Fairy Tales: A Matter of Opinion

Saturday, January 30, 2010 |

"We all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales – because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him.

We've all seen the Disney movies. Most of us spent time as young kids reading and rereading fairy tales, and now we enjoy flipping through a good retelling. For me, I've always been a kind of fairy tale junkie- I don't think I really ever grew out of that phase. My Brother's Grimm collection of stories is still at my bedside, and I'm known to occasionally watch an old Disney film. I never quite figured out why they've been such an important element in my life; the best reason I've come up with is that I'm a sucker for happy endings. Aren't we all? Doesn't everyone love these childhood stories, where things are perfect for a little while, where reality is just out of reach?

I was surprised to learn that, no, not everyone is a fan. Perhaps not in the sense that they disapprove of the stories themselves, but with the messages the stories are sending to young children. A dear friend, feminist, and teacher, blogged about her opinion of fairy tales, in this case, Cinderella.

If I were to teach this story literally, here is what my students would (in theory) learn from it:
1) Whatever crappy things happen to you, you just have to take it because eventually it will get better.
2) That when facing any difficult task in life you will have help to overcome it (birds, fairy godmother).
3) That one must hide one's flaws (Cinderella hiding her poor attire).
4) That step-families are evil.
5) That a man will rescue you from your crappy life if you're attractive enough.

With the popularity of the Disney Princesses line, I think it's a good thing to at least look at what ideas we're introducing our children to. Admittedly, I read this tale and watched the Disney film many times as a child, and I still was able to see past the superficiality of the relationships within it. However, there are lots of little girls (and teenage girls) who believe some of these ideas about beauty and men, so not everyone hears the tale without being influenced by it.

I think she makes some valid points. Reality is not anything like the fantasy world of fairy tales. One aspect of these stories that makes me cringe a little is the idea of love at first sight, and how willing the girls/princesses are to spend their lives pining after their true love. But really, is their love so 'true'? Can you really fall in love so deeply after a single glance, or one conversation? I don't know much about love, but I do know that it takes time. And it takes work. Not everyone rides off into the sunset.

But maybe, just maybe, the fact that fairy tales themselves are so unlike the real world is what makes them so beautiful. They're escapes. They spark a little hope that somewhere, there is a prince charming and a white horse. There is true happiness, and it's worth fighting a few dragons or evil stepmothers for.

What is your stance on fairy tales?


Melissa said...

I loved fairy tales when I was younger, but I have to admit I'm a smidge off on them these days. I find that they create unrealistic expectations of life, and while they're fun and inventive for children, I'm not sure they're the greatest thing to be impressed upon children, if that makes sense :)

Jenn (Books At Midnight) said...

Thank you for participating in The Saturday Network!
And great post! Hm, those are definitely valid points made there by your friend, but I have to admit I LOVE fairy tales. But I see them as 100% an escape, a fantasy, something that I KNOW is practically impossible but an idea I can romantically sigh over. It's nice to dream. :)

La Coccinelle said...

I think there's an element of truth to fairy tales. Love at first sight? Maybe not. Attraction/infatuation/lust at first sight? More likely. But that's not quite as romantic, is it?

I think the danger is when people start to take these stories literally, instead of as metaphors.

Nina said...

I'm a huge fan of fairytales, i mean my blog isn't titled jadorehappyendings for no particular reason! I just love watching the Disney classics and when I was little my mom always read to me Peter Pan and all of the other great stories. I didn't believe they where true, just a great story..nothing else.
Just like you say, fairytales are an escape from the real world, no biggie!

Ps; Great post.

Anonymous said...

I was never obsessed with fairy tales but I did enjoy them. That being said, I never took them very seriously. I dunno, I've always been very realistic about everything. That being said, I love Beauty & the Beast soo much. I used to watch it every weekend as a kid lol.

I don't like the whole "man rescuing you" theme that seems to reoccur, especially in the older fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White etc. I think those really represented the times though. Women are a lot more independent now. I have to say that I really appreciated The Frog Princess because Tiana actually had goals and aspirations for herself that didn't include marriage/getting married etc.

ninefly said...

I personally liked the Disney fairytales when I was younger, but as I grew older I wanted to look more into the original Grimm versions
I think I actually read the Grimm version of Little Mermaid first when I was little (where she sacrifices herself in the end to allow the prince/princess to be together) and just thought of Disney's version as rather lame in comparison
the real problem I have with some of these fairy tales is their rather oppressive depiction of girls as damsels that can't (and shouldn't) fend for themselves
it was quite disturbing to hear some little girls coming out of Beauty and the Beast saying they wouldn't mind an "abusive boyfriend" because they will eventually "become nice" like the beast if they just stayed with them long enough
that said, I still love adult fairy tales, as well as foreign ones (Chinese, Celtic, original Grimm), Disney/American fairy tales are a whole other genre that I don't care much to touch (I probably won't see Princess and the Frog either)

Priya said...

I LOVE fairytales... it doesn't matter whether it's realistic or not, it's just a fun form of entertainment for everyone. I agree that they can be escapes too - if you're having a bad day, wouldn't you rather curl up with Cinderella or something rather than a realistic fiction novel?

Brianne said...

I'm a fan of fairytales but I don't think they're realistic...obviously. lol.
But even so, the idea of a boy loving me at first site repulses me. I don't want to be loved for my outside appearence. Yes, the way I look is apart of me, but it's not ME. I want to be loved for who I am as a person. And that cannot be figured out at first glance.

KateW said...

I teach a college class on fairy tales. I have a blog on fairy tales. I edit an online magazine based on retellings of fairy tales. None of these is done based on a view of needing happily ever after. Nor are they based on believing that fairy tales are unrealistic or escapist.
The tales are filled with despair, trouble, questionable motives -- life. Many of the tales, in the original, featured birth parents as persecutors. The change to step parents came when Wilhelm Grimm became increasingly unable to comfortably tell stories where birth parents were so dreadful.
What's more, after what most of the heroes and heroines go through, what's a little happy ending?
By the way, there were, in the original Grimm stories, just about as many male protagonists as female. But readers preferred reading about persecuted women. As clearly, many people do today. Fairy tales are read by women, by and large.

Beth S. said...

I see both sides of the coin in regards to fairy tales.

The same could be said of the whole Twilight craze that's going on right now too. If you follow John Green on You Tube, he made a great case about these "need to be saved from life by a man" stories back in November:


Like him, I worry about the implications of these types of stories, but it's also nice to escape from life from time to time and just be carried away by a fantasy.

Bokheim Publishing said...

Fairy Tales dip into the realm of dreams and hope. They can inspire, heal, delight and even help someone learn a point of view they might never have discovered. The fact that they are a lot of fun to read is great bonus! Great reviews!

The Bokheim Chu

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