“The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found
there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien, "On Fairy-Stories"
Susan here, thinking about fairy tales – they fill my bookshelves and always have, from tattered, beloved childhood copies to antique fairy tale books to anthologies and academic studies of fairy tale themes. I still read them. I still love them.
“I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.” –Mae West
Among my favorites are an old copy of the complete tales of The Brothers Grimm, and other collections of Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Perrault, and Andrew Lang—The Blue Fairy Book, The Red Fairy Book, the Green Fairy Book (and The Yellow, Pink, Grey, Violet, Crimson, Scarlet, Orange, Olive and Lilac Books).
My favorite as a child was probably the Little Golden Book of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, so beautifully illustrated by Sheilah Beckett. When I was very little, I sometimes slept with my fairy tale books, absorbing the stories night and day. In college, I loved reading studies of fairy tales—Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, Marina Warner’s fabulous From the Beast to the Blonde, the work of Jack Zipes, and more.
“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” –Albert Einstein
Fairy tales go back thousands of years, along with myths and legends, as far back as caves and bright fires and the urge to explain why the stars sparkle, the wind blows, why thunderclouds look like dragons, and that a sunbeam or a rainbow may be a magical being in disguise. Stories explore life and give us choices and tools to address and comprehend what we encounter in the realm of reality.
I learned about life, love, good and evil, morals, integrity, and absorbed the
elements of classic storytelling from reading fairy tales. I was equally enchanted by the illustrations, turning pages just to study the pictures, copying them in crayons, constantly learning (when I was three, I drew princesses in pink dresses all over the family Bible—in my defense, the endpapers were blank, and I had crayons!). The story and life elements were subliminal, but took hold. I was just loving the stories, the characters, the brave girls and boys, the triumph over obstacles on the road to a happier life. All useful lessons, years later.
"In a utilitarian age, of all other times, it is a matter of grave importance that fairy tales should be respected." –Charles Dickens
It’s well known now that fairy tales, myths, and legends are essential for building, expanding and strengthening a child’s understanding of right and wrong, cruel and kind, hope and fear and how to overcome. They demonstrate basic tools of humanity, compassion, loyalty, ingenuity, and their opposite qualities too. Good doesn’t always win, but the tales provide a matrix for understanding archetypes, the quest and the journey, the crucial importance of choice. They give us a glimpse of a mysterious world beyond our own, a world of fairies, elves, witches, dragons, dark ones and light ones. Child or adult, we can learn or be reminded that there are forces in life we can’t always control or explain, but we can call up strength and integrity. And they show us that no matter the outcome, it’s important to do the best thing for ourselves and for others.
“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous 'turn' (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially 'escapist,' nor 'fugitive.' In its fairy-tale–or otherworld–setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur.” –J.R.R. Tolkein
And there’s that happily-ever-after thing as well, the perfect (or imperfect) match, the challenges, the misunderstandings, the threat, the quest, love and yearning and the courage to declare and honor love, then revelation and resolution. We may also learn in fairy tales that the HEA is never a guarantee (whereas in romance novels, we’ve polished that little detail). Characters may be left on their own, or together, possibly perfect, possibly flawed. And that’s life.
“There is the great lesson of 'Beauty and the Beast,' that a thing must be loved before it is lovable.” ― G.K. Chesterton
Fairy tales led me to reading and then writing romance. It’s a short leap in the storytelling canon from fairy tales to romance, where the elements of storytelling are not only solidly honored, but often elevated to something powerful and enduring. As for me, I feel sure there is a fairy tale or two woven into every novel I’ve ever written.
"Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.” –G. K. Chesterton
What about you? Did you love fairy tales, did you cut your writer’s or reader’s teeth on Cinderella and Snow White and other stories? What were your favorites?