Why fairy tales?

On May 16, 2010, lilyofseafoam wrote, I suppose this is a question of meaning…so I will post it here because I’m not sure where to send questions.

    I am working on an undergraduate project on fairy tales involving normative social control, Humanism, and some other aspects that I’ve yet to find a name for. I read your Princess Tales and fell in love with the humanity of all of your characters, and I wondered why you chose to re-tell old tales. Is there any meaning to your experience or any message you are trying to send children through them? (I guess the real question is “Why fairy tales?”)

I suspect this answer is much too late for your project.  Sorry!

Normative isn’t a word I often use, so I looked it up on www.Dictionary.com and read this:

1.    of or pertaining to a norm, esp. an assumed norm regarded as the standard of correctness in behavior, speech, writing, etc.

2.    tending or attempting to establish such a norm, esp. by the prescription of rules: normative grammar.

3.    reflecting the assumption of such a norm or favoring its establishment: a normative attitude.

These seem like two definitions rather than three: reflecting norms – standards, morals – that exist, and setting up new ones.  I’d guess that when fairy tales were first told and when they were originally collected and written down, part of their purpose was to pass on community values to children.  I’m thinking of folk fairy tales, the kind that the Brothers Grimm put in their books, not original fairy tales like the ones Hans Christian Andersen wrote.

It was reasonable then and still is to warn children about wolves in whatever form they may take and to let them know the possible serious consequences of lying.  Probably reasonable to laud courageous boys and docile girls during times when women had few options; if one’s lot is constricted and rebellion is doomed, an accepting attitude may be the only route to happiness.

I looked up humanism too and found this definition among others: “any system or mode of thought or action in which human interests, values, and dignity predominate.”  Some fairy tales are religious, but most aren’t.  They’re generally about coping in this world with the help of fairies, genies, seven-league boots, and other magical paraphernalia.

Last winter I was invited to be the guest speaker at a tea at Yale.  Before I spoke, the young woman who invited me said that most of her classmates hadn’t read the classic fairy tales in their original versions.  Instead, the stories were known through Disney and other modern interpreters, like me.  Many parents are keeping their children away from the grimness of Grimm.  This could mean that norms have changed or that the ways the old norms were transmitted have changed, as we now have movies and television.  Parents may no longer want to scare their children witless in order to teach them to obey (“Little Red Riding Hood”) or to be truthful (“The Boy Who Cried Wolf”) or not to lose themselves in rage and jealousy (“Snow White”).

As a child I read jillions of fairy tales.  They didn’t scare me.  The most horrific tale, in my opinion, “Hansel and Gretel” because the parents abandon their children, didn’t trouble me.  I was just glad the witch got her comeuppance and that Gretel was clever enough to give it to her.  But I did soak up at least some of the fairy tale messages.  I wanted to be blond and tall and have a handsome prince fall wildly in love with me on sight alone.  If I was blond and tall and gorgeous and he loved me, then I would never say anything awkward, my blouse would never come halfway out of my skirt, I wouldn’t get hives on my face; I would never be ordinary or imperfect again.

I’m glad my parents didn’t keep the fairy tales from me.  My imagination is richer for them.  And they connected me to the fundamental struggles we all face.

Then I grew up and didn’t look at fairy tales again until I started writing at the age of thirty-nine.  But when I did start, my imagination zipped right back there, to revising fairy tales and making up my own.  The first fairy tale I fooled around with eventually turned into the first of The Princess Tales, The Fairy’s Mistake, which is based on “Toads and Diamonds.”  If you remember the story, there’s a pretty and sweet sister who has jewels and flowers coming out of her mouth and a mean and ugly sister who has snakes and toads exiting between her lips.  Naturally, the prince falls in love with the pretty and sweet one and decides that the falling jewels can be her dowry.  They marry and live happily ever after.  And the mean, ugly sister goes into the forest and dies of mean ugliness.  When I thought about it, I realized the prince would really fall in love with the jewels rather than a girl he just met, and the terrible sister could make the creepy crawlies work for her.

In that book I was writing about three character types we experience in real life: people who take advantage of others (the prince), people who have to learn how to stand up for themselves (the sweet sister), and people who know what they want and go after it in a direct way (my favorite, the mean sister).  There’s also the bumbling fairy who tries to help, who stands for ineffective do-gooders.

Not that I thought of any of this while I was writing; I just got it right now.

If the idea had occurred to me, I could have developed modern characters who exemplify these traits.  I like contemporary stories.  So why not frame this kind of situation in a twenty-first century way?  My novel, The Wish, is set in New York City in recent times.  There is a fantasy element, but the action focuses on eighth graders in an invented middle school.

Writing The Wish was hard!  I don’t feel I know popular culture.  I rarely go to the movies and haven’t listened to many current musicians.  Weirdly, I have to do more research for a contemporary novel than for a fantasy one.  Still, I might write a sequel to The Wish someday.  I’m proud of it, and I left openings for a follow-up.

But I have other reasons for writing fantasy in addition to laziness.  Exaggerated gestures and unrestrained feeling work in fairy tales.  The jewels and flowers and the toads and snakes dramatically represent the natures of the two sisters in “Toads and Diamonds.”  In “Snow White” the queen expresses her fury and jealousy and desperation with a poisoned comb, a deadly corset, and a poisoned apple.  That kind of grandness is hard to achieve in a modern setting without slipping back into fantasy.

In fairy tales big ideas can be worked out on a big stage.  And there’s clarity.  Even though I don’t think about themes when I write, they’re still there.  Of course, my meanings aren’t the same as in the original tales, and they’re more complex, I hope.  I never extol beauty for its own sake or submissiveness and certainly not obedience.  Often I let the villain off the hook, according to some.  The meanings are generally aimed at me.  For example, I’m a worrier and The Two Princesses of Bamarre is about finding courage.  Other people worry too, so the story reaches them as well.

And then there’s the fun factor.  I loved writing how it felt when a snake exited from the evil sister’s mouth.  Or how it was to turn to stone in Fairest.

Here are some prompts:

•    Think of what the characters in a fairy tale might represent.  For example, take “Rapunzel.”  This is only one interpretation, but maybe the witch stands for despotism, the maiden in the tower for despotism’s victim, the prince for an outside liberator.  Can you think of other possibilities for this tale, like maybe the maiden represents fear?  Pick a different fairy tale and think of what the characters represent.  Write down more than one interpretation.  If you feel like it, pick another tale.

•    Now take the fairy tale and the archetypes you’ve identified and put them in a contemporary story.  Write a scene or the whole story.  Notice how the change affects the story.

•    Going the other way, take a contemporary story you’ve written or a novel or movie or TV show by someone else and recast it as a fairy tale.  Write a scene or the whole thing.  Notice how it changes.

Have fun, and save what you write!