I love fairy tales, so much so that I actually took a class in graduate school that focused solely on this subject. Something about them gets me really excited.
It’s not the happy endings. Because not every fairy tale has a happily ever after. Sure, in the Disney version of The Little Mermaid, Ariel gets the prince. But in Hans Christian Andersen’s version, she sacrifices herself and becomes sea foam drifting on the waves. Maybe we want every fairy tale to end happily, but they don’t always.
In retrospect, I think what draws me to fairy tales is their archetypical nature, their motifs, their psychological implications. These are seemingly simplistic stories told over and over, oral traditions that we’re still retelling, whether in bedtime stories, picture books, YA novels, movies, poems, even songs. They cross borders; some version of Cinderella appears in many cultures across the world. The “trappings” of the story change, but the archetypes are all intact.
Why do we need fairy tales? What draws us to these particular stories? I’m fascinated by the possibility that fairy tales have been, in a sense, cautionary tales. They tell us what to be or what not to be if we are to succeed. Gullibility, dishonesty, rudeness, ignoring the rules—these things result in punishment or worse in the world of the fairy tale. But honesty, cleverness, beauty, submissiveness, these traits most often ensure the victory of the protagonist. Cinderella might be submissive, but she gets the guy. Her sisters, more rude, less beautiful, are ultimately the losers of the tale. In the German version of the story, Aschenputtel, the stepsisters cut their toes off to fit into the shoe; at the end, they have their eyes pecked out by doves. In Snow White, the evil queen is punished, though her punishment depends on which version you read. (Anne Sexton gives an interesting interpretation in her poem “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” comparing the aging queen’s—and our own—desperate vanity to Snow White’s virginal beauty. “Beauty is a simple passion/but, oh my friends, in the end/you will dance the fire dance in iron shoes,” she wrote. Fairy tales aren’t always the whitewashed, sanitized versions that often spring to mind—maybe that’s why we keep exploring them.
They might be cautionary tales; they might be explorations of the human psyche. I’ll never be able to say they’re just stories. Because nothing is ever just a story. They’ve lasted a long time, long enough to evolve with us. Many of us are now appalled by Cinderella’s submissiveness. As feminists, we might even see her behavior as damaging. So the tales change, perhaps demanding more active, self-aware heroines; a happier, Hollywood-style ending; or simply a new lens through which to view the stories. Because they’re oral tales, they will always change along with society. One generation adds in new angles, and the next generation removes or adds as necessary. Whether written or spoken, we keep on telling fairy tales.
So what is your fave fairy tale? Why do you love that tale? One of my favorites is Bluebeard. If you haven’t read it, check it out here. It’s certainly a cautionary tale, reminding young women, especially, to trust their instincts. I guess it could be about obedience, too, but I think there’s something more going on. It’s also a horror story, a shiver tale. It’s creepy, eerie, goosebump-worthy, not so much a bedtime story as it is a fireside tale meant to scare the crap out of us. Each time I read it, I get something new, but I always get a chill.
I love a lot of different fairy tales for many reasons. Mostly, I just enjoy exploring them and wondering what it is that attracts us to them.
This post certainly isn’t a scholarly paper, though I really apologize if it sounds like one at times! This morning got me thinking about fairy tales and my ongoing interest in them. Must’ve been the fog and bird songs.
I’m looking forward to hearing what your favorite fairy tales are, and why. What do you think keeps drawing us back to these stories?