Saturday, January 19, 2019

Don't Throw Away The Fairy Tales of Old

The immediate assumption that some people will get from reading this title is that Catherine Hawthorn is a sentimental little fool who wishes to keep all of her readers reading little nursery stories.

Now, I may be a sentimental fool. But, I firmly believe that these so called "nursery stories" have their place on everyone's bookshelf. 

"Once upon a time, fairy tales were told to audiences of young and old alike. It is only in the last century that such tales were deemed fit only for small children, stripped of much of their original complexity, sensuality, and power to frighten and delight." ~ Terri Windling, White as Snow

Many people would find it really hard to believe that Jacob and William Grimm originally wrote their fairy tale anthologies for adults and not for children. As the above quote has so wonderfully pointed out, many now see a sterilized version of a fairy tale that is fit only for shallow entertainment. Or worse, something to be twisted to fit a political message (*hem* DISNEY *cough*).

I'm not here to defend those poor excuses of stories. I'm here to defend the traditional tales - the ones that our great-great-great grandparents grew up listening to. The ones by the authors known only as Anonymous. The ones that were recorded by writers like Aesop, Hans Christian Anderson, and The Brothers Grimm.

These timeless stories provide 3 important functions that society is always in dire need of: teaching examples of concepts, giving hope and reflecting reality. I shall now explain each of the three of these, with a little help from wiser people than myself.

Function 1: Examples of Concepts

At the first, fairy tales are a teaching tool. These stories, many in few words, release profound and deep ideals in a simple, easy to understand story that can be enjoyed by all.

Humans learn best by example, the more concrete the better. Fairy tales often give those concrete examples that flesh out those abstract concepts that we struggle with. They are so poignant that they stick in your mind, no matter what your age is.

By giving simple analogies, they teach abstract concepts such as virtue, vice, mercy, justice, kindness, love, hatred, jealousy, greed, and a whole host of others. But most importantly, they teach the abstract concept of consequences for ones actions and learning from mistakes.

"If you happen to read fairy tales, you will observe that one idea runs from one end of them to the other -- the idea that peace and happiness can only exist on some condition. This idea, which is the core of ethics, is the core of the nursery - tales." ~ G.K. Chesterton

To think that you are above learning, that you are above morals, is actually one of the most immature beliefs that a person can hold. Every wise person knows that a person can always learn something from others. And wise people also know that humans are prone to forgetting things and then must re-learn them.

In many of these stories, the characters that learn the lessons are not children at all, but rather adults! I would even go as far to say that an 80 year old man can learn something from a fairy tale....therefore a young adult who thinks that they know everything has a lot to learn from the tales of old.

Function 2: Giving Hope

Imagine living in a world sickness and death are rampant, wars abound, and hardship is much more common. Yet, the people smile. How did they deal with the darkness of the world? By telling fairy tales that were full of HOPE.

"Since it is likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage." ~ C.S. Lewis

As young adults, we don't need to see the statistics of suicides, violent crime, or the divorce rate to know that this society revels in the dark side of humanity. We all deal with darkness - some every day. If we are without hope, we soon lose all.

Where is our nearest source of hope, besides the Divine? In the stories of others spreading kindness. In the stories of those who love. And especially, in the stories of others overcoming struggles.

"Fairy tales since the beginning of recorded time, and perhaps earlier, have been 'a means to conquer the terrors of mankind through metaphor.'" ~ Jack Zipes

 We can "see" how we should overcome obstacles or grasp truths by comparing them to a story. We can also take spirit and courage from knowing that at least one person survived such terrible odds - which can pale our own sufferings into something much more manageable.

Function 3: Reflection of Reality

A common attack lobed onto fairy tales is that they are unrealistic and paint an unreliable picture of what real life is because it's fiction - therefore, at least part of it is either exaggerated or not true at all.

But behind almost every myth, there is a grain of truth - it is this grain that we are after when we read such tales.

Fairy tales do not deny the existence of sorrow or failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance. It denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final a fleeting glimpse of Joy; Joy beyond the walls of the world... ~ J.R.R. Tolkein

Instead, it should be noted that the fairy tale is a reflection of reality. It will never happen as fast as the fairy tale makes it out to be, nor under such clear-cut circumstances. Fairy tales are full of symbolism - some shallow, but mostly deep. Therefore, some concepts that are invisible to the human eye will be given a visual cue, which may not be always noticeable when you take it out of the fairy-tale setting.

The core truths, however, stay unchanged.

In Conclusion

In a sense, fairy tales in their truest form are the most "rebellious" stories that can be placed into today's market. They are clean. They have a clear difference between the dark and the light. They reflect the struggles of the real world. They bring hope. The stories themselves are timeless - their themes and characters can easily be placed in another time and another place and still have the same impact.

Is there a wonder that fairy-tale retellings suddenly have a huge spike in popularity? The young, in direct contrast to various counter-movements in previous generations, crave structure, meaning, intelligence and yes, even an ethics structure. All of which can be found in simple fairy tales.

As easy as they are to disparage.....fairy tales hold a powerful place in the world and should be read again by every generation, but especially young adults.

Our forefathers in the literary world would certainly agree:

"In a utilitarian age, of all other times, it is a matter of grave importance that fairy tales should be respected." ~ Charles Dickens, Frauds on the Fairies, 1853

Now, I can understand that the opinion of a literary figure from the mid-1800s would not hold that much sway in today's world.

But, what about one of the world's most renowned scientists?

"If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales." ~ Albert Einstein

And if you still are not convinced.....

"If I'm honest, I have to tell you I still read fairy tales and I like them best of all." ~ Audrey Hepburn

Now, if a glamorous Hollywood star is not fazed by fairy tales, you should not be either.

Go take those fairy tale books out of the trash and read them again. Go find that hope, those life lessons that you've been missing for the past decade or so in your life. Spread them around to your friends, strangers, and use them in your own writing.

And if someone comes up to you and says, "Life isn't a fairy-tale"?

Counter them with a saying from the most famous of fairy-tale authors:

"The most wonderful fairy tale is life itself." ~ Hans Christian Anderson


  1. I love this post, Catherine! Great job!

  2. I so agree with this post! and I love all the quotes you have scattered through out!

    1. Thank you Keturah!! I had no idea so many people had these great quotes on fairy tales :)

  3. In Conclusion: everyone loves fairy tales, though they may not admit it. :)

  4. This post is wonderful, Catherine! Thanks for your insight. :)

    1. Thank you so so much Kathryn!!!! (BTW - I love how your name is spelled, it's so pretty!)