On the Importance of Fairy Stories
The “fairy story”, or “fairy tale”, has lost some of its shine in recent years. The fairy tale, having always been told with children in mind, have always been associated with varying forms of innocence. But that association has now drifted more towards naivete than innocence. “There are no fairy tale endings”, and so on. It is made to seem as if expecting the narrative outcomes akin to the happy endings most associated with fairy tales is a form of grand intellectual failing. Contemporary literati dance around the embarrassment over the perceived naivete of fairy stories in two ways. The first is to treat them as cultural artifacts, which leads to the admirable impulse of bringing the fairy stories of other cultures beyond their own to light, as well as to the less-admirable impulse of treating them like curiosities in a museum. The second is to dilute their simplicity with a helping of contemporary angst and “updating” them with trendier tropes.
And yet, here we are, in a heated political climate rocked once more by the strong, unspoken yet strongly felt desire by various parties to “immanentize the eschaton”, so to speak, and trying to live out in action whatever plan it is in their collective minds to bring about something resembling that grand intellectual failing of a happy ending. Tragedy and happiness are both ingrained into the human psyche. But it is in these fairy tales that we encounter, through narrative, these life-defining states. We are naturally predisposed to chase happiness, and our first encounter with that impulse as children is often the fairy tale.
Chasing the happy ending is all well and good, and very much snobbery-proof. But the wider, often-unacknowledged contribution of these fairy stories is in the way it shapes how we define the happy ending and how we get there. G. K. Chesterton once wrote that, “fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense”. And it is testament to the power of narratives that much of what we find “sensible” is first imbibed through common fairy tales. Don’t talk to strangers bearing temptations (Hansel and Gretel). Greed makes you stupid (Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves). Do not judge prematurely (The Ugly Duckling).
Beyond even that, fairy stories often contain larger themes that are often the grist of more “mature” storytelling. As a kid growing up, one of my very first fairy stories was “Jack and the Beanstalk”. While I rooted for Jack, and was happy that he managed to outwit the giant, it is only much later that I realized what Chesterton had realized about that story: that giants are to be killed because they are gigantic, being the embodiment of human pride. The giant is outwitted because pride led him to chase a boy making off with part of his stolen treasure down a precarious beanstalk. The “fall of the mighty and the proud” is a timeless theme. “Sleeping Beauty”, though now deemed a problem because of the unconsented kiss that wakes Sleeping Beauty up, was my first encounter with both nihilism (that death comes even for the rich, beautiful and fortunate) and the hope that love can overcome even death itself. But the one I found most difficult to grapple with was “Beauty and the Beast” and its most profound theme: that what is loved is not loved because it is lovable, but is lovable because it was loved first. At a time wherein our conception of love hinges on what hormones and emotion dictate, the notion of love as first a free act of the will is nothing short of radical.
This brings us to the title of this article. We often dismiss or underrate the importance of fairy stories as we age due to the perception of fairy stories as limited in audience to impressionable children. But it is precisely in being “for children” that they become important, even for adults. Fairy stories impart a culture’s “common sense” by making it understandable to children. But by being for children, it also allows the young access to some of the great themes and questions whose answers will determine their future. Fairy stories, far from constricting the adult imagination, gives us the moral and intellectual narrative foundation that allows us to imagine farther and wider all the things that could be.