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!

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

  1. Wow. This is really well-researched and insightful.

    I haven’t read all the different versions you reference. My go-to book for fairy tales was a 3-inch Grimms collection. And if you read all those, you quickly find out that they are NOT neat-and-tidy morality stories. Most of them portray the world as a very scary place, and often the danger is coming not from monsters but from our own family. (I give you The Juniper Tree … the original horror story!) The Grimms’ project was basically ethnographic research, and the fairy tales were the urban legends of their day.

    Of course, the best ones have a lot of deep symbolism and Jordan Peterson has a lot to say about why kids do need to confront the idea of monsters while still young … you touched on that and I’m sure there is material for many more posts there.

    Have you read Tolkien’s essay On Fairy Stories?

    Anyway, great, well-researched piece. Thanks again.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much!!

      Yeah I definitely have a go-to book, but I was lucky enough to do a fairy tales course at uni, so my collection is pretty large. Couldn’t agree more! Juniper Tree is such a good example as well. Absolutely!

      Yeah I really like what Jordan Peterson has to say about fairy tales- I think his insights are fantastic (far better than I could ever come up with, obviously).

      I haven’t read that- really should soon! Have you?

      Thanks very much for reading- really glad you liked it!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Funny you should ask. I think I’ve read Tolkien’s essay, but if I did, it was years ago and I’m not positive I’m not confusing with a similar essay by G.K. Chesterton … or with Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, or with Tolkien’s wonderful short story Leaf by Niggle.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Ah I completely understand- when you mentioned it I really wracked my brains, cos I feel like it’s something that I know about from other people talking about and have read his thoughts here and there (but could just be muddling it up with all his appendixes, short stories etc). It’s one of those things where (I think) a lot of us are aware of his thoughts in at least a vague sense (I really need to read his essays properly though!)

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Actually, quick update, I ended up overcome with curiosity and found the essay online- it was beautifully written- I loved his defence of fantasy & escapism and he had a lovely description of the indescribably nature of faerie land. Well worth checking out- so thanks for mentioning it! 🙂

          Liked by 2 people

          1. Hey, I am glad you found it. I need to dig it up too but am supposedly taking a month off blogging … We’ll see which one of us posts about it first … You are lucky to have taken a whole class on fairy tales! Cheers!

            Liked by 2 people

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