Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Why We Love Fairy Tales

I've been thinking lately about why fairy tales are so enduring. People are still reading (and writing) about these characters and stories hundreds of years later. I asked J.T. Oldfield this question in my interview with her and she says, quite succinctly, "They include all of the archetypes that speak to us." This, in essence, is one reason why fairy tales endure. Why they resonate with us so much. Why some tales like Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast have versions in many different countries. I did a little research to get some other opinions and ideas.

In The Enduring Modern Phenomenon of The Fairy Tale, the author states:
"The common sense morals to "Little Red Riding Hood" can be endlessly rewritten into relevant forms, distilled down to essentials: Don't talk to strangers, Appearances can be deceiving, etc. and so while an earlier version of the tale has the Wolf tricking Red into eating some of Grandma and a modern, more child-friendly version might not, both can be told as the same story and the core message will still resonate with truth without needing any one version to predominate."
This is so wonderfully true! While some modern retellings of fairy tales may not retain those essential morals, many of them will invoke those morals, simply by association with the original fairy tale. I love that this kind of story can be told in hundreds of different ways and still have similar themes.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes wrote in her introduction to Tales of the Brothers Grimm
"Fairy tales have survived political aggression and oppressions, the fall and rise of civilizations, massacres of generations, and immense overland and oceanic migrations. They have survived argument, augmentation, and fragmentation. How very diamond-hard these multifaceted jewels truly are. Perhaps this is their greatest mystery and milagro, miracle: The great soulful facts imbedded in the tales act exactly like the rhizome of the green plant whose hidden food source remains alive underground - even during the winter, when the plant appears to live no discernible life above ground. The ever-alive hidden essence remains, no matter the weather: that is the power of story." p. x
It is this essence of the tales - those experiences common to the human family - the morals, hopes, and ideas that ring true to our souls and thus, ensure the tale's survival. We can relate to those experiences and ideals - their familiarity speaks to us. We want these things to be true: that love will prevail, that good conquers evil, and that those who do good receive their just reward, just as those who do evil receive theirs. Whether these things always happen in real life or not, deep down, we hope they will.

In J.R.R. Tolkien's essay "On Fairy-Stories," found in the book The Tolkien Reader he discusses many aspects of fairy tales including what constitutes a fairy-story, their origins, and how they became associated with children, among other things. He offers us this metaphor for what may be hidden in our books of fairy tales:
"Collections of fairy-stories are, in fact, by nature attics and lumber-rooms,... Their contents are disordered, and often battered...but among them may occasionally be found a thing of permanent virtue: an old work of art, not too much damaged, that only stupidity would ever have stuffed away." p.59
I find this to be true of many of the glossed over, happily ever after Disney versions. A lot of clutter to hide one small truth. I do love happy endings, but I also sometimes prefer the older, less pretty versions.

On the subject of fairy tales being for children, I was interested, not being a child anymore and still being drawn to the fairy tales. Tolkien had a lot to say in defense of adults enjoying fairy tales. Here is just one quote (among many I considered) that explains one part of our attraction:
"The prime value of fairy-stories will simply be that value which, as literature, they share with other literary forms. But fairy-stories offer also, in a peculiar degree or mode, these things: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation, all things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people." p.67
I encourage those of you interested to pick up this essay, which is long and sometimes obscure in language, but which has a lot of insight and interesting thoughts on fairy-stories.

As a kind of conclusion, I offer you a quote from Fortune's Folly by Deva Fagan, a fun fairy tale retelling:
"Whether or not there is magic, or fairies, or trolls, or dragons in the world, there is love." p.46
I think that love in some form is found in every fairy tale - and it is the true magic in these enduring stories.

Please share your thoughts on fairy tales - why you love them or why they speak to you.

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  1. "all things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people."

    That Tolkien was one smart guy.

  2. I considered, once upon a time, writing a post/article called "in defense of fairy tales". I'm not 100% sure what my thesis was anymore, but I think it was that we need the fairy tales to work out our problems/concerns/insecurities. Also, that it's good to escape once in a while.

    Loved the quotes; thanks for finding them.

  3. NotNessie, I sure love Tolkien.

    Melissa, I sure hope you get around to writing that post - sounds very interesting.


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