On the Importance of Fairy Tales

Recommending Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales made me reflect on the sheer brilliance and importance of the traditional tale and why they have endured for so many hundreds of years. Whether you choose to sub-categorise them into allegories, fables, folklore, myth, legend – the list could go on – or approach them as a whole, there’s so much more beneath the surface of these apparently simple narratives, which make them so rich and relevant, even today. There’s a plurality to them: it isn’t just the basic plot structures that make them prime literary fodder for children; they are woven with morals and societal messages (granted to a varying extent) which enriches the learning value for the young but also continues to resonate way into adulthood.

The fact that these tales have their roots in oral story-telling traditions also endows them with an inherent shared ownership and authorship: they are part of one’s heritage; they act as reflections of society; they speak of one’s fears and dreams. In fact, one might say that there is a universal authorship to traditional tales, where the core messages and morals transcend cultural barriers: Hänsel und Gretel by the German Brothers Grimm could be read as Perrault’s French tale Le Petit Poucet (Hop o’ My Thumb) which in turn could be read as one of the Slavic Baba Yaga stories. Whilst these particular examples may well all hail from the Great Famine of the early 14th century (which stretched south to Italy and north east to Russia), the fact is, the themes and life-lessons within the story/ies are relevant to all, no matter the cultural slant.

The Austrian-American psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim, analysed fairy tales through a Freudian lens, arguing that the difficult themes dealt with within these stories, such as death or abandonment (as is the case in Hänsel und Gretel and alike), hold an emotional importance in child development (The Uses of Enchantment, 1976). I mentioned earlier, that these tales speak of our hopes and fears; for Bettelheim, such fears can be engaged with in a form that is remote enough to face and process by children, which in turn leads to a greater emotional intelligence and capacity in adulthood. Actually, posthumously, plagiarism claims were substantiated and some of his qualifications found to be falsified. Though regardless of whose work it was, I think it offers a fascinating insight into one of the reasons as to why traditional tales continue to be so compelling and relevant today.

Added to this, the oral traditions from which these stories come, invite creativity and invention by their very nature: they are fluid and continually evolving and thus provide a wonderful resource for any creative to do with what they will. Today, we see such themes transposed onto the big screen with superheroes and in the ever-darkening narratives in novels, television, and movies alike. And in education, traditional tales of the old-fashioned variety continue to teach language, social and emotional literacy to our next generations. One way or another, the themes, moral messages, and life skills our ancestors sought to impart on us continue to be passed from generation to generation. Fairy tales, traditional tales, whatever you would call them, endure: they are woven deep into our world culture; they are an expression of the human condition. And may they live happily ever after…

(If you fancy a quick fairy tale fix, take a look at my own cautionary traditional tale, The Rookery at Smeaton Abbey.)

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