You’re in college now, and probably thinking you’re too old for fairytales. All those years of schooling must have done something to your reading and critical thinking skills. But I think we underestimate fairytales. We think they’re designed only for children, when they hide messages that sometimes we can only grasp as adults.
The magic kingdoms and enchanted forests are only the beginning. The talking animals, handsome princes and princesses and pumpkin carriages all make for good stories but, again, they’re only the beginning.
Writer and Illustrator Edward Carey, who’s also my delightful creative writing professor, said that fairytales help us pass into adulthood. No one exactly wants to be an adult; we’re sort of forced into it. It’s one of the toughest, if not the toughest, transition one must make growing up, and it can’t be tackled alone.
“Fairytales aren’t pretty pictures––they depict harsh reality,” Carey said.
Besides providing an escape from routine and normalcy, fairytales provide lessons. They pass on messages.
“Don’t go into the woods. Don’t go into the woods. Don’t go into the woods,” Carey said in class, staring us down one by one.
“But guess what? We have to go into the woods.”
Fairytales acquaint children with the difficulties of adulthood by bringing them face to face with evil, hardship, pain and misfortune. Characters might get backed into the corner by a wolf, or get poisoned by an evil queen, or outcast from society altogether for being different, for being special. Change around some of the names and faces, strip away the theatrics, and suddenly these scenarios seem very real.
“We go into the woods,” Carey explained, “because how else will we learn what’s out there? It’s all part of becoming an adult.”
Discounting the frivolous, light-hearted fairytales perpetuated by the Disney franchise, the traditional fairytales, like those collected by the Brothers Grimm, or re-imagined by Hans Christian Andersen were not always pleasurable to read. These tales had explicit images of pain and death: difficult to digest, but unavoidable in life.
Fairytales teach us that there will be moments in life that cause us pain, and we in turn will have to learn how to cope.
But fairytales are also narratives about coming into ourselves. As we grow and mature we face a multitude of choices and possible paths, so we must learn to use our hearts as guides. Upon taking a wrong turn and winding up at the wrong house in the forest, we learn to deal with the consequences and promptly redirect. It’s about learning to navigate life and head down the right path.
Fairytales come from the heart anyway. They are the first evidence of an attempt to tell stories for life. They are guides; they are beacons of light. They hold necessary truths. They enchant us, excite us, sadden us and shock us into what it means to be an adult in a world that sometimes forgets to be kind.
It’s not that a fairytale is meant to depress us. In spite of their sharp edges, they tend to end with flickers of hope. This could be a happy ending or it could be slightly subtler. No matter the form, that hopeful afterthought we’re left with at the end of a fairytale is a whisper that things do get better, or better yet, we get better at handling them.
The manner in which they’re delivered is also why they’re loved. Their personal tone and bare style reflects how they first began: as oral narratives from old women. These women were like walking libraries of life, overflowing with wisdom and ideas. As they told their stories, the vibrant characters came to life and people latched onto them because they could relate. The emotions and dilemmas in fairytales are ubiquitous, which is why we feel so deeply connected to these stories.
Don’t be fooled by appearances, then, fairytales aren’t just for children (although they’re paramount for their development). They’re a timeless exploration of what it is to be human as both the frailty and the strength of human beings are encompassed in fairytale characters. And if you think a little harder, and notice a little better, almost any fictional story is, at its core, a fairytale.