Fairy tales have historically been part of all cultures, and despite occasional concerns about their appropriateness for children, parents have used them, not only to entertain, but also to teach important life lessons. Devoid of nuance, fairy tales cut to the essence of human experiences, especially childhood.
Even in our digital age, fairy tales continue to provide media content, although they now seem to be aimed more toward adults. The movie “Snow White and the Huntsman,” starring Kristen Stewart, is slated for release in June. Last year, Catherine Hardwicke directed a dark film version of that all-time favorite, “Little Red Riding Hood.” Over the past decade, the four “Shrek” films, set in fairy-tale land, were among the top-grossing animated movies of all time, and that’s only the beginning.
In October, two network television series debuted that both deal with the collision of the fairy tale world with our own. “Grimm,” the NBC offering, is about Nick Burkhardt, a police detective who fights against a host of evil fairy tale creatures that threaten humanity. Burkhardt discovers that he is the latest in a long line of defenders, known as “Grimms,” who have battled these supernatural beings over the centuries. A menagerie of frightening mythological creatures supply a monster-de-jour for each episode.
On ABC, “Once Upon a Time” is about fairy-tale characters who have been exiled to our world by a curse, conjured up by the evil Snow White queen. To exact her revenge, the queen condemned the residents of her world to “someplace terrible, where there will be no happy endings.”
The characters end up in Storybrooke, Maine, and except for the evil queen, they are unaware of their previous lives. A prophecy, however, says that after 28 years, Snow White’s daughter will arrive to battle the evil queen and rescue everyone.
The dialogue is often tongue-in-cheek and puns abound. In our world, which serves as a sort of purgatory, White is Margaret Blanchard, an elementary school teacher, Jiminy Cricket is child psychotherapist Dr. Archie Hopper and the huntsman is the local sheriff. Little Red Riding Hood has been transformed into a promiscuous waitress named Ruby, while Granny operates a bed and breakfast.
When asked why Snow White became the cornerstone of the show, series co-creator Adam Horowit said, “… there’s something really powerful about that story, which is that it says no matter how horrible things get, true love can fix any problem and overcome any odds.”
In 1976, Bruno Bettelheim, a legendary child psychologist, presented what many consider to be the definitive case in favor of fairy tales in his book, “The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.” With themes of abandonment, death, witches and injuries, fairy tales, he argues, allow children to master their anxieties in symbolic ways, ultimately gaining a greater sense of meaning.
Bettelheim analyzed, in detail, the most popular tales, including “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Snow White,” “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” and “Beauty and the Beast.” He believed that children are quite aware that these stories are make believe, which allows them to be utilized to safely explore scary real life situations, such as death, abandonment, rage, becoming independent and relationships with the opposite sex.
Psychologists sometimes have used fairy tales to assess personality. A person’s favorite tales give some insight in what conflicts are most relevant and parts of the stories that are emphasized or distorted may suggest sensitive areas. The lessons that we learn from fairy tales tend to stick with us. I was impressed when my wife Diane remembered the entire rhyme from the “Rumpelstiltskin” story, which I heard as a child, but had long since forgotten.
Susanne Lakin, a writer of Christian fairy tales, says that many parents are afraid that these stories are too scary for children and present a dishonest portrayal of the world. Full of fictional villains and creatures, parents may worry that they unnecessarily confuse and traumatize children. In a 2009 survey of British parents, half of them said they wouldn’t read fairy tales to children under the age of 5 and about 20 percent characterized the older stories as politically incorrect and scary enough to evoke nightmares. I remember our oldest son being especially afraid of witches at night, when he was in elementary school.
According to Bettelheim, “Those who outlawed traditional folk fairy tales decided that if there were to be monsters in a story told to children, these all must be friendly — but they missed the monster a child knows best and is most concerned with: The monster he feels or fears himself to be …”
Maria Tatar, a Harvard professor and fairy tale expert, says, “Fairy tales have a real role in liberating the imagination of children. No matter how violent they are, the protagonist always survives.” She says that fairy tales demonstrate the “triumph of small and weak over tall and powerful.”
Liz Grauerholz, a Purdue sociologist, and Lori Baker-Sperry, from Western Illinois University, analyzed 168 Grimm fairy tales and found that a majority of the tales that survived into the 20th century featured young, beautiful princesses. Such narratives may convince girls that physical attractiveness is their only important asset, which is questionable advice at best.
In recent versions of many classic tales, there are more assertive and self-reliant feminine role models. The Alice character in the 2010 version of “Alice in Wonderland” is both an assertive and heroic character and Snow White in the “Once Upon a Time” television series has a back story that shows her to be an adventurous outlaw in the mold of Robin Hood.
Despite their many drawbacks, fairy tales are still popular and provide a much-needed sense of hope. Bettelheim believed that children love these stories because they always have a happy ending, “which the child cannot imagine on his own.” British author G. K. Chesterton put it this way, “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.”
Fairy tales also provide models of honorable behavior and encourage children to take responsibility. Tatar says, “The most important element in fairy tales … is the moral choice … The child learns that choices have consequences, and the child can choose what kind of person she wants to be.”
I guess Diane thinks she can circumvent the Rumpelstiltskins of this world and hold onto what she holds most dear, by being brave, persistent and having a good memory. I suppose that makes me the guy who thinks she can spin straw into gold and buy a week’s worth of groceries with only $20.
Based on a column that appeared in the News and Tribune of Southern Indiana