Fairy tales are the oldest of all stories.
Because they are so old, and so prevalent, they have insinuated themselves deep into our brains, providing instantly recognisable symbols and metaphors for our deepest fears, our most fervent desires, our most fragile hopes.
It is no coincidence that many psychological conditions are given the name of fairytale characters – the Snow-White complex, for example, to describe an ageing woman who becomes jealous of her daughter’s youthful beauty; or the Cinderella complex, to describe a woman who yearns for a prince to come and sweep her off her feet; or the Peter Pan syndrome, to describe men who refuse to grow up.
So recognisable are the motifs of fairy tales that they are often used by advertising companies in TV and magazine commercials – the princess in the tower who lets down her hair (kept strong by a certain brand of shampoo), or the gorgeous young woman who goes out into the dangerous city wearing a red hoodie.
Fairy tales are often the first stories we are ever told, and they were the first stories our parents heard, and their parents, and theirs too. It is most likely that we will read them to our children too, even perhaps wondering aloud why we do so. Most of us will have favourite stories, that spoke to us at some deep intuitive level; others will have stories that truly terrified or repulsed us.
Over the centuries, they have been told and re-told, re-written and re-imagined, de-fanged and de-clawed, yet the essential elements remain the same – the wondrous settings, the strange creatures, the magical encounters, the improbable plots, the joyous celebration of ‘happy ever after’. Despite the advances of science and technology, despite the so-called ‘new’ sophistication and cynicism of the young, despite the vast distance that separates us in our urban cityscapes from the archaic rural landscapes in which they were born, fairy tales have survived triumphant, seemingly more popular and more relevant than ever.
So what is it about fairy tales that makes them so enduringly fascinating?
Sheldon Cashdan, the Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts, has put forward a compelling theory in his book The Witch Must Die: The Hidden Meaning of Fairy Tales, published in 1999.
‘The most obvious explanation,’ he writes, ‘is that fairy tales are an unparalleled source of adventure. Few children’s stories contain death-defying chase sequences such as one finds in Jack and the Beanstalk …But fairy tales are more than suspense-filled adventures that excite the imagination … . Beyond the chase scenes and last-minute rescues are serious dramas that reflect events taking place in the child’s inner world. Whereas the initial attraction of a fairy tale may lie in its ability to enchant and entertain, its lasting value lies in its power to help children deal with the internal conflicts they face in the course of growing up.’
Professor Cashdan believes fairy tales offer children a stage upon which they can play out their inner conflicts, tapping into powerful feelings that might otherwise remain hidden and articulating the universal battle between the good and bad forces in the self. The evil witch which figures so powerfully in so many fairy tales personifies the cruel, spiteful or selfish impulses which all human beings feel at some point. ‘For a fairy tale to succeed – for it to accomplish its psychological purpose – the witch must die,’ Professor Cashdan writes.
For me, it was always the beauty and the strangeness of fairy tales that fascinated me. I loved the dislocation between worlds, between the normal, scabby knee world of a child and the romance of the rose-wreathed sleeping castle, the golden harp that sings, the frog prince, the seven brothers turned into swans.
What I instinctively understood was that it was the very sumptuousness of fairy tales, their oddity, their otherworldliness, which gave them their power to inspire and instruct. One of my favourite scholars in the lore of fairy tales is Marina Warner, who wrote From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy tales and Their Tellers (1994). She says: “The marvels and prodigies, the seven league boots and enchanted mirrors, the talking animals, the heroes and heroines changed into frogs or bears or cats, the golden eggs and ever-flowing supplies of porridge, the stars on the brow of the good sister and the donkey tail sprouting on the brow of the bad – all the wonders that create the atmosphere of fairy tale disrupt the apprehensible world in order to open spaces for dreaming alternatives.’
The German term for fairy tale is “wonder tale”. The verb ‘to wonder’ expresses both a sense of astonishment and awe in the marvellous, as well as the desire to know. I think it is a more precise and evocative term for the genre than ‘fairy tale’, which always seems to conjure images of Victorian fairies with coy faces and dresses made of thistledown.
‘To be surprised, to wonder, is to begin to understand,’ said Ortega y Bassett.
Not everyone loves a fairy tale. Saint Jerome thought them “the food of demons”. The Victorians warned against their “impropriety”. The London Times Literary Supplement in the ‘60s said they caused ‘a preference for living wholly in dreams and an inability to face reality.’
I prefer to believe the words of such scholars as Jack Zipes, who said: ‘From birth to death we hear and imbibe the lore of folk and fairy tales and sense they can help us reach our destiny. They know and tell us that we want to become kings and queens, ontologically speaking to become masters of our own realms, in touch with the projects of our lives and the self-projections, to stand upright as makers of history. Folk and fairy tales illuminate the way … within the tales lies the hope of self-transformation and a better world.’