropy Magazine reports. She gained respect as a female poet by writing elegies for the dead and performing them for the tribe in public competitions.

An anecdote says that contemporaneous Arabic poet Al-Nabigha told Al-Khansa, “If Abu Basir had not already recited to me, I would have said that you are the greatest poet of the Arabs. Go, for you are the greatest poet among those with breasts.”

Al-Khansa replied, “I’m the greatest poet among those with testicles, too.”

Read the article HERE

Forgotten fairytales slay the Cinderella stereotype

Stories lost in Bavarian archive for 150 years and newly translated into English offer surprisingly modern characters, Philip Oltermann writes in The Guardian.

Once upon a time … the fairytales you thought you knew had endings you wouldn’t recognise. A new collection of German folk stories has Hansel and Gretel getting married after an erotic encounter with a dwarf, an enchanted frog being kissed not by a damsel in distress but by a young man, and Cinderella using her golden slippers to recover her lover from beyond the moon.
eichenseer in fairytale trailErika Eichenseer, a retired teacher who has dedicated herself to exploring Franz Xaver von Schonwerth’s work since the 1990s, on fairytale trail in woodland outside Regensburg, in Bavaria Photograph: Philip Oltermann for the Guardian

Read the article HERE

Literary Iceland Revels In Its Annual ‘Christmas Book Flood'”

In Iceland, the best Christmas gift is a book — and it has been that way for decades, Jordan G. Teicher writes at NPR. Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country in the world, with five titles published for every 1,000 Icelanders. A majority of books are sold from late September to early November. It’s a national tradition, and it has a name: Jolabokaflod, or the “Christmas Book Flood.”

The culture of giving books as presents is very deeply rooted in how families perceive Christmas as a holiday,” says Kristjan B. Jonasson, president of the Iceland Publishers Association. “Normally, we give the presents on the night of the 24th and people spend the night reading. In many ways, it’s the backbone of the publishing sector here in Iceland.”

Read the article HERE

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Alma Alexander      My books      Email me 

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