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.

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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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