We need our Fairy-tales back!
A quick look at what we lost, and why we need it back
Now we spoke on ‘magical thinking’, there is no better time to bring up fairy tales.
And in particular, the appalling lack of fairy-tales in our lives and schools.
From as soon as I could read, I devoured books, in particular any with fables, myths, legends, folk tales, and fairy tales, from all cultures, and from any time period. The humanity that they convey is remarkable, and that is a shared element in all of them.
“All grown-ups were once children… but only few of them remember it.”
— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
No, they are not for children, even though we need to expose our children to more fairy-tales (preferably through reading, not just on TV). Today, too many adults remember any fairy-tale at all, and we see the need for the lessons they should have imparted all around us.
How many times have I not referenced the fairytale of the Emperor’s clothes by now?
But let’s take a step back, and take a closer look at what fairytales are, and how they function.
What better way than to start off with a quote from the inimitable J.K. Chesterton?
"The timidity of the child or the savage is entirely reasonable; they are alarmed at this world, because this world is a very alarming place. They dislike being alone because it is verily and indeed an awful idea to be alone. Barbarians fear the unknown for the same reason that Agnostics worship it—because it is a fact. Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear."
(From The Red Angel by G.K. Chesterton published in Tremendous Trifles, 1909.)
Let’s unpack that a little.
A mom (teacher and literacy trainer) blogged about this very topic, and gave a list of 8 reasons why fairy-tales are essential to childhood:
1. Fairy Tales Show Kids How to Handle Problems
2. Fairy Tales Build Emotional Resiliency
3. Fairy Tales Give Us a Common Language (Cultural Literacy & Canon)
4. Fairy Tales Cross Cultural Boundaries
5. Fairy Tales Teach Story
6. Fairy Tales Develop a Child’s Imagination
7. Fairy Tales Give Parents Opportunities to Teach Critical Thinking Skills
8. Fairy Tales Teach Lessons
That is, in a nutshell, what fairy-tales bring us.
They are stories that are told, and endlessly retold (to the point we have no idea who first ‘created’ them), and offer a vast deposit of folk wisdom and experience.
As they are told to children, they teach those lessons, in various ways, and on various levels. They offer problem solving skills and templates of behavior that children can copy, and next make their own.
(In fact, fairy-tales are the first roleplay exercises. Businesses use those so often in their training courses for their employees, to practice every possible skill, but fairy-tales did that first: they offer a scenario, with distinct characters, and a clear plot and path towards a solution. Children mimic that, and learn from it. They adapt, they solve their own problems as they play out the stories, and in the process internalize the lessons and methods.
This is not just the realm of mom blogs (this is not a disparaging remark, mind you, as a man/father, I have often browsed through mom blogs to look for experience and insight that those moms bring to the table), but is a topic that is studied in universities in fields ranging from literature to psychology and even the medical field (and their impact on improving patient health and outcomes).
In one study, ‘Adult Reactions to Preferred Childhood Stories’ by Mary J. Collier and Eugene L. Gaier, the participants were asked about their favorite childhood stories.
On a side note, an interesting quote was this:
“In the fairy tales most often chosen by the women, the heroines like Cinderella and Snow White tend to be naive, helpless, and persecuted by an older woman like a wicked stepmother, witch, or bad fairy.”
When I was reading through this Facebook post on a historical figure (Catherine the Great), the comments were decidedly feminist. One of the wrote (I paraphrase from memory): “Most historians are males, no wonder she was portrayed negatively!” I could not resist the urge to throw a little bomb there, to see what reactions I’d get: “The worst critic of a women, is another woman. You know it’s true!” To my surprise, I got a lot of likes, and some comments in reply, from women, who agreed.
The study continued:
“The selections of the men, who chose fairy tales about half as often as the women, usually had a dominant male or animal characters who were threatened by giants or by impersonal physical dangers, rather than by older women. In fact, when an older woman was present, she was likely to be benign or helpful as in Jack and the Beanstalk where the giant's wife protects Jack. Their resolutions were less passive and less magical than those in the women’s stories, too, a function of virtue, physical attraction, or suffering. Rather, the outcomes were achieved through physical daring, strength, or ingenuity.”
Both the telling of a story, and the impact it has, is colored by cultural norms and expectations. This all modern researchers will quickly tell you, as a warning. They’ll point at the underlying sexism and gender roles. But they miss the point, that such fairy-tales also refer to reality (remember, a man is not a woman, and a woman is not a man). Fairy-tales are anything but rubber-stamps of a culture. They survived because they were true, or because they at least rung true, conveying a useful message.
The stories range from extreme gender role differentiation (think about Cinderella, the girl who has to clean and cook, and with the help of the fairy godmother, needs her prince to come save her), to complete mix-up of such gender roles (The Snow Queen, from H. C. Andersen comes to mind: while the source for the Frozen adaptation, in the original story the Snow Queen is exceptionally evil and cruel, and kidnaps Kai, a local boy, who almost turns evil himself. He gets saved, though, through the heroic actions of his friend, Gerda, a young girl who leaves her home on a long journey, suffers through the elements, to save her best friend. Here the damsel saves the boy in distress!)
Again, modern eyes often misread those stories, and let their own bias creep in.
The message is clear, in both stories: life can give you challenges, but you can rise to meet them, either to be saved by someone else, or by saving the person you love yourself through your own daring actions. In both cases: don’t give up hope, and keep doing your best.
Fairy-tales impart old wisdom and life lessons, but sometimes they can be ‘invented’, to teach new lessons.
For example, in the late 1600s the French noble-woman Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, Baroness d'Aulnoy, also known as Countess d'Aulnoy, was known for her literary fairy-tales. One of them, Le Serpentin Vert (Green Serpent or Green Dragon, depending on the translation) is ‘new’ fairy-tale, that was popular when it was written, and that is representative of European folklore. It was published in her book New Tales, or Fairies in Fashion (Contes Nouveaux ou Les Fées à la Mode), in 1698.
In this story, the princess is Laidronette (a French play of words on ‘laide’, ugly), who is ugly in a kingdom that prizes beauty above anything. But, she is very clever. This doesn’t give her a happy life, though, as she doesn’t meet the standards of the world she lives in, and she lives by herself in a remote tower. A terrible serpent (in reality a king under a curse) sees her in her solitude, and approaches her, but the girl flees to the ocean in terror, and nearly drowns. The snake saves her, and brings her to his kingdom. When she wakes up, she only knows that she is well taken care of by an unseen king. But then the king starts talking to her at night, and they fall in love, and get married. But then all kinds of troubles happen, the king gets send to Hades, war breaks out, and it is up to the girl to save her husband and the kingdom, through her clever mind and bravery.
The moral of the story, in the book, is that love is stronger than the evil and hate of the wicked fairy Magotine, who had case the ugliness spell on the girl at the beginning of the story. But the reader would get away with another lesson: intelligence in a girl is also important, having great conversations at night, instead of mere good looks and … (well, you can guess what other activity at night would be juxtaposed with conversations). No surprise, that this French noblewoman would hold high an ideal for women and girls that would help them to think better of their own value and skills, and not let them be pushed into ‘pretty eye candy’ only.
Such new stories, however, don’t come in a vacuum, and they need a broader societal touching point to have any effect. Today, we see many attempts at new fairy-tales. At first, attempts to insert gay characters into existing fairy-tales (Gaston and his sidekick in the animated Beauty and the Beast, for example), to attempts to write new stories, such as the movie Love, Simon (2018), a gay teen romance.
But here is the rub: there is no broader societal touching point. Netflix invested heavily in all of this, and their stock has fallen tremendously. The viewers have given a very clear signal: they do not want such attempts at changing society. This is, contrary to the stories of Countess d'Aulnoy, NOT a grassroots move, that played into an actually happening growing emancipation of women, but simply astroturfing, an attempt to artificially change society. To the point that Netflix wrote a memo to all their employees, which was an incredible rebuke of the wokeness that had permeated it and created all kinds of horrific experiments (down to the attempts to normalize pedophilia). Or ask Disney, how they are faring…
I spoke about that at the end of my previous article on Magical Thinking, but humans are much more than the sum of their parts, and ignoring that leads to error and failure.
Here, too: fairy-tales are powerful tools to educate children and adults alike, but they cannot be employed when divorced from reality.
I find it very reassuring, to see how reality proves that we are not some malleable masses, in need of overlords to tell us what is good for us, but that we are *both* individuals, *and* a cohesive society. That insight has profound consequences, but we’ll explore those later.
For now, back to fairy-tales.
In the haste to do away with Western Culture, not only the great authors have been removed, but most fairy-tales, as well. Many children now grow up without those lessons, without the idea that the dragon in their lives can be defeated. That their problems can be managed and dealt with. And so many other lessons.
So when we see a naked emperor parading around, we don’t know what to do. We get trapped in the absurdity of the moment, perhaps, and we remain silent.
Any kid who remembers that story, will blurt out how silly that naked person is, and how insanely silly those adoring sycophants are, pretending how gorgeous that naked person is dressed!
We NEED people to know their classics, and know how to respond.
Another important story that is forgotten, is the boy who cried wolf. In this case, lucky for us (at least in some way)! We see the left cry Wolf so many times: RACIST! BIGOT! WHITE EXTREMISTS!
To the point that such words cease to be meaningful. (Problem is, that there are actual racists, and bigots, and extremists, white and otherwise: will we see it in time, heed the warnings, or will we dismiss it, because, please, not again?)
Or the story about the goose with the golden eggs: we want the quick buck, the get-rich-instantly schemes. Both in personal lives, as on a broader scale, and we don’t invest long term, but only on short term gains, ending in severe loss in the end. This goes about material things, of course, but also on immaterial things, such as education and politics.
So many of the fairy-tales that were handed over by our ancestors contain such incredible life-lessons. It is time we bring them back. (Read, not viewed, preferably: let’s also teach critical listening and critical thinking skills, and a proper literacy, as bulwark against the war for our minds!)
Because fairy-tales, after all, are real.
All is well.