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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Story Friday: What The Bee Knows

Our world is always full of unexpected lacunae, gaps and hollows that we don’t know are there until we step into one. We twist our ankle, and sit down and examine ourselves for injury… and instead find a gift.

One such gift was a book I received this Christmas, “What The Bee Knows: Reflections on Myth, Symbol and Story” by P L Travers. Yes, THAT P L Travers. Mary Poppins’s literary mother.

It was only relatively recently, with the release of the movie which purported to deal with the relationship between Travers and Disney, which apparently (I never did get to see it) portrayed that relationship as frankly iffy and Travers herself as a bit of a pompous and cold selfish so-and-so who was all but willing to scuttle that great and glorious movie of my own childhood because of her own disapproval of Disney’s vision of it, that I really knew that there was anything here that came before the Poppins movie.

I knew nothing of P L Travers herself before I tripped over this recent movie interpretation of her, but somehow… somehow… I don’t know. I took a step back and thought, ‘Really? That was the way it was?’ And it was about this time that it came to my attention that there was a book out there called “What the Bee Knows”, and the things that it contained. And I desired it. And heaven and earth were moved so that it might be obtained for me.

And oh, the treasure I received….

What The Bee Knows, P. L. Travers

This is the new essay that just appeared at StorytellersUnplugged – you can read the rest of it here.

It talks about wisdom. And Story, with a capital S. And all sorts of other good stuff.

Oh, and she talks about a theme that I myself have written on — in essays.and in an anthology I created and edited: The story, as river.

River: An Anthology (ed. Alma Alexander)

Have a Storied Friday. Enjoy.

Only 13 left?

The Last 13 Feminist Bookstores in the U.S. and Canada

In the mid-1990s, there were approximately 120 feminist bookstores in the U.S. and several in Canada, Anjali Enjeti reports at Paste Magazine, but only 13 survive today.

The remaining are stalwarts, having outlasted economic downturns, Amazon and the e-book revolution. Each bookstore hosts numerous events throughout the year, often garnering strong support from their communities, and we’ve listed them below.

People Called WomenPeople Called Women: Owned by Gina Mercurio (above), People Called Women opened in Toledo, Ohio in 1993. The bookstore specializes in multicultural children’s books, non-fiction, memoirs, lesbian fiction and romance in addition to mainstream books.

Books for women

50 bits of wisdom from novels

Everyday life is a perilous vortex of confusing decisions, moral dilemmas and social quandaries. Without any useful advice, it can all seem a bit too much to bear. Perhaps you need a literary Magic 8 ball.




“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” ~ Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running





Fear of Flying




Show me a woman who doesn’t feel guilty and I’ll show you a man.” ~ Erica Jong, Fear of Flying



Fear Nothing




“Never leave a friend behind. Friends are all we have to get us through this life–and they are the only things from this world that we could hope to see in the next.” ~ Dean Koontz, Fear Nothing”



Wisdom from novels

11 Great Bookstore Names And How They Got Them

Great bookstore names can be sassy, cute, inscrutable, or groan-inducing, Kevin Smokler says at BuzzFeed . When they work, they remind us of the creativity and moxie that makes us love bookstores a whole crazy lot.

Moby DickensVia mobydickens.com

Moby Dickens (Taos, N.M.): A compound of a classic novel and an unconnected author. The logo of this 30-year-old shop specializing in the American Southwest is a whale wearing old Boz’s top hat, as it should be.

bookstoreUnoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books (New York City):
Family-run Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books played a key role in the Occupy Wall Street library — and is literal enough to also be called “your conservative brother-in-law’s worst nightmare.”

Great bookstore names

Top 10 books about missing persons

Novelist Laura Lippman tracks down the 10 best books about mysterious disappearances for The Guardian.

My friend Harlan Coben observed that murder stories may be intriguing, but the open-ended nature of missing person stories make them even more compelling. They are real-life ghost stories, in which those who remain behind are haunted endlessly by the possible fates of those who have left them.

And She WasAnd She Was, by Alison Gaylin: I’m obsessed with memory, in part because I recognise how imperfect mine is. Gaylin comes at it from a different perspective in this, the first book in a terrific series. Private investigator Brenna Spector has a rare (but very real) neurological disorder, one that allows her to remember everything – but only since the moment her own sister got into a strange car, never to be seen again. That childhood tragedy comes back to haunt her when she investigates a missing persons case that appears to be related to the disappearance of a six-year-old girl – and her own life

Gone GirlGone Girl, by Gillian Flynn: I read this book in galleys and loved it, but had no idea it would be THE book of 2012. And 2013. And now 2014. (It remained on the New York Times bestseller list into this year and is about to be released in paperback.) At this point, it’s the standard-bearer for crime novels about missing women. Nick and Amy are the perfect couple, except, of course, they’re not and her disappearance – on their fifth wedding anniversary – leads to a twisty, ingenious and wonderfully dark story.

Who is missing

The 100 Best Comic Book Characters of All Time

When you flip through a comic book, you’re looking at a medium that has existed for less than a century.

With so many stories and characters out there, what still resonates and drives us to the comic store every Wednesday? The Paste staff picks the faces who shaped some of the most compelling narratives in sequential art.

V39. V
First Appearance: V for Vendetta #1
Best Writer: Alan Moore, Best Artist: David Lloyd

Like many of the freshly-minted characters from the late ‘80s, V stems from the brilliant mind of Alan Moore. But unlike the comic book caricatures that make up the Watchmen cast, V stands for something a bit closer to reality. The Guy Fawkes-masked man’s intricately rigged destruction of the U.K. government is borderline terrifying, yes, but the blank-faced hero draws us in with his emotional backstory and limitless intellect. Although we never get a look at his face, he leaves us misty eyed at his explosive funeral. — Tyler Kane

Comic book immortals

Want to buy Dracula’s castle? For a price, it may be yours”

Don’t mind the coffin in the basement. It’s just… window dressing… that’s what it is, yes. And – what? There are ALWAYS bats in these old places, why do you ask?

Dracula's castleDracula’s castle

Quote of the Day

The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” ~ Flannery O’Connor

Alma Alexander
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