Article in PDF (Download)
Once Upon A Fairy Tale by Aryaa Naik
They tell of child slaves, buying and selling women, abduction, tyranny, poverty, hunger and family conflicts. There is jealousy and greed and brutal, power-mad despots – These are some of the common accusations on fairy tales. Recently, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins said that it was ‘pernicious’ to teach children about facts that were ‘statistically improbable’ such as a frog turning into a prince and that parents should not read fairy stories to their children as they are harmful to their education because they instill a false belief in the supernatural.
Look up the opinions of popular and influential figures in the literary, even scientific world, and you will find that they beg to differ. When Albert Einstein was asked by a concerned mother to give her advice on which books to give her little boy to read so that he grows up to be a good scientist, he had simply answered, “Fairy tales.” Perplexed, when the mother persisted “What else should I read him after that?” Einstein had promptly replied “More fairy tales.” “Fairy Tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist,” English writer G.K. Chesterton has said, “but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” American author Susan Wiggs is of the opinion that, “At the center of every fairy tale lay a truth that gave the story its power.”
In his book The Uses of Enchantment – The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim has put forth a very convincing account in favor of fairy tales. He writes, ‘To enrich a child’s life a story must stimulate his imagination; help him to develop his intellect and to clarify his emotions; be attuned to his anxieties and aspirations; give full recognition to his difficulties, while at the same time suggesting solutions to the problems that perturb him. Nothing can be as enriching and satisfying to child and adult alike as the folk fairy tale.’
The fairy tale follows a quintessential formula. Once upon a time, an orphan, a quest, a damsel in distress, a charming prince on a white stallion, a fortress guarded by a fire breathing dragon, an evil cunning witch, the valor of the hero, the triumph of good and a happily ever after. These make the perfect ingredients for a concoction of a fairy tale. With slight alteration in ingredients and minor differences in flavor the fairy tale more or less appears the same to the palate. Bettelheim in his book uncovers the seemingly simplistic layers of a fairy tale to reveal the deep impact it can have on the developing mind of a child.
Why Cinderella and Snow White lose their respective fathers at the beginning of the tale.
Modern stories written for children tend to play “safe”. They do not address existential problems that’s conform human life. There is no mention of death, aging, and the limit to our existence, instead they paint a very positive picture, a picture which tends to disappoint when the child grows up to realizes the falsity of its claim. Fairy tales on the other hand deal with existential issues. German poet Schiller has said, “Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in the truth that is taught by life.” Many fairy tales begin with the death of a mother or father; in these tales the death of the parent create the most agonizing problems, as it (or the fear of it) does in real life. It is characteristic of a fairy tale to state an existential dilemma briefly and pointedly. This helps a child to come to grips with the problem in its most essential form, where a more complex plot would confuse matters for him.
Why the Wicked Witch of the West is so wicked.
Every fairy tale personifies evil in the form of a witch, an ogre, a giant, a dragon and so on and the good in form of the protagonist and their actions, as good and evil are omnipresent in life and the propensities for both are present in every man. It is this duality that poses the moral problem and requires the struggle to solve it. The more simple and straightforward a character the easier it is for a child to identify with it and reject the bad one. The child usually tends to identify with the hero not because of his goodness but because of his appeal to him. The child doesn’t reason that he or she wants to be good but goes with the general gut feeling that he would like to be more the prince who rescues Sleeping Beauty or the she would like to be more like Dorothy who vanquished the Wicked Witch. The child projects himself or herself wholeheartedly into one character and decides to be like that character. So if a child projects himself in Harry Potter then he decides to be good, but God forbid he decides to project himself in Harry’s unscrupulous nemesis Malfoly, then there is surely a problem.
The reason Cinderella is virtuous and industrious and her steps sisters vile and lazy.
Since polarization dominates a child’s mind, it also dominates the fairy tales. Alice is sweet and innocent whereas the Queen of Hearts is ready to chop people’s heads off at the drop of a hat. Belle, from Beauty and the Beast is beautiful, kind and pure of heart while the Beast is ugly and ill-tempered. The purpose of this juxtaposition might seem like to stress implications of the right and wrong behavior, however that is not all. Presenting the polarities of character permits the child to comprehend easily the difference between the two, which he could not do readily were the figures drawn more to life, with all the complexities that characterize real people. The child has a basis for understanding that there are great differences between people, and that therefore one has to make choices about who one wants to be.
The thorny path to reward and glory
The prince in Sleeping Beauty braves tall trees, brambles and thorns to find his true love. Rapunzel lives in seclusion and isolation but never gives up hope, and her patience finally pays off when she is rescued by a handsome prince. Fairy tales direct the child to discover his identity and they suggest what experiences are needed to develop his character further. Fairy tales intimate that a rewarding good life is within one’s reach despite adversity, but only if one does not shy away from the hazardous struggles without which one can never achieve true identity. These stories promise that if a child dares to engage in this fearsome and taxing search, benevolent powers will come to his aid, and he will succeed. The stories also warn that those who are too timorous and narrow minded to risk themselves in finding themselves must settle down to a humdrum existence, much like the grasshopper who dances in summer and is left starving in winter.
Why Neverland, Narnia, and Wonderland are so far from reality.
Rationalists might argue that fairy tales show children a promise of places that don’t exist. It is true that fairy tales do not describe the world as it is, but the unrealistic nature of these fairy tales is an important device, because it makes obvious that the fairy tales concern is not useful information about the external world but the inner processes taking place in an individual. The figures and events of fairytales personify and illustrate inner conflicts and subtly illustrate how these conflicts can be resolved.
The reason Hansel and Gretel managed to kill the evil witch
It would be stating the obvious if one was to say that the evil doer is punished in the end to make fairy stories an experience in moral education, but that is not all. The conviction that crime does not pay is a much more effective deterrent, and that is why in fairy tales the bad person always loses out. It is not the fact that virtue wins in the end which promotes morality, but the hero is the most attractive to the child, who identifies with the hero in all his struggles. Because of this identification the child imagines that he suffers with the hero his trials and tribulations and triumphs with him as virtue is victorious and the inner and outer struggles of the hero imprint morality on him.
Though fairy tales seem to follow certain similar patterns, they are unique as not just a form of literature but also as a work of art which is incredibly crafted to enable us to experience delight and enchantment. As is with all great art, the fairy tales deepest meanings differ for each person and also differ for the same person in different stages of life.
So, visit your old book of fairy tales, you might read it differently today.
© Aryaa Naik