“Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” – Neil Gaiman
Fairy tales — we can’t get enough of them. New movie and book versions are released every year. Whether a classic retelling or an adaptation with a twist, these stories have been around for generations. Every child remembers them—similar themes in different languages. Similar characters in various guises: Snow White, Cinderella, and Little Red Riding Hood — it’s the same the world over. Take Cinderella, the story of a sweet, young girl who overcomes ill treatment at the hands of a cruel stepfamily. Many cultures have a variation of this theme: Yeh-Shen in China, Anklet for a Princess in India, The Golden Sandal from the Middle East, and the Native American version, The Rough Face Girl, to name but a few. Which leads me to the following question: why are we suckers for fairy tales?
The University of Life
It might be that they teach lessons valuable in life. Children love books about fairies, ogres, witches, and enchantments. They appeal to their sense of wonder. But fairy tales are more than bedtime stories. At their heart is the struggle between right and wrong; they recount aspects of a shared experience.
Knowledge was transmitted orally long before humans mastered writing. This led our ancestors to invent stories to communicate their experiences and help the tribe remember what was essential to survival. Over time these lessons evolved into folklore. They became part of collective memory.
Fairy tales come from the same tradition, and the wisdom they pass on is as useful as ever: don’t stray from the path or talk to strangers (Little Red Hiding Hood); be on alert for those who deceive us (Snow White); shortcuts may seem like a good idea at first, but they can end in disaster (The Three Little Pigs); survival-wise, it’s better to be kind than cruel (Cinderella).
I know there’s been backlash against some fairy stories that involve outdated stereotypes from bygone times, such as the dashing Prince Charming and the damsel in distress. More criticism is directed at certain messages conveyed: the link with external beauty and a sweetness of heart (Cinderella; Snow White); marriage is the ultimate reward (The Little Mermaid); or it’s okay for a man to kiss a sleeping woman he’s never met (Sleeping Beauty; Snow White). But for all that, learning that there are wicked people in the world or that life isn’t always easy remain valuable lessons as long as we challenge behaviour and clichés that are controversial today. As child development expert Sally Goddard Blythe writes in her book, The Natural Genius of Childhood: “Fairytales tackle difficult issues and prepare children for the realities of life.”
The Moral of the Story
Fairy tales are not the only forces that set our moral compasses, but they are important ones. They involve simple plots and strong characters with black and white ethical thinking behind them.
Goodness rewarded and wickedness punished is a narrative that’s easy for a child to understand. Goddard Blythe observes that in The Ugly Duckling, children hear about the hounding of a duckling that doesn’t fit in. Every child can grasp the fear of isolation and empathize with the heartlessness of bullying. And when the duckling turns into a swan, they discover the folly of judging people by their outward appearance. This clear-cut morality helps youngsters learn. There are no grey areas to distract or confuse them.
Keeping It Simple
Every society has its fables and fairy stories. It’s one of our species’ outstanding accomplishments. But there’s a reason they’ve remained popular for generations. They have stripped-down plots with archetypal figures like a villain and a hero, a trickster or a mentor. This simplicity is the foundation for endless elaboration — for plot twists and exploring characters from different angles, or for targeting an adult audience. It’s no wonder they’ve been reimagined time and again, like the film Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty told from the villain’s point of view), Pretty Woman (rags-to-riches Cinderella story), Edward Scissorhands (a tragedy incorporating the Beauty and the Beast motif), and the “good beats evil” movie, Star Wars (which Harrison Ford claimed was more space fairy tale than a work of science fiction).
It’s noteworthy that many myths and stories that survived down the ages are packed with magic, supernatural beings, and other fantastical elements. Perhaps that’s because they capture our imagination. But not all speculative fiction has that staying power. So what is the fairy tale’s secret? The answer lies in their nature. Fairy tales don’t just entertain; they teach us, and their adaptability makes them timeless.
Stephen Chamberlain is the author of the fantasy novel Graëlfire. He draws inspiration from the impact of landscape on myth, and the association of liminality with the supernatural and magic. Stephen lives in Switzerland.