In Defense of Fairy Tales

In January 2016, Royal Society Open Science published a paper whose dry title hid a fascinating discovery. Using scientific methods that trace evolution and mutations, researchers discovered that common fairy tales are far, far older than had been realized: older than the Bible.

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:
The horrible Laidly Worm (loathesome snake, or dragon) is actually Childe Wynd's enchanted sister, Lady Margaret, who fights hard against her fate. A childe was a youth of noble birth. Many fairy tales are about brothers' and sisters' loyalty to each other.
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.

Fairy tales show us the world of our ancestors, and the concerns in them are basic survival. The stories are set in a time when parents often couldn't feed their children, when bears and wolves roamed and unknown dangers lay in forests so deep no one knew where they ended. It's easy to forget that this era was much, much longer than ours and made a profound impression on the human psyche. 

People in fairy tales are identified by their occupation: farmers or woodcutters, tailors or fishermen, kings or millers. Most people are poor. Women–including queens–die young from continuous childbearing; the cruel stepmothers you see in many stories are often just teenagers themselves, inheriting hard work for someone else's children. All kinds of fantastic things can be imagined about strangers and the lands beyond the horizon. Who knows–maybe there are such things as a pot that never stops making oatmeal, or a goose that lays golden eggs, or a house that walks around by itself on chicken legs
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.
"Fairy tales," says Pullman, "are about basic human situations....Cinderella feels that 'this is a horrible family and I don't belong here, I am much better than this really and I ought to be a princess'." He adds, "Children have a profound and unshakeable belief that things have got to be fair." Fairy tales are satisfying partly because we all know that the real world doesn't always reward the good and punish the bad.

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.

After browsing deliciously for a while, I would curl up in a big armchair with a stack of fairy tale books–Andrew Lang, or Tales From Silver Lands, or Hans Christian Andersen, or Japanese Fairy Tales.

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

But what about these?

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.

5)  Persevere.

I urge you to give real fairy tales another chance, thinking about their origins, and admiring their headlong narrative that pulls you into the Dark Wood. For example, check out this complete collection in English of the brothers Grimm. And try to tell children the classic stories before they see the Disney versions, the parody versions, the edgy new versions. For a child who hears them for the first time, fairy tales are as new as the day they were first told. 

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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  1. Really excellent piece Julie, I very much agree, original fairy tales are far, far more than common media would have the public believe. I treasure my aging tomes!

  2. Interesting and inspiring, and I love the two lists with the three MacGuffins and then the five excellent Life Lessons.

  3. Thanks for this Julie. I've always loved the magic of Fairy Tales. The deep dark wood .... I think it's what still pulls me in and on.

  4. Great post. Lots to think about. Thanks!

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