Many people, including a lot of children's writers, say they dislike traditional fairy tales. Who needs swooning victim-princesses rescued by handsome princes, marrying a man they just met and living improbably happily ever after? (In France, fairy tales commonly end "and they had many children." As Queen Victoria wrote to her uncle, "I think, dearest Uncle, you cannot really wish me to be the 'Mamma d'une nombreuse famille....")
In fairy tales the bad guy is very easy to spot. Then you grow up and you realize that Prince Charming is not as easy to find as you thought. You realize the bad guy is not wearing a black cape and he's not easy to spot; he's really funny, and he makes you laugh, and he has perfect hair. –Taylor Swift
Folk-lore means that the soul is sane, but that the universe is wild and full of marvels....In the fairy tales the cosmos goes mad; but the hero does not go mad. –G.K. Chesterton
When I ask people why they don't like fairy tales, it often becomes clear that they are not actually talking about traditional tales but about the Disney movie version. For example, one standard complaint is that young women in fairy tales wait around to be rescued by a handsome prince. Certainly Disney's Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White do this (although I would argue that they also show some fine qualities, not just simple patience). Even Taylor Swift assumes that the bad guys in a fairy tale are obvious. Sometimes they are, sometimes they're not:
As for languorous princesses, in a classic fairy tale you are more likely to find an orphan girl who toils away as a housemaid or cook, or who has to climb a glass hill, or who wanders into a goblin forest to meet the creatures there because everyone is cruel to her at home. If there is a princess, she is probably unfortunate: she works nettles into shirts till her fingers bleed to save her brothers, or becomes a goose girl. A youngest son, whom everyone thinks is stupid and treats badly, is generous to an old woman and suddenly finds himself with a magic gift as a reward. A kind man saves a mouse, or a lion, and the mouse or lion helps him survive.
|Vasilisa, and in the background, Baba Yaga's house on legs|
[These stories] open a door on Other Time, and if we pass through, though only for a moment, we stand outside our own time. –J.R.R. Tolkien
Philip Pullman has recently published his own new version of some of the best of the original Grimm's fairy tales, which were collected by the Grimm brothers from old people in the early 1800s. According to Pullman, one of the traits of true fairy tales is that they are pure plot. This is also a feature of the Norse sagas, of ballads and many mythologies. It has affected his writing: "I am using less description that does not move the story on." In a fairy tale, no one sits around reflecting on life; things are too pressing for that.
|Arthur Rackham's illustration for Hansel and Gretel, 1909. Poor European children still dressed like this in his day.|
As a child, I loved fairy tales. When I was eight or nine, my father, a professor, would take me to the university library sometimes, dropping me off there and going on to his office. (No one would do this nowadays!) For a few hours, I would have the run of the university library’s children’s section.
Here’s what I learned from them. Taylor Swift would nod in recognition.
1) Most girls are princesses, orphans, or the youngest daughter of three. (I was the oldest of seven....)
2) The youngest son is always the good one. (In real life, the younger son never inherited and had an inferior position in almost every culture.)
3) The king could just give away his daughter as a reward to someone.
All right, not very useful lessons for today. The second one reminds me of Diana Wynne-Jones writing in her Tough Guide to Fantasyland. (Eyes...Blue eyes are always GOOD, the bluer the more Good present... Caution: Do not apply these standards to our own world. You are very likely to be disappointed.) The third one is just annoying, but it is a reminder of women's status for millennia.
The fairy tale offers you freedoms that reality denies. –Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran
1) Terrible things happen even to heroes.
2) A girl is as brave as a boy. (Real fairy tales are astonishingly egalitarian. Think who was telling them.)
3) Dragons, ogres and trolls can be defeated.
4) Being kind is always the right choice.
Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. –C.S. Lewis
Julie Sullivan’s favourite childhood fairy tales were the story of Oisín and the tale of Elsa and the Tontlawald.
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