Susan here, in the midst of a week that’s turned so busy (moving furniture, painting, family coming soon, and a book in need of writing!) –- and no doubt you all are busier than normal too — that today I’m trotting out a Goldie Oldie, aka a Wench Classic. And in the current climate of stressful news and some crazy things out there, what better than to take a break and think about fairy tales? Ahh, there, now I feel better …
“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"
I've been thinking about fairy tales lately. My bookshelves are crammed full, like the bookshelves of every Wench author and our blog readers too. A few of my shelves are devoted to legends, myths–and fairy tales. Old, tattered, beloved childhood copies; antique fairy tale books; anthologies and academic studies of fairy tale themes–these books don't gather much dust at my house. I still read them, ponder over them. I still love them.
“I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.” –Mae West
I have some familiar favorites, like an old copy of the complete tales of The Brothers Grimm (the real ones — not fancied or scrubbed up, these!), the tales of Hans Christian Anderson, Charles Perrault, and of course 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). One of my favorite Little Golden Books was The Twelve Dancing Princesses, exquisitely illustrated by Sheilah Beckett. When I was very little, I treasured an old copy of The Tall Book of Fairy Tales by Eleanor Graham Vance. Not sure where it came from, but once I got my sticky little hands on it, it was mine, mine. Another favorite is a gift book in my college days, a beautiful reprint of Steel’s English Fairy Tales, illustrated by Arthur Rackham. And then there are the Joseph Jacobs Celtic Fairy Tales, and Irish fairy tales collected by W.B. Yeats … and so many others, old and new.
That’s just the stories. I enjoy academic studies of fairy tales, such as my dog-eared, well-read copy of Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment and Marina Warner’s fabulous From the Beast to the Blonde. I love fresh spins on fairy tale themes, such as stories by Jack Zipes–and there's a long list of romances and other novels based on fairy tale arcs.
“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 eons, as far back as myths and legends, probably as far back as the darkest of caves and the brightest of fires, and the urge to explain why the stars wink, why the wind blows, why thunderclouds look like dragons, why a shaft of sunlight or rainbows can be like a good fairy come to the rescue. Stories explore life and give us choices and tools to address and comprehend what we encounter in the realm of reality.
But what did I know about absorbing life lessons–and storytelling techniques–from fairy tales. I was into the princess, the frog, the prince, wicked witch, good fairy, ragamuffin, the castle, the mountain, the happy ending–and the chills when things didn't work out, and the thrill when they did. I was all about the illustrations, too–I would sit turning pages just for the pictures, copied them in crayons. Whatever lessons about good and evil, right and wrong were definitely subliminal. I was just having a great time, and yet I was learning life skills for what I might encounter later.
"In a utilitarian age, of all other times, it is a matter of grave importance that fairy tales should be respected." –Charles Dickens
Fairy tales, myths and legends are not just entertaining — they're important for building, expanding and strengthening a child’s understanding of the big wide world, of life, of good and evil, right and wrong, clever and stupid, cruel and kind and everything in between. Fairy tales give us something to hope for and to achieve, something to fear and overcome. They show kids that there are basic tools in life for everyone to use—like compassion, independence, loyalty, cleverness and ingenuity, as well as their not-so-rewarding opposite qualities of cruelty, greed, so on.
Good doesn’t always triumph in fairy stories, though it often does. Whatever the outcome of the story, fairy tales provide a matrix for understanding people and situations through essential archetypes, classic scenarios, what choices work and what choices don’t turn out well.
Fairy tales give us a glimpse of another, more mysterious world beyond our own practical earthly world—the Otherworld of fairies, elves, witches, dragons, dark ones. It’s not that kids might think these are real—that’s not the point. They learn that there are forces in life that we can’t always control or explain, they learn that what seems dark and scary can be met with strength and integrity. And they learn that no matter the outcome, it’s possible to find courage to do the best thing for ourselves and 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 of course there’s that happily ever after thing that we associate with fairy tales, particularly the later homogenized versions–the beautiful princess and prince charming, the courtship, the challenges, the misunderstanding, the final reveal, the foregone conclusion of the beautiful happy people in their beautiful happy kingdom. But anyone who has read fairy tales in their older and original versions knows that the HEA is never guaranteed. We’re sometimes on the edge of our seat, metaphorically so, when following a fairy tale, and we might be left dangling, disappointed, even horrified—or richly rewarded. 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
Reading fairy tales early on led me to reading and then writing romance, especially historical, sometimes paranormal. It’s a short leap in the storytelling canon from fairy tales to the fairytale existence of romance. There’s more to fairy tales than courtship and HEA – and far more to romance novels, too. The elements of good storytelling found in romance can be found in fairy tales, elements that can elevate the story to something powerful and lasting. There's the hero, the heroine, the challenge, the courtship, the quest, the villain–and the need for hero/prince and heroine/princess to conquer their shadow self in order to grow and overcome and find the final prize, the love that they have been seeking. Toss in a villain or two, the excitement of quests and personal journeys, and you can have a solid romance based on enduring fairytale elements.
So I cut my baby writer’s teeth on fairy stories, absorbed their forms and designs even while I thought I was just enjoying some good tales. As a kid, I took in mythologies and themes and archetypes and carried that forward into life and into my own stories. There’s a fairy tale or three woven into every novel I’ve ever written, one way or another.
"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, Rose Red and other stories? What were your favorites – what scared you, inspired you, gave you something to dream about?