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know Big Bad Wolves can’t dress up as grannies to fool children, so they write off the story as trite and outdated.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.