Faith in Fairy Tales

Lulu Oberkotter  
“The old fairy tales which a silly sort of people disparage as too wicked and ferocious for the nursery, are really ‘full of matter,’ and unobtrusively teach the true lessons of our wayfaring in a world of perplexities and obstructions.” - Andrew Lang, “Modern Fairy Tales”

I’ve been finding myself, as of late, greatly annoyed at modern culture's condemnation of old fairy tales, myths, and folklore. It’s trendy nowadays to speak badly of those stories that begin with ‘once upon a time’ and end with ‘happily ever after.’ Rich celebrities who love to lecture the plebeian masses, enlightening us with their apparently elevated insight, will tell us about what stereotypes those stories supposedly encourage, and why that is bad. A princess who yearns for true love? Pfft! How backward! We ought to teach little girls to value power and self above all else!

Let’s just say I don’t put much stock in what professional pretenders say about things they don’t understand. But many parents today have fallen in lockstep, applauding themselves for banning their children from classic fairy tales. This stems from their failure to understand the stories, which they cannot see through anything other than a lens of modern Western sensibilities. They could gain a full understanding by putting the tales in the context of their time and culture, but it's easier to reject them out of hand. Yet cutting oneself off from myths and fairy tales doesn’t make a person smarter or more enlightened. Quite the opposite. These fairy-tale-naysayers know Big Bad Wolves can’t dress up as grannies to fool children, so they write off the story as trite and outdated. Those who understand the stories, however, know what the Wolf represents and have learned to recognize him in his benign disguise.

Does that mean your four-year-old niece understands the deep complexities and cultural nuances of ancient folklore? Probably not. But will hearing those stories work on a subconscious level to unlock her imagination and instill timeless values of courage, love, hope, and resilience? Absolutely. Children may not initially understand the nuances in the stories they’re told, but the meaning will likely make itself known to them at the appropriate time. As a child, I never considered why Captain Hook hated Peter Pan so much. Then as time marched on, and the dreaded tick-tock croc swam nearer, the reason became plain. Hook is the embodiment of a bitter, resentful grownup who seeks to crush and destroy the wonder of childhood. Just because we adults have forgotten the way to Neverland doesn’t mean the place has no purpose or that we should ban our children from visiting. Resist the urge to become Captain Hook, my friends, and let your children fly.

However, while some of these more complicated themes can go over children’s heads, the veil of metaphor often makes confusing things clearer for them. Never for a second did I read or watch Snow White or Sleeping Beauty as a little girl and come away with the naive idea that all I needed in life was for a big, strong, handsome man to come save me. That’s just what faithless adults take away from the stories. When I first heard this case argued by my peers, I was honestly flummoxed. Sure, five-year-old me didn’t know words like redemption or restoration, but I still understood they were what the stories were truly about. But in their detrimental practicality, adults see the kiss at the end of a fairy tale as nothing more than the act of pressing one’s lips against the lips of another, which somehow inexplicably heals wounds and breaks curses. Our grown-up minds have a habit of taking these events at face value, skipping over the significance of the motifs, and we can explain our rational positions easily. Children, however, understand these things far better, even if they can’t explain them. But as an adult believer in fairy tales, I just may be able to. Take the aforementioned fairy tale kiss, for example:

Love can, literally speaking, heal. No, Daddy’s scratchy kisses didn’t make my booboos all better when I was little, but his love and care healed a part of me far more vital than a skinned knee. Likewise, the final kiss I gave him didn’t magically wake him from his coma, nor did I ever expect it to. But it did begin healing a deep wound in my heart left by his absence. This same power is what causes elderly people in retirement homes to fare better and live longer when they have family and friends who frequently visit, as opposed to those who are left alone in a sterile room to die. It’s why those with depression shouldn’t remain by themselves, cut off from those who care about them. Because love heals. It breaks the curse of misery and hopelessness. The revitalizing fairy tale kiss is simply the metaphor that teaches us this lesson.

So instead of barring children from the old stories, we should encourage them to frequent every nook and cranny of Fairyland, so they can learn everything it has to teach them of the ‘real’ world. Perhaps then our children will be prepared for all the confusion that lies ahead in adulthood. They’ll be able to recognize the Big Bad Wolf no matter how convincing a mask he wears, and they will understand that true love is a far greater force than all the powers and principalities of this world’s darkness.

19+ Comments


I took a class on fairy tales to understand story structure and that what got me interested in writing fiction.

Feb-12 at 03:21


I enjoyed this very much @Luluo and agree :100:. Folk and fairy tales, myths and sagas have an important part to play in our human psyche. One of my most enlightening literary adventures was studying Middle English lays and folk-tales. Gawain and the Green Knight - wow. Just wow.
I think the problem, as you suggest, lies in the prevailing and shallow voices that belittle and misunderstand these stories. The original Cinderella was as much about punishment for wrongdoing as meeting a prince. But squeamish people and money makers have taken out the counter-balancing salt in the tale and left only the sugar.
Disney bears a huge responsibility for this. So does the prevailing trend where adults fail to mature psychologically until they are in their 30s, if they ever grow up at all.
To the best of my knowledge Disney has never touched Bluebeard, or Silver Hands. Their abomination of a Cinderella doesn’t include the sisters mutilating their own feet to get the shoe to fit, or dancing until they died in red hot boots.
It takes an adult brain to really enjoy a good fairy tale.

Feb-12 at 08:17


Did you, by any chance, have this jewel of pop culture in mind?

Feb-12 at 10:01


A great piece and spot on.

We do kids and young people a great disservice by promoting to them the idea that the only appropriate response to ancient folklore and fairy tales is to apply modern western political and cultural sensibilities to them and then mock them for falling short.

At this point it has literally become the fashionable thing that lazy dumb people do in attempt to signal to one another that they are clever.

For any writer or creative at any level it is a fatal approach.

Feb-12 at 11:44


:joy: So, this blog post is adapted from something I wrote a couple years ago (for the blog on my website I started before I realized no one reads blogs anymore). The interview I had in mind at the time was one from actress Kristen Bell, who does the voice of Anna in Frozen. She made similar comments to these, and the fact that actors keep saying this stuff (to a much more extreme extent too!) only makes my previous comments all the more accurate.

Feb-12 at 12:04


As CS Lewis said, "When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

Feb-12 at 12:05


I also see this in prevailing attitudes to romance. Sadly, sometimes on the CC forums.

Feb-12 at 12:41


I often use fairy tales in my work because they are in the public domain and generate some interesting ideas for stories. I don’t consider them childish since many of the original stories were not at all for children. The first story I posted on CC was titled Under the Red Hood which was based on Little Red Riding Hood. It is definitely NOT a children’s story. I’ll never stop viewing them as valueable.

Feb-12 at 13:10


I will freely admit that I was once one of those people who looked down on the Romance genre in this way. The issue was that I presumed the entire genre was basically like 50 Shades of Gray, which was in no way fair.

Feb-12 at 19:13


Oh, yuck Rachel Zegler, now i’ve just got a nasty taste in my mouth as if Tolkien’s first orc just washed his feet in it. Yuck!

But, on the bright side, she is so annoying she will make the best wicked witch ever, and I’m so looking forward to having someone with Gal Gadots class and charm play Snow White, it’s truly world class casting and I can’t wait to see it.

Feb-12 at 20:13


Oh my gosh. Argh-ar-ah-arrrr. :rofl:

She says she’s a big Disney fan… what on earth is she talking about??? That’s not a Disney fan. That’s someone who stands against everything Disney (used to) stand for.

Feb-12 at 20:21


My favorite part of that video is what she says from 1:02 to 1:11.
“All of Andrew’s scenes could get cut. Who knows?”
Andrew is Prince Charming, btw.

Feb-12 at 20:34


I don’t know much about literary romance, but I think in terms of romantic stories we’ve reached a cultural point where fiction just doesn’t seem to show realistic functional romantic relationships.

Of course conflict is drama and harmony can be boring, but it gets a bit relentless simply never seeing a relationship (on screen anyway ) that is actually happy or works.

Feb-12 at 21:24


Fairy tales are still immensely popular. Frozen, Tangled, Moana are all fairy tales that have recently thrived in the public consciousness. Of course new fairy tales are always being written, and old fairy tales evolve over time. The Disney versions of fairy tales are very different from their origins in Grimm’s folk tales, and Grimm’s stories are themselves not the originals. The intentions of fairy tales change to reflect the values and priorities of the societies that tell them.

I think the idea that fairy tales need to be preserved and told in their original form is bizarrely ahistorical and misses the actual purpose of fairy tales.

Obviously a joke. But even if it wasn’t, why does it matter? Disney’s Snow White isn’t holy scripture. It’s baffling how offended people get by stuff like this.

Feb-12 at 21:31


I think there are readers and writers out there who misunderstand “conflict”. It doesn’t have to mean arguing. I prefer to think of it as “negotiating obstacles”, which could be external or internal.

Feb-12 at 21:36


No one is saying fairy tales can’t or shouldn’t evolve. But the whole ‘post modern deconstruction’ is just ONE approach to the genre, and it has become the dominant contemporary lens in a very inorganic way and for reasons that are largely political rather than artistic or commercial.

They didn’t naturally evolve to the point where there are no prince charmings and all the princesses ‘don’t need no man’, people with an agenda are working hard to ‘correct’ what they regard as the flaws and faults of many enduring stories.

Many of those fairy tales in their classic versions reflect universal and timeless realities about life and love and sacrifice and men and women in ways that post modern revisionist deconstructions simply do not.

While many of the originals are cross cultural and enduring post modern deconstructions are invariably very culturally specific and contemporary.

To try to make fairy tales about the here and now is actually what misses the purpose of fairy tales. If they were about contemporary cultural and political issues in specific geographical locations, they wouldn’t be fairy tales they’d be something else.

Feb-12 at 21:45


One thing I do know for certain: The original fairy tale of Snow White, as well as Disney’s animated interpretation (as sanitized as it might be), will continue to be enjoyed for generations. The new one made for the “modern audience” will be forgotten within a year. Though that might be due to everyone being super bored of all the remakes rolling off the conveyor belt!

Feb-12 at 21:58


So I’m guessing you haven’t seen Frozen or Tangled, because they aren’t “post modern deconstructions” of fairy tales. They are exactly about universal and timeless values like sisterhood, bravery, sacrifice, trauma… and they have global appeal across many cultures.

I don’t know what you’re talking about with regards to “naturally evolve.” Stories don’t naturally evolve, ever. Grimm’s fairy tales are inextricably intertwined with Teutonic culture and values, a reflection of particular anxieties of their lives, which is why Disney altered them significantly to fit early 20th century America. The same is true today. In modern tellings like Tangled, the female character is centered as the heroic figure rather than the male, because she’s the active participant in her drama. But the spirit of the story remains intact.

I find this brand of conservatism so mentally fragile and intensely anti-creative. And it’s also utterly doomed: kids don’t care about “Rapunzel,” but they love Tangled. The number of people who are mad that they cast a Black girl as the Little Mermaid is smaller than you think…

Feb-12 at 22:03


Ahem. Most of these stories originate in a long, long, pre-literate oral culture. If you’d ever told a story orally, you’d understand how naturally they evolve. It’s impossible to tell the same story, in the same way, twice.

And if you doubt me, look at the Aarne-Thompson-Uther tale typology, which tracks the way folktales evolve and cross fertilise. There are more than 500 versions of Cinderella in Europe alone. The Grimm brothers are the Johnny-come-latelys of the folk tale world. And Disney the pond skaters.

Again, ahem. I have been a primary teacher for years. Kids love the original fairy tales, if they’re given a chance to read them and are not saturated in 2 dimensional, saccharine, fairy tales lite.

Who has brought this up? Oh, you have.

Feb-12 at 22:25
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