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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A Bookish Halloween

Where the Wild Things arebehance.vo.llnwd.net

Where the Wild Things Are
A 2-part jack o’lantern of a beloved children’s book. (Carved by Maniac Pumpkin Carvers)

18 Literary Pumpkins for creative carvers

Celebrate Halloween and literature at the same time

See the others

Costume ideas from famous authors
Oscar Wilde costumeSee more

Chuck Wendig offers us:

Ten Things To Never Say To A Writer

“You Know, I Wanna Write A Book Someday”

They say this to you with this wistful gleam in their eye, as if writing is just a hobby, like it’s just some distant silliness that they’ll get to when they manage to win the lottery. “You Know, I Wanna Write A Book Someday.”

They say this to you with this wistful gleam in their eye, as if writing is just a hobby…A worse (the worst, even) version of this is: I have a book in me.

Your response: “I don’t come down to your job and tell you, ‘I wanna be a janitor someday.’ You have a book in you? Well, you better do what I did, which is take a long hard squat in front of a computer or a notebook and force that story out, because that’s the only way this thing gets written….Don’t write a book someday, write a book today. That’s what I did.”

Read the article

The 31 Most Pointless Things Of All Time

Everything is pointless, Hannah Jewell of BuzzFeed says, and we should all just give up. She offers proof.

I can’t decide which is the worst — stairs and ramps to nowhere, doors one-story up, benches on a lawn which must not be walked on, an official sign that reminds me of the time in Florida when I couldn’t get a marriage license until I first read a pamphlet on how to get divorced.

But I suppose this security gate is my favorite:
Security gateimgur.com

See the others

Rebecca Meacham offers us

12 Haunting American Short Stories to Read This Halloween
ScaryWhat makes a ghost story “American”? Let’s ask a ghost: “An American ghost does something quite different, because the people of the present are very mobile, the executives are constantly thrown from city to city, dragging their families with them.”

In other words, says the narrator of Anne Sexton’s “The Ghost,” American ghosts belong to people, not places.

It’s a theory, anyway. It’s hard to argue with a ghost.

What’s certain is the power of these short stories, which fret the strings of human connection. Some tales are terrifying, others absurd. And like good (American?) ghosts, this devil’s dozen will stay with you long after you’ve turned the page.

Read the article (a couple are clickable)

Quote of the Day

QUOTE Wodehouse~~~~~
Alma Alexander
My books

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Which fairytales are best?

Well, my five candidates would be:
Little Mermaid 1Sulamith Wolfing, Hedgehog Studios

1) The Little Mermaid (Hans Christian Andersen) – the ORIGINAL version, thank you – the tragic one, no Caribbean singing lobsters anywhere near it, thank you so much

2) The Nightingale and the Rose (Oscar Wilde) – another tragic one (begin to see a pattern…?) and if this doesn’t make you fall in love with language itself nothing ever will.
Neverwhere3) Neverwhere (Neil Gaiman) why yes, we are doing modern and novel length by the rules of the original list – and this is a magnificent modern fairytale.
Match Girl4) Little Match Girl (Hans Christian Andersen) – oh, okay, another tragic one – this one always made me cry – I think it was the Grandmother that always slays me in the end because of the way I loved my own grandmother and I could FEEL THE LOVE.

5) The Once and Future King (T H White) – just to BREAK the pattern, here’s another (relatively) recent book – and it is SO a fairy tale – and it’s one of the few books which has ever made me laugh out loud.
At The Guardian, Marina Warner discusses her top 10

When I first began working on fairytales,” she writes, “they weren’t really considered a proper subject of study, and I felt inhibited about my enjoyment of them: was I betraying my feminist loyalties? Was I letting down the cause of high art and serious literature?

But fairytales had grown up in the 70s: Anne Sexton’s savage poems and Angela Carter’s celebrated revisionings took them out of the nursery. Since then, they have been growing ever darker and more disturbing, especially as the Grimm brothers’ violent, deadpan ways of telling now dominate definitions of the genre. Parents are rightly puzzled as to whether they should be reading them to their children, though children relish the gore and vengeance.

The most lingering and powerful tales don’t always have an original written text, but shapeshift through time, bobbing about on the streams of story. I’ve tried to choose 10 of the most inspiring, and include some of the great collectors; but as in any exercise of this kind, there are so many that I have had to leave out.

Read the article

Why we need fairytales

Oscar Wilde’s magical stories for children have often been dismissed as lesser works, Jeanette Winterson writes at The Guardian, but as examples of how important imagination is to us all – young and old alike – they are a delight.
selfish giant oscar wildeLove transfigured by imagination … ‘The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde. Illustration: Grahame Baker-Smith

Reason and logic are tools for understanding the world. We need a means of understanding ourselves, too. That is what imagination allows. When a child reads of a Nightingale who bleeds her song into a rose for love’s sake, or of a Selfish Giant who puts a wall round life, or of a Fisherman who wants to be rid of his Soul, or of a statue who feels the suffering of the world more keenly than the Mathematics Master who scoffs at his pupils for dreaming about Angels, the child knows at once both the mystery and truth of such stories. We have all at some point in our lives been the overlooked idiot who finds a way to kill the dragon, win the treasure, marry the princess.

As explanations of the world, fairy stories tell us what science and philosophy cannot and need not. There are different ways of knowing.

Read the article

The top 10 stories of mothers and daughters

From the Book of Ruth to Pride and Prejudice, here is Meike Ziervogel’s pick of literary mother-daughter relationships

I write to understand myself better. Each story is an exploration, a journey, a search for something I cannot express in any other way. Mother-daughter relationships have been my preoccupation over the past 20 years. Here are some of the books that have inspired me.
Anne SextonPoet Anne Sexton – Photograph: Virago

Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton by Linda Gray Sexton

Anne Sexton wrote brilliant poetry. But she was also bipolar and incapable of fulfilling her role as mother. Linda Gray Sexton’s intelligent, harrowing account of her childhood made me realise that women artists and writers who descend into a dark space for their art have a duty towards their children to climb back into the light on a daily basis.

Read the article

Chin Up: 5 Utopian Sci-Fi Books Perfect for Adaptation

One of the most recent bizarre trends in contemporary cinema, Lisa Rosman writes in Word & Film, is the rise of the dystopian sci-fi flick. Do we really need a new movie every week to remind us of how dour our future may be? Frankly, it’s high time Hollywood made utopian sci-fi tales, instead. We could use some positive models for a change, and we know just the books that would make great adaptations.

Woman on the Edge of TimeWoman on the Edge of Time: Written in 1976, Marge Piercy’s feminist utopia is astonishingly prescient. It follows a woman subjected to experimental brain surgery, She develops the ability to time travel, and she visits a 2137 in which all people can biologically nurse their children; gender, race, and corporations no longer exist; human reproduction now takes place in labs; and everyone thrives in small, Quaker-like communities. To date, this is one of the most radical sci-fis ever conceived; its rejection of biological determinism (and gendered pronouns!) dovetails nicely with today’s transgender movement.

Read the article


25 Songs That Reference Books

Artist/Song: Led Zeppelin – Ramble On (from 1969’s Led Zeppelin II)
Book: Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings
Lyric: “‘Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor/I met a girl so fair/But Gollum, and the evil one crept up/And slipped away with her.”

Songs and books

Words you think you know
Unabashed by these 10 Difficult-to-Remember words

Quote of the Day

Gossip is charming! History is merely gossip. But scandal is gossip made tedious by morality.” ~ Oscar Wilde

Alma Alexander
My books

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Unhappily ever after…

The other day we tripped over a movie on TV – “Snow White: A Tale of Terror”, vintage 1997.

I’m always one for a good re-telling of a good old fairy tale like this, and so we settled in to watch. And never have I seen a more messed up version than this one. It just could not seem to place itself – it was billed as something with an edge of horror, it was trying to retain the framework of the fairy tale, and they were seemingly intent on adding a layer of … something. And while they were dithering about which angle to pursue, they ALL fell down, splat, flat on their faces.
Snow White(……..)  It is entirely possible to re-tell fairy tales in a way that makes them so utterly fresh that you can’t believe you just read a story with its roots in something that is so very familiar from the earliest days of your childhood.  I still remember, with a shiver, Neil Gaiman’s retelling of this story – “Snow, Glass, Apples”. He brings something new and genuinely awful into the tale. This movie adaptation…? Is just disastrous. It’s one of those “some day I know I will want these two hours back” movies.

Read the whole essay

To Kill a Mocking BirdBuzzfeed asked its fans on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+ and Tumblr to talk about their favorite book-to-movie adaptations.

The first choice? To Kill a Mocking Bird:

There is absolutely no debate on this one. There were at least twice as many votes for To Kill a Mockingbird as there were for any other movie. As Holly H. said on Facebook: “Gregory Peck WAS Atticus Finch.” Also, Mary Badham as Scout might be the greatest performance of a child actor ever in the history of the world. And that is NOT hyperbole.

Another? Life of Pi
Life of PiVia i1.ytimg.com

Life of Pi seemed like it might be one of those books that was impossible to make into a movie. The book is so visually improbably and one of the main characters is a terrifying tiger. And yet, the movie version was breathtaking and powerful and managed to capture the essence of the book. Not to mention it is a beautiful film that you can watch again and again, if that’s your thing (it should be your thing).

23 Best Book-To-Movie Adaptations

10 Best literary put-downs

When it comes to witty put-downs in literature, Margaret Mitchell is the boss, Jess Denham says in reporting on a poll of 2,000 adults.
Clark GableThe put-down is, of course, the line uttered by Rhett Butler in her 1936 classic Gone with the Wind. The one with a bad word in it.

earnestThe Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
‘To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune, Mr Worthing. To lose both looks like carelessness.’ – Lady Bracknall
Anthony Devlin

10 literary put-downs

The Ugly Truth About Meetings: INFOGRAPHIC

Ugly TruthWhether you work for a publishing house, a magazine, or a TV station, Dianna Dilworth” writes at Galley Cat, chances are that you spend a lot of time in meetings. But do these meetings really help you get your job done?

Fuze has created an infographic which explores “The Ugly Truth.” What’s meant to be an efficient way for people to get together to discuss ideas, debate issues, overcome obstacles and drive outcomes, often … Well, study the graphic.

See the graphic

Quote of the Day
1950s quote~~~~~
Alma Alexander
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Comments welcome. What do you think?

How do dragons breath fire?

What does a narcissistic flying reptile that loves the taste of crispy dwarves have in common with a beetle that shoots hot, caustic liquid from its butt? More than you think.

Smaug breathes fire like a bloated Bombardier Beetle with flinted teeth, Kyle Hill explains in an article in Scientific American.


Unlike other aspects of the Hobbit book and film that are wholly magic, Smaug’s burning breath is actually one of the least magical, and can be wrangled into plausibility. Doing so involves looking inside a beetle’s butt, a Boy Scout’s satchel, and a bird’s throat.

How dragons breath fire

Have you ever heard of Naomi Mitchison?

Though most of her books are out of print now, Naomi Mitchison had a vibrant career in which she wrote dozens of works, some bestsellers, ranging from science fiction to history.

She was a friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, lived to be 101, and watched the entire twentieth century unfold, embracing the idea of space travel, female sexual liberation, and the importance of Middle Eastern cultures in the modern world.

Forgotten writer

20 Embarrassingly Bad Book Covers for Classic Novels

This week, we spotted a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad book cover for Stephen King’s The Shining over at the Guardian,” Emily Temple writes at Flavor Wire.

It seems especially unfair for such a modern classic to be saddled with such an ugly cover, and so we were inspired to search the Internet for the worst covers to ever sully the faces of great books.”

Huck Finn nudeHow did we miss this scene in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? It seems like it would have been a good one.

DorothyWait, how did we miss the fact that Oz was a red planet with fighter jets?

Bad covers

38 Wonderful Foreign Words We Could Use in English

Sometimes we must turn to other languages to find le mot juste, Mental Floss tells us. Here are a whole bunch of foreign words with no direct English equivalent.

One of my favorites:

L’esprit de l’escalier (French)
Literally, stairwell wit—a too-late retort thought of only after departure.

Or, as a wit once put it:

Turn backward, turn backward
Oh time in thy flight,
I’ve thought of the comeback
I needed last night.

Words we need in English

And speaking of comebacks…

History’s Greatest Replies

Any attempt to compile history’s greatest replies—or history’s greatest anything, for that matter—is fraught with difficulty, so it might be more accurate to refer to the replies that follow as simply my all-time favorites,” Dr. Mardy Grothe writes at his web site. “All of them—along with many, many hundreds more—appear in my Viva la Repartee book.

Primarily remembered today for his paintings, James McNeill Whistler also became a successful author with the publication of his 1890 book “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies.” An exceedingly witty man, he was one of the few people who could hold his own with the incomparable Oscar Wilde. In one legendary exchange, after Whistler had offered a particularly clever observation, Wilde said admiringly, “I wish I had said that.”

Whistler seized the moment, replying:

“You will, Oscar, you will.”

Perhaps the most celebrated retort in the history of wit occurred in a famous exchange between two 18th century political rivals, John Montagu, also known as the Earl of Sandwich, and the reformist politician, John Wilkes. During a heated argument, Montagu scowled at Wilkes and said derisively,

“Upon my soul, Wilkes, I don’t know whether you’ll die upon the gallows, or of syphilis.”* 

Unfazed, Wilkes replied:

“That will depend, my Lord, on whether I embrace your principles, or your mistress.”

(some versions of the story say “a vile disease” and others “the pox”).

Great comebacks


Quote of the Day

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world.

The other, of course, involves orcs.

~ (Variously ascribed)   


Alma Alexander

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