Fairytales have a bad reputation and I’m blaming Walt Disney.
The folk tales which became “fairy tales” in popular culture were originally the horror stories told around the fire at night. They were dark and dreadful. They dove deep into the forests of the imagination where the wild things are.
The woods were full of lions, tigers and bears. Oh my! Witches and wicked wizards lurked in the wilderness. Children were abducted, imprisoned, cooked and eaten. Monsters of the deep and unimaginable horrors inhabited the world. We call them “fairy tales” but they were the horror films and fantasy novels of their day.
Some Victorian writers gathered the folk tales into collections and sanitized them somewhat, but the gruesome and gory elements were still there. A hairy, drooling wolf still lusted after a little girl and ate grandma. A brother and sister were still abandoned by their parents, imprisoned and were going to be cooked and eaten by a witch.
There were still poisoned apples, dirty dwarves, magical curses and villainous queens.
The stories still made you tremble.
Then schmaltzy Walt came along. The dwarves were turned into cuddly, kooky cousins and adorable uncles. The princess sang to little bunnies and birdies and the dastardly queen was more comical than criminal.
The audiences loved it and Walt went on to make millions by turning wild and terrible stories into strawberries and cream.
Suffer the Little Children
Walt’s schmaltzy sanitation exercise fit nicely into a puritanical post war philosophy about raising children. The little ones were to be brought up in a sterile and safe “Leave it to Beaver” world where nothing nasty ever happened.
Children’s literature was to be purged of all the disturbing, nightmarish material of the gutsy folk tales. Instead of the grim tales of Brothers Grimm it was bunny rabbits and Andy of Mayberry. Child psychologists were concerned about the sexual undertones, the threats of violence and the scary stuff in fairy stories.
They wanted to spare the little children.
But child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim thought differently. Bettelheim’s personal reputation is soiled, but some of his ideas were worthy. He said the dark elements in the old folk tales served a useful purpose. They helped kids process the frightening aspects of life. In his book The Uses of Enchantment he praises fairy tales because they engage the child’s imagination and help them cope with the terrifying images of the night.
So, for example, the child might be feeling resentment or even hatred for his mother because she has restricted his happiness in some way. But you’re not supposed to hate your mother. You’re supposed to love your mother. Along comes a story with a wicked queen, a nasty witch or a bitchy stepmother. Little Jimmy can hate her instead. So, Bettelheim reasoned, the dark emotion is released.
Or let’s suppose little Suzy is feeling nervous about the big, loud, hairy men in her life. An uncle, a big brother, the neighbor next door are terrifying. She senses another fear lurking in the forest of her mind. It is a vague sexual threat. So along comes a story of a little girl being stalked by a huge, hairy, drooling wolf. Happily the woodcutter wields his axe, kills the beast and saves little Suzy.
Rather than making the little children suffer, the stories help the kiddies work out their fears in a safe way. Their imagination caused their fears. Through the chemistry of catharsis, the stories key their imagination to resolve their fears.
The story might lead the children into the dark forest where the wild things are, but the turn of the story brings relief and resolution.
The Trick of the Tricky Ending
In his famous essay on fairy stories, the master of fantasy, J.R.R.Tolkien said the terror and evil in the stories are not the big issue. The point of the story is its happy ending. However, Tolkien was not arguing simply for a Pollyanna happy ending for its own sake. For its true power to be revealed it had to be a certain type of happy ending — a tricky happy ending.
This happy ending occurs through an unexpected turn of events which indicates the presence of another actor — a greater magician. When it occurs in the story the reader experiences a sudden gasp, a lift of joy. Not only does the plot turn in a good direction, it is the “right” direction.
“Aha! Of course! I should have known! Perfect!”
Tolkien coined a term for this tricky happy ending. He called it a “eucatastrophe” and he waxed quite eloquent about it.
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” …this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale — or otherworld — setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur… giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief. It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.
Fairy tales are therefore not only important for children. All of us entertain fears and uncertainties. Myths and fantasy literature help everyone work through the murky mysteries of life. The huge popularity of fantasy and horror films, superhero movies and mythical stories at every level of our culture should not be a surprise. These are more than entertainment.
They open our eyes and heart. The uplift and joy we feel at the turning of the story opens us to truths that are more true than mere facts.
Tolkien put it this way,
The peculiar quality of the ”joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?”
The True Fairy Tale
Tolkien once had a conversation with his friend C.S.Lewis. They were discussing Christianity and the ancient myths. Tolkien was a practising Catholic. Lewis was still an unbeliever. Lewis contended that Christianity was “just a myth like any other.”
Tolkien replied that it was a myth, but a true myth. The Christian story engaged people like all the great stories, with the remarkable difference that it really happened.
The sagas of the Old Testament sound much like the fairy stories we hear in childhood. A braggart of a brother is sold into slavery by his wicked siblings, but ends up saving them from starvation. That’s Joseph from Genesis. Jack and the Beanstalk? The clever boy slays the fearsome giant? The story of David and Goliath sounds similar. The lowly maiden is rescued by marrying the handsome prince? The story of Ruth and Boaz comes to mind.
These stories sound and feel like ancient myths and fairy tales, but the stunning difference is that they are presented as being historical. The ancient authors place real people in real places in a historical context.
The true fairy tales really happened.
Tolkien returned to this idea at the end of his essay on fairy stories.
The Gospels contain a fairy story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels — peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world…This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.
Tolkien believed all the great stories echoed that one great story of mankind’s perpetual battle with the forces of darkness. Furthermore, the story was not only played out in the lives of ancient men and women. It is played out in the ordinary lives of each one of us. Everyone has choices to make, a quest to pursue and an adventure to undergo.
Tolkien’s hero Samwise Gamgee understood.
He understood it all.
It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something…that’s there’s some good in this world Mr Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.
Dwight Longenecker is a Catholic priest working in South Carolina. He’s the author of The Romance of Religion-Fighting for Truth, Beauty and Goodness. Visit his blog and browse his books at dwightlongenecker.com