In Defence of Fairy Tales: Why I *LOVE* Them

thoughts orangutan

It’s become a pretty common phenomenon to see fairy tales maligned in media. And, as you might have guessed from the title, I’m actually a fan. So that’s why I’ll be donning my warrior garb today, vaulting up a tower and springing to the rescue of this poor damsel in distress!

orangutan fairy tale knight in shining armour0003

Okay, maybe this won’t be quite that dramatic 😉 Now, obviously I want to make it clear (for all the people in the back) that this isn’t a defence of every story, iteration or idea in fairy tales- but of the overarching themes and genre as a whole. Nor am I pretending that the context of the stories being formulated or written down was a grand old time. I know this may be a little headspinning, but I’m genuinely not trying to take a broadbrush positive view to counterbalance the prevailing negative opinions- I’m simply trying to show how there’s a little more complexity to be had here. Without further ado, let’s get into why fairy tales rock:

They’re full of possibilities. Fairy tales aren’t nearly as straightforward as a lot of people seem to believe- they’re a mosaic of views and symbols that welcome multiple interpretations. While I largely disagree with some modern takes on fairy tales- and the holders of those beliefs no doubt disagree with me- it nonetheless proves my point: two people can easily read the same story and come out with wildly different readings. I would love it if more people that criticise fairy tales thought to themselves how else could this be interpreted? Because the mistake a lot of people that are dismissive of fairy tales make is that there’s *one* correct analysis- and this simply isn’t true.

There’s actually more than enough room for imagination when reading fairy tales. A lot of the time, they’re simplified to the point where they leave us with lots of questions- oftentimes leaving them unanswered. Again, I see people filling in the blanks, all the while not realising that they’re contributing to the tradition of orality and retelling that goes into making these stories (ooh err, getting very Death of the Author-y up in here- shout out to my English Lit homies 😉 ). These stories aren’t static; they’re constantly growing beyond the bounds of the page. Not to be too grim, but Hansel and Gretel may “live together in perfect harmony” (with the father who had “not had a happy hour since the day he had abandoned his children”), yet in this world of fairy tales happiness has already been shown to be fleeting. At the same time, there’s always the Gilbert and Gubar view that the hero inevitably morphs into the villain- hence showing that we create more than one meaning out of these stories. Thanks to their open-endedness, fairy tales are constantly being reimagined in our own minds- it’s our decision whether we see them as monstrous or not.

Fairy tales also present stories in their simplest form– and there’s always something to be said for the basic story structure. Still, while there’s an argument to be made that the traditional good vs evil dichotomy is a strong premise, fairy tales are often harder to pin down on closer examination. Take the story of Bluebeard: an evil husband that keeps killing his wives when they discover he’s a murderer. Supposedly designed to teach women to curb their curiosity, it nonetheless provides justification for the wife’s curiosity when he’s proven to be a murderer (and since murdering your wife wasn’t socially acceptable in Perrault’s day, one can assume this was as baffling then as it is now). Ergo, as much as one could claim fairy tales smack the reader over the head with their blatant morality, the problem is they often undermine themselves with their own complexity. The messages they entail may not be as rigid as first presumed.

That’s why they’re often viewed as educational for children. Some stories, like Little Red Riding Hood offer warnings at their most basic level, like “maybe don’t trust that dodgy stranger in the wood”. This in turn lends credence to Marina Warner and Karen Rowe’s views that these “old wives tales”, though written down by men, may have been composed for women by women. Furthermore, facing down these dangers in a safe environment could be seen as a positive exploration of a child’s psyche- indeed critics such as Bettelheim have argued this is crucial to a child’s development. As primordial narratives, the core of these tales often reflects on deeply embedded emotional struggles and makes sense out of the chaotic world. For that reason…

…they’re also suitable for adults 😉 All this, for me, goes back to how fairy tales run much deeper than many people realise. Again, I’m not saying there aren’t fairy tales that are as dodgy as hell (hello Basile’s Sleeping Beauty- yes I know someone’s going to refer to that). BUT that doesn’t mean it’s wise to dismiss such complex stories or reduce them down to terms and ideas that don’t necessarily hold up under scrutiny. As fashionable as it is to bash fairy tales, I can’t help but wonder where we would be without them.

And for once I have a (lazy) bibliography:

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York, W. W. Norton and Company: 1322-1326

Bettelheim, Bruno. “The Struggle for Meaning”. The Classic Fairy Tales. Ed. Maria Tatar. London: W.W.Norton and Company, 1998. 269-273. Print.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. “Snow White and Her Wicked Stepmother”. The Classic Fairy Tales. Ed. Maria Tatar. London: W.W.Norton and Company, 1998. 291-297. Print.

Rowe, Karen. “To Spin a Yarn”. The Classic Fairy Tales. Ed. Maria Tatar. London: W.W.Norton and Company, 1998. 297-308. Print.

Warner, Marina. “The Old Wives’ Tale”. The Classic Fairy Tales. Ed. Maria Tatar. London: W.W.Norton and Company, 1998. 309-317. Print.

So- dare I ask- do you have any love for fairy tales? Let me know in the comments!

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98 thoughts on “In Defence of Fairy Tales: Why I *LOVE* Them

  1. Joelendil says:

    I love G. K. Chesterton’s take on fairy tales (a pithier, simplified version is attributed to Gaiman, but I like the wordier original a bit better): “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.”

    Liked by 5 people

  2. cryptomathecian says:

    The One Thousand and One Nights (by unknown writers from India/Iran/Iraq/Egypt) and the Fairy Tales and Stories by Hans Christian Anderson are part of the canon of the world literature. Not to mention that I love the Discworld series written by Terry Pratchett who sadly died too early because of some neurological disorder.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Stephanie says:

    Great post! I completely agree! I think fairy tales are not only entertaining, they’re important for the developing imagination and a sense of empathy. We all need fairy tales.

    Two of my favorite quotes:
    “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
    “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” – Albert Einstein

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Christopher says:

    Both Bettelheim and Tatar are on my bookshelf always within easy reach, along with the Brothers Grimm, Perrault, and a collection of modern fairy tales, because fairy tales are fun and, as you point out, they also offer a wealth of material for new stories. And I’d like to add a point made by Bettelheim: a child who wants to hear the same fairy tale over and over is probably working something out, and the fairy tale is helping them do that.
    I’m glad you mentioned Bluebeard too. The real Bluebeard, Gilles de Rais, committed horrible crimes–today we’d recognize him as a serial killer–and his victims were children. The fairy tale version offers a much less terrifying, but still useful, lesson for children.

    Like

  5. Bookstooge says:

    I think this is why I enjoy fantasy so much. It is fairy tales for adults. It is also why I have such an issue with grimdark fantasy and the like. As Joelendil wrote, we don’t need to be told about the darkness. We know that already, deeply and personally. What we need to be reminded of is the Hero, the light, the good.

    Now, I am NOT a fan of the recent rash of fairy-tale retellings masquerading as fantasy novels. That is a separate issue though.

    On the whole, I am in favor of fairytales and shoving them down childrens’ throats as soon as possible 😉 Fill up those little minds lickety-split!

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      I really agree with that- it’s one of the reasons I love Tolkien so much- he was hugely influenced by fairy tales and folklore and it comes across so beautifully in his writing and world building. I can understand that. For me, I see it a bit more like the Jungian incorporation of the shadow self, but I definitely value the Hero figure and can understand why people wouldn’t like (/need) to be reminded of the darkness.

      And I can understand that as well- personally I love it if it’s done well and in a way that doesn’t mock the original (incidentally, a lot of the time when I criticise a retelling I get asked for an example of it done well and I wish I could just recommend the original fairy tale every time- but annoyingly a lot of people just don’t want to read those).

      hehehehe!! To right!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Bookstooge says:

        Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating ignoring the darker side of humanity, but I think that is what the villain is for. If an author HAS to go all pah-cycle-logical on me, at least make both sides of the coin very obvious. (probably why I enjoy military sf so much).

        As for reading the original fairytales, that is a tough sell. My dad had a Grimm’s complete when I was growing up and I read them all as a kid and teen. Now, I don’t really know if I could enjoy reading them or not. I’m not quite brave enough to dive back in and find out 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  6. waytoofantasy says:

    I love fairy tales and aI love their retellings as well. It’s always interesting to me when someone puts a new spin on an old tale. The originals are interesting in their own way and I have gone down the folklore rabbit hole many a time. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Lemuel says:

    I like the tales from folk culture, the variety of motifs, and how much various cultures share in the stories we tell each other.

    Fairy Tales can help me build bridges and have fun at the same time.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Ola G says:

    I’m all for fairy tales – they are the first meaningful stories we hear as children, and we imbue them with many more meanings throughout our lives. As Joelendil mentioned, fairy tales show us how to defeat darkness of which existence we’re already aware. Also, there’s universality in fairy tales that most of contemporary lit fiction lacks 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Fran Laniado- Author says:

    I agree 100%. I also think that people often take one moral from a fairy tale and then say “OK, now we understand that one!” Little Red Riding Hood is a great example. But just because a “be careful of strangers” moral works with the story, that doesn’t mean that that’s all there is to it. There are all kinds of psychoanalytic interpretations that you can get into regarding the red cloak, the forest, etc. There’s the strong sexual subtext. None of that means that the “be careful of strangers” moral is “wrong.” It’s not, that’s very much present in the story. But there’s a lot of other themes and ideas there too. It’s true of so many fairy tales that people often dismiss as simple.
    I think that fairy tales are wonderful grounds for contemporary fiction writers to explore, because they can bring to light some of those other interpretations that are often missed.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Anjana says:

    I feel like fairy tales are a part of growing up. They are so widespread that despite being from any further of the globe, they unite us in this debate 😀
    We can like/dislike them but we can’t ignore them.
    Really enjoyed reading your post! More food for thought

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Eustacia | Eustea Reads says:

    I LOVE THIS POST!

    The point about fairytales being composed by women for women – I remember reading that the Grimm brothers collected a lot of their tales from women (their neighbours helped a lot), which does point to fairytales being something shared among women (at least in Germany).

    Speaking of which, have you read the first edition of the Grimm Fairytales? Jack Zipes did a translation and it’s amazing to see how much the Grimm Brothers changed over the years. I also read a theory that fairytales were originally for adults, but because the collected tales were so popular among children, the Grimm brothers started sanitising their stories/adapting it to kids in their later editions.

    (I need to read more about non-German tales hahahaha)

    Liked by 2 people

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Thank you!! ❤

      Yes for sure- I actually did a course on fairy tales in uni and there's a lot of material on the origins of fairy tales being from women.

      I have actually read the Zipes version (and a few others 😉 ) Interesting- I've heard that they were aimed at families, but also heard that they were sanitised for children in the Victorian period because of changing attitudes towards children.

      hahaa totally understandable 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  12. The Cozy Pages says:

    Awesome post. So many great issues you touch on. Yes. I love fairy tales. I love the possibilities. I love how the meaning has changed for me as I read them at different ages. I love that as a child they simply filled and fuelled my imagination. I can’t hate on them now, even though I do understand the concerns raised… but does’t that just once again add to the complexity and value and lessons to be learned from these stories and how and why they were written (within the context of their authors’ time).

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Krysta says:

    I really love the simplicity of fairy tales. I think it allows them to grow and change with the reader. And I think it allows many interpretive and imaginative possibilities from the reader. I don’t understand people who think fairy tales are only for children or are somehow damaging. To me, that says more about the person’s mindset than it says anything about the story.

    Liked by 2 people

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Definitely agree with you there! And I don’t agree with that perspective either. I think there is an opinion that children will tell you when they’re bothered by something and will likely not ask for a story again if they have a problem, so there’s no need to assume sensitivity- and it’s certainly ridiculous to assume they’re damaging. And yeah I don’t think they’re only for children either.

      Like

  14. Zezee says:

    I enjoy fairytales too for much the same reasons but also because they were my gateway to fantasy, my favorite genre. Before I ever read a fantasy story, I read and was hooked on fairytales and I think that aided my love of the genre.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Kristina Steiner says:

    I love fairy tales, of course some more than others, and I love what role they played in my childhood. If I have kids, the stories will be a part of theirs too.
    I view fairy tales like I view role models. Some are there to show you what to do and how to do it, and some are there to make you see what not to do.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Rose says:

    I love fairy tales so much! I ended up doing my dissertation on three versions of Snow White, and it was so interesting. I always find it so amazing how different authors can create such unique and original stories using well known tales and characters.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Jessie Bingham says:

    I love fairy tales, particularly some of the Scandinavian myths and legends. It was fairy tales early on in life that made me want to tell stories too.

    As a side note, I also love the illustrations on your blog!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Nicole says:

    I love fairy tales. You (and many of the commentors) have already touched on many of the reasons why, but another one for me is that they are entertaining. Some morality tales are rather boring; fairy tales aren’t. (At least for me.)

    Re-tellings, I think, too often take the bones of the original fairy tale and lose the soul. When they manage to retain both, then I usually love them. (A good example for me of one that works well is Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Glad you agree! And that’s a great one!!! Excellent point!!

      Ah fair enough- I totally get what you mean. That’s why I love retellings that somehow manage to capture the original, while putting a spin on them. Awesome- thanks so much for the recommendations!

      Liked by 1 person

  19. Beth (Reading Every Night) says:

    I feel like this is very obvious but I love fairytales. I grew up reading them and now I’m always eager to get my hands on any fairytale retelling I can find because they almost carry on that original story I loved so much as a child. 🙂
    I’ve never given much thought to why I love fairytales, I thought the points you raised were really interesting (and I’m not saying there aren’t problematic aspects in some stories because there obviously are) but for me it’s just the nostalgia that keeps drawing me back. 🙂
    Great post. ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Jo Danilo | Odd Bit of Writing says:

    Thanks for a really interesting post!
    I still relish that thrill I get when I read the words ‘Once upon a time…’ and know that after those words anything could happen. Fairy tales are magical, terrifying, beautiful, twisted creations that serve many purposes and often don’t stand up to our modern criticisms, but you can’t beat them for pure entertainment.❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Thanks for reading!
      I really agree with you!! I do think that there are criticisms and discussions to be had- but I also think they’re endlessly complex and there’s a lot more going on in them- which is why I also get a thrill reading them. Thanks for commenting! ❤

      Like

  21. Zoie @ Whisked Away By Words says:

    I love this post as much as I love fairy tales! 😊 When I was younger I loved rereading middle-grade and YA fairy tale retellings, like The Land of Stories series. There’s something so magical about seeing the characters and stories that I’ve loved as a child come to life under another author’s creativity and interpretation of those fairy tales. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Maddie A. says:

    I love fairy tales! They’re something that I grew up with, the first stories my mom read to me and the first stories I read by myself, so I’m very attached 🙂
    I agree with you that fairy tales tell stories in the simplest forms, but I think there’s always something to dig up and explore. And like you said, two people can read the same fairy tale and come up with different ideas about it, which is why fairy tales make great topics for discussion 😀
    Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Sarah says:

    Always loved fairy tales and always will!!! You can never be too old for them as you simply discover a different truth hidden inside. Like Pratchett said we humans are Pans Narrans so fairy tales are simply essential for our existence. I could never imagine n o t reading fairy tales to kids – it’s about one of the most stupid things one could do in my mind.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Gerry@TheBookNookUK says:

    I actually do a fortnightly ‘Fairy Tal Friday’ because I love fairy tales so much. Like ridiculous levels of love and I try and get my grubby hands on all the retellings. I’m not too sure why they appeal to me so much but then it’s like asking anyone why they like anything. Sometimes the answer is, ‘I just do.’

    I’m always on the lookout for people who discuss fairy tales and their meanings and I really enjoyed this post. Some of the fairy tales you’ve mentioned brought a wry smile to my face because the supposed message and moral of a lot of the tales seem strangely incongruent with the actual story itself.

    I always took umbridge at the ‘moral’ of Bluebead (and so I’m glad you mentioned it here) that wives and women shouldn’t go snooping lest they don’t like what they find. I’m like….no. The curiosity and concern that something wasn’t right saved her life so how about… trust your gut instinct and be suspicious of strange men with dubious backgrounds.

    I could probably go on all day about Sleeping Beauty and so won’t bore you!

    Brilliant post, thank you!

    Like

  25. arubunwritten says:

    I absolutely love fairy tales – apart from my (neglected) blog series on them I wrote my dissertation on them so it warms my little literature nerd heart to see you citing Death of the Author and oral tradition and Bettelheim! Fairy tales are absolutely complex and work on so many different levels.

    Like

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