These narratives take us out of our comfort zones, roughing us up in the process and sometimes even rewiring our brains. Beans that grow into sky-high beanstalks, a bloodthirsty giant who grinds bones to make his bread, a goose that lays golden eggs — those were the curious ingredients that got me thinking as a child about perils and possibilities. At first it was the sheer drama on the page that had me hooked, along with the fact that characters who are small and meek always turn the tables on ogres, witches, and other trolls. Then, over the years, I became addicted to the challenges of making sense out of these stories — trying hard to figure out why we keep retelling them even as we make them our own by making them new.
How do you explain a German story about a girl named Thousandfurs, who dresses up in pelts made from the coats of many different animals and takes up residence in a hollow tree? Why does a young man named Don Juan break ranks with his brothers and marry a monkey named Chonguita in a story told in the Philippines? What is that old woman doing in the Russian woods, living in a hut on chicken legs surrounded by a fence with posts made from human skulls?
Churchill once spoke of “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” (he was referring to Russia), and today I like to use that same phrase to describe stories that are at their core deceptively simple and simply deceptive. We decode them not just while we are reading them, but also when we talk about them with others who have been shocked and startled by their content. Fairy tales, once told around the fireside by adults to multi-generational audiences, were meant to provoke conversation and promote collective problem solving. They added value to the store of communal wisdom in cultures where nothing was ever written down.
We often underestimate fairy tales because of the misleading name given to the genre. The sprightly supernatural creatures featured so prominently in that name rarely make an appearance in representative stories. There are none in “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Hansel and Gretel,” or “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Other cultural factors come into play when it comes to the devaluation of fairy tales. There is, first and foremost, the 20th-century Disneyfication of fairy tales, a move that many said turned the stories into cartoon versions of themselves. Frivolous, juvenile, shallow, inconsequential: all those attributes are captured in the dismissive phrase: “That’s just a fairy tale.”
We discard these fables at our peril. The presence of magic and enchantment is one of their defining features, which is why J.R.R. Tolkien placed them into the domain of Faërie, that “Perilous Realm” where anything can happen. It is there that we confront the great “What if?” But, as importantly, there is something primal in these tales — they have more than the whiff of the archaic. Italo Calvino, both novelist and collector of Italian lore, once observed that “the vibrancy of myth” passes through the forest of fairy tale “like a shudder of the wind.” Along with many anthropologists and folklorists, Calvino understood the kaleidoscopic nature of storytelling. With a slight rotation, you can move from what we call the myth of Zeus and Europa to the fairy tale about Beauty and the Beast. Both narratives belong in the great Cauldron of Story, that constantly simmering brew to which each generation adds new ingredients to enhance the zest and the flavor of a story.
"Both narratives belong in the great Cauldron of Story, that constantly simmering brew to which each generation adds new ingredients to enhance the zest and the flavor of a story."
“The world of mythology is round,” Claude Lévi-Strauss once observed, in an effort to explain to his fellow anthropologists how all versions of a story belong to the myth, with no single point of origin. Still, many of the most revered experts have insisted on a strict divide between fairy tales, banished to the culture of childhood, and myth, part of the childhood of culture. “Fairy tales are told for entertainment,” Joseph Campbell declared. “You’ve got to distinguish between the myths that have to do with the serious matter of living life in terms of society and of nature, and stories with some of those same motifs that are told for entertainment.” Campbell correctly recognized the shared thematic repertoires of fairy tales and myth, but he failed to understand how myth contains multitudes of stories, with all their variant forms.
Today, it is the rebels who keep fairy tales alive. It took irreverence to violate the taboos on rewriting stories that were sometimes overvalued (W.H. Auden once described the Grimms’ fairy tales as “ranking next to the Bible in importance”) even as they were trivialized. Fairy tales have a history of shape-shifting. Beginning in the 1960s, writers with many different agendas rediscovered fairy tales, and they quickly pointed out that the stories were not written in granite. They were in fact so elastic, malleable, and resilient that you could twist them, pretzel-like, into quirky, new shapes without losing any of their narrative mass.
These days fairy tales are passed on to us through what the media gurus call multiple “delivery systems,” and the stories have reclaimed a multi-generational appeal. Children can read versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” by the Brothers Grimm, but also by Jon Sczieska, who turns her into Little Red Running Shorts. Teens can watch Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood, featuring Amanda Seyfried, or take in camp versions of her story in the film Freeway, with Reese Witherspoon, or in the chilling horror film Hard Candy. Adults can get their dose of that same story from Angela Carter’s “Company of Wolves” or Anne Sexton’s Transformations. And now we have new versions like ABC’s Once Upon a Time that aim not only to tell the story but also to draw viewers into the glow of a virtual world constructed around fairy-tale narratives.
Fairy tales are encoded with enigmas, provocative puzzles charged with existential mysteries. Hansel and Gretel, forced to leave home, face down a demon who embodies warmth and hospitality — offering the children milk, pancakes, and cozy beds and then turning murderously hostile, fattening them up for a feast. Beauty is turned over to Beast in a story that tests the limits of compassion and empathy in the face of monstrosity. Briar Rose feeds our desire for beauty’s protection against mortality, corruption, and decay. The constant in these stories is less character than abstract concepts, always reshuffled and reinvigorated by the values of the next generation of tellers.
The spirit of storytelling takes up cultural contradictions, strips them down to their core, and enacts those abstractions in fairy-tale plots. In “Little Red Riding Hood,” for example, the predator/prey relationship is mapped onto the question of innocence and seduction in ways that produce a cultural repetition compulsion as we try in vain to get the story right. These miniature models, primal and mythical, generate talk. They may be “big old lies,” as the African American writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston called them, but they challenge us to fill in the details, to complete the story, to think more and to think harder as we inch our way to some kind of higher truth.
As importantly, the consolations of imagination are never imaginary consolations, and the triumph of Cinderella can make suffering endurable just as the conquest of the witch ensures some kind of justice in the world. After all, a wizard named Dumbledore — a man who understood the sorcery of words better than most — taught us not so long ago that the things happening in our heads are just as real as what takes place in our daily lives.
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