What can Fairy Tales Teach Us?

20140118-010133.jpg Fairy tales. I, like so many others through the ages have had these first stories dig deep into my heart, first by the “hearings” and now by the “tellings.” (‘Fore fairy tales ARE meant to tell and not necessarily made to show) Cinderella, Rapunzel, Blue Light, Little Tin Soldier, The Frog Prince… well maybe not the Little Match Girl, that one always makes me cry but the story still resides in my library as much as the others. Dark tales, that’s what fairy tales were before they were sanitized.

Perhaps this modernization has lead those not actually familiar with the tales to think the fairy tale world is all light and fluff. They weren’t. Even as a child, I never wanted to actually STAY in that world. Are you kidding me? The risk of being eaten or murdered, mutilated, beheaded, incinerated, neglected, abused or other unpleasant things were quite high. These lands have places where you might be required to slice off your own pinkie finger in order to finish a ladder to reach your beloved… and if you were naughty you could have your eyes pecked out or made to dance in iron shoes. How many young princesses lost their voices for years while watching, usually their brothers, be transformed into beasts or fowl? However, in fairy tale land the payoff IF you survive and you are GOOD and a little lucky, then you got a happy ever after…supposedly without any post trauma stress disorder syndrome.

What magic do these dark creations with its cookie-cutter protagonists and antagonists, woven with repeated thematic story lines have? And why do they work?

Is it because they bear a message, perhaps a moral, and offer children a means to problem solve and build emotional resiliency? Well, you can easily google studies that will point affirmatively that these dark tales work in a child’s psyche as a means to explore the dangerous and the distressing in a reasonably safe environment. I mean, the big bad wolf does not usually leap from the book to get you, does he? And the reader, a child or perhaps an inner child or two, will experience (through the story) that by being good, kind, and clever you usually can find a way to overcome the obstacles even if truly horrific things are happening such as parents abandoning you in the woods, having to throw a fake good samaritan who had wowed you with a candy house into the oven to protect yourselves from the slaughter, or discovering your husband has been keeping his murdered wives up in the room he’s forbidden you to go in.

See dark tales… Interesting fact. When things get too sanitized and say the witch doesn’t die at the end of Hansel and Gretel children have more nightmares. Why? Well, the witch is still out there…and that’s frightening. The story you see is not yet complete and add a child’s fertile imagination… Begs the question, as a reader yourself, do you get frustrated with stories with loose ends or do you like it that way so you can keep imagining?

These stories also work MOST…. (writers cue for attention) …because they represent the building blocks of archetypes. Characters, story quests and setting itself are all archetypes. After all there are probably dozens if not hundreds of Snow White story versions told throughout the world. Same character, same quest with only minor differences. How many stories are in a castle? In a child’s room? Or in the woods? If I say Rupunzel do you immediately think tower and loneliness and the Three Little Pigs do you feel a big breath and the foolhardiness of building with substandard materials?

Does this mean I’m suggesting the story you’re writing should be able to be plugged into a Grimm’s or Hans Christian Andersen tale? I would hope not…or at least not usually. And I’ll explain why in the next paragraph. But the case is… people are hardwired for stories and these fairy tales make up an important part of our “cultural language.” The wisest course would appear to use archetypes’ skeletons and then flesh it and dress it into our own story’s uniqueness because using aspects of the archetypes taps into that soul deep communication.

But it’s important to remember in fairy tales much is missing… for example, when Little Red Riding Hood is entering her grandmother’s house we don’t know if the basket feels heavy in her hand, or if she really picked the flowers along the path or she just pretended and took a nap, or if she waved to the woodcutter on the way because he was related on her dead father’s side or ignored him because he smelled like garlic. We don’t know if she was afraid of the wolf or if he reminded her of her first puppy which her mother made her give away. We don’t even know if she’s hoping her grandmother will give her a huge hug and a new hood. But in fairy tales it doesn’t matter because these details can be added or changed at a whim. What’s important are the main elements like… grandmother what big ears you have..what big teeth you have. Can you imagine how many of us could get plopped into a fairy tale’s archetypical spot and the tale would proceed with little change.

Hence the fleshing and dressing… For example, what happens if Red is a teenage boy, or the location is the moon or Red is really a werewolf herself? These would be in the making for a probable interesting twist to an archetypical story. Also bear in mind, traditional fairy tales are stories at the simplest level. They bear no subplots or subtexts. They could be likened to mother’s milk, nourishing but eventually we grow to need bread and meat.

The most important thing in a story though is to be able to make that connection with the audience…to have them take away something, some sort of emotional experience one gains by journeying with the protagonists and experiencing the changes and revelations along the way. After all, plot is a series of events but story…that is what happens, the affect and changes on a person as the events unfold.

Well, fairy tales contain “story” by having the reader project much of him or herself into the hero/archetype. We imagine Hansel and Gretel are thrilled when they find their way home and are reunited with a now presumable loving father, that Cinderella is happily married since she’s out of poverty with someone who treats her well, that Red is grateful to be rescued from the belly of the wolf and will be more careful about strangers, or at least the toothy kind, but gets to live happily ever after with her grandmother…or even that the one-legged tin soldier had a brief bittersweet moment of happiness when he realized the toy ballerina loved him enough to join him in the flames. We get all this by how we would feel in those situations.

This may suggest that to create the greatest emotional reach to our audience we should create just enough of an elegant skeleton so our reader will project their own emotions through our characters. It bears consideration. After all, I don’t think I’m the only who finds it difficult to get into stories which leaves me unemotionally moved.

What are your thoughts?

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