We’ve all come across them. People who believe fairy tales are something you “grow out of” rather than “grow up with.” The former are also the ones who emphatically declare that they won’t be reading fairy tales to their daughters or sons. Doing so only sets up unrealistic expectations, prejudices, and some of those stories can be pretty damn violent, too. And you’ll get no argument from me there. Those things do hold true. Take most Golden Age Disney animated features, for instance, where princesses pining after true love have perfect hair and waistlines like table legs, and the idolization of the Prince Charming figure. And of course, anyone who’s fat or isn’t young and traditionally good looking (whatever that is) is obviously evil or a stooge/side kick, right?
These interpretations, which pandered to a male chauvinistic society, might have become synonymous with fairy tales, but they only brush the surface of that deep pool, and there’s a wealth to mine below the ripples. A fact even acknowledged by the studio and parodied in their 2007 live-action-animated mash-up, Enchanted, which in some aspects still wasn’t a far cry from those earlier flicks but was a refreshing update nonetheless. As for violent and scary, lift just about any tale by the Brothers Grimm. In their version, Cinderella’s step-sisters don’t just squabble and take turns trying to wriggle their feet into the glass slipper the prince comes bearing; they carve up their heels in an attempt to make it fit, and Cinderella’s avian buddies point out the blood pooled in the slipper. That’s not an image you’d want your child to go to bed with, you say, and prefer sticking with the not-so-grisly version by Charles Perrault. And that’s fine, too. Because that’s the beauty of these stories; there is no one right version.
Fairy tales are inherently malleable. Before being recorded on page, they were passed down orally from mother to daughter, which is how the Brothers Grimm set the skeleton for their stories, by sponging the brains of women all over.
By their very nature, their endurance and appeal lie as much in the retelling as the telling of it. They help discover different things at different stages in life. As a kid you might root for Cinderella, but as an adult, wonder what hole in their being were her wicked step-sisters trying to fill when they chopped their heels off; did they do so because they were wicked or just pitiable?
That fairy tales play an important role during the formative years of children is undeniable. However, they do much more than simply amuse, inform, or instruct in matters of morality, which kids could do without, having an intuitive sense of right and wrong that’s unadulterated. Perhaps in danger of being skewed if there’s some chocolate cake in the equation.
But the most important thing fairy tales do is oil the cogs of imagination. Those who keep the gears running smoothly, even in their eighties have the eyes of an eight-year-old, quick to sparkle at the mention of castles, talking ravens, and dragons. You won’t find a child refuting the existence of the last, saying, “Pfft, c’mon. We all know that dinosaur fossils were what started the whole dragon thing.”
When you start with, Once upon a time, there was a dragon, what they’re likely to ask is if it was a good dragon or bad dragon. If it was a boy or girl dragon. If it let a boy or girl like himself or herself climb onto its scaly neck and took them high up in the clouds; or if it rained fire on villages and people hid from its glowing eye. And the answer is all those things can be true if you believe them, just for a while.
Rohit Sawant‘s short fiction has been featured in a Lovecraftian anthology titled Kill Those Damn Cats, and is also set to appear in After the Happily Ever After, an upcoming anthology by Transmundane Press, and in Culture Cult Magazine.
Photo Credit: Travels with the Snow Queen (source unknown)