4th January is the anniversary of Jacob Grimm’s birthday and it has made me think about the fairy tales I enjoyed as a child and why these stories of good versus evil and light versus dark have such enduring appeal. Often, before the Disneyfication of these tales, the good guys did not always win, in fact evil often triumphed.
Some say this was a reflection of the short and brutal nature of life at the time, capricious in its cruelty, the stories reflecting reality through the prism of fantastical creatures and situations.
Life wasn’t fair and good people often suffered. At least while they were listening to tales of bad things happening to other people they could rejoice in the knowledge that it wasn’t happening to them … not yet anyway. It was a way of safely confronting their fears and subjugating them at least until the fire went out.
In more modern times the need for a happy ending has evolved. Did this come about because life became, materially at least, more comfortable? Did we, as masters of our own universe, able to banish darkness with the flick of a switch, begin to feel invincible? Was our need for a happy ending a reflection of our change in circumstances?
Or was our wish for happy-ever-after borne out of our visceral fear of losing all the things that we had worked so hard to acquire? Loathe to confront that possibility did we instead wish to retreat behind the construct of a happy ending to keep our fears at bay?
Whatever the truth, we still wanted to dabble in the vicarious thrill of a dark tale but we wanted to settle down to sleep afterwards in the sure knowledge that all was right with our world.
As fairy tales evolved into vehicles to teach children lessons in morality some of the darkness has been lost. With the sharper edges blunted, the complexity of the earlier tales has been diluted, sacrificed to create soundbites of hope.
With every re-telling whether in the firelight or at bedtime or in the local multiplex a new layer of meaning is added, embellishing a familiar tale but reimagining it for a new audience, a reflection of the time the story is told in.
Perhaps by being exposed to these tales of morality at a young age, where hope triumphs over evil, we are all just a little bit better for it, which is why I believe we all need fairy stories, however old we are.
We know only too well as adults that those wonderful sunny uplands where all bad acts are avenged, where justice wins out and evil is banished don’t exist but many of us wish they did and as everyone who enjoys fairy stories knows wishes are very, very powerful things …
My favourite fairy tale is Rapunzel. I was always struck by the beginning of the tale where the man ventures into the witch’s garden to pick radishes for his wife whatever the risk. I saw it as a wonderful act of love – wanting something for the woman he loves (in this case radishes) more than he wants anything for himself (physical safety).
I guess I have always been a romantic at heart, leaving aside the slightly dodgy morality that the man was stealing something from someone else even if she was a witch!
What’s your favourite fairy tale and why?