One of my favorite misquotes* is in the epigraph of Coraline by Neil Gaiman “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten”.
Regardless of the phrasing, the sentiment is what captures our attention and heart, for it reminds us that there are a lot of scary and dangerous things in the world but a good story will show you how to overcome and beat them.
Fairy tales pack a powerful punch, taking on the tough life lessons and pitfalls and teaching valuable lessons that leave a lasting impression on us well beyond our childhood years.
Recently I found myself in a situation where I was witnessing pride and vanity that could lead to embarrassing results. A conflict started to rise inside me – should I speak up and be honest or allow it to continue with dire consequences? What was my place? Did it matter? It immediately made me think of The Emperor’s New Clothes. As I sat and meditated about the story, I remembered that it was there in that narrative, as a child, that I had learned to speak out when I saw something is wrong, even if everybody else was acting like it’s okay.
Albert Einstein is known to have said “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales”. I think that man knows a thing or two about intelligence.
That’s because a child’s imagination is quite something to behold and very powerful. From there, stories, creativity, critical thinking, and unique solutions are formed. Fairy Tales tap into the core of imagination, with fantasy worlds and characters that don’t ordinarily fit into reality.
But Fairy Tales not only boost and stimulate imagination but also contain valuable messages that can help shape behavior and basic morality.
Deeply embedded in Fairy Tales is a moral compass. The backbone of all these narratives are the lessons of good vs evil, right vs wrong and love vs loss. Even better, is that they are very black-and-white in nature. There are no grey areas and messages are simple and clear. You don’t have to guess who is the villain or which behavior is wrong.
As adults, often times when we read fiction, we are left sitting there at the end pondering who was right? Who was wrong, what decision was best, where did things go wrong? Many times situations are left unresolved and leave us hanging, aching for some closure. But Fairy Tales are written with a simple and clear good vs bad narrative that feels familiar and makes children feel comfortable. As the story progresses, children feel safe to experience the journey and various, often traumatic, situations that come up. As the main character encounters hardships or trials, there is a sense of security that it will all be resolved by the end.
I mean, Fairy tales do tell us that good will always triumph. This is precisely why something as frightening as Little Red Riding Hood‘s grandmother being eaten by a wolf isn’t traumatizing. After all (spoiler alert) a hunter comes and splits open the wolf’s belly to release Grandma, alive and well.
We know that life isn’t always easy and things often go wrong, and Fairy Tales aren’t afraid to bring that to the forefront. There are consequences to decisions and we learn what the outcome is depends on the choices we make. When bad things happen there are some tough decisions to be had. But if you choose to be the hero instead of the villain, you can learn to hope for better and a chance at some big reward. And well, if you choose to be the witch or the troll, making life difficult for everyone then be forewarned about what your future holds.
The stories contain life lessons that aren’t always happily ever after. They tell us that the world can be tough and unfair, that other people won’t always be kind or truthful and life itself can feel wicked. Pinocchio warns us that others can see our lies and that hanging with the wrong crowd will lead us down dark paths, Little Red Riding Hood reminds us of the dangers of talking to strangers. Even The Ugly Duckling teaches not to judge outward appearances and that people change.
Fairy Tales showcase the natural violence, oppression, and challenges that occur in the world and at the same time preserve the one piece of humanity that sets us apart and helps us to prosper: hope.
I will never forget that: I am able to overcome the odds and triumph –as long as I stick to the right path in the direction that my moral compass points out, my happily-ever-after is just around over the river and through the woods, across from the next gingerbread house under the tower of the castle.
*Gaiman attributes the quote to the famous writer, G.K. Chesterton but it is only paraphrased from Tremendous Trifles.
**artwork by Sandforte