In Defense of Fairy Tales
Why do I write this blog, anyway? Why am I going to devote my life to studying fairy tales, writing articles and doing research that no one will ever know about or read? Why don’t fairy tale scholars do something more ‘useful’ – like cure cancer, or work at a battered women’s shelter?
Why do fairy tales matter?
It’s a tough question, actually. And tricky especially for me, I suppose. I was raised in a household where I was always told that I should grow up to give back to society. Studying fairy tales might be a lot of fun, but doesn’t seem to really give anything back to society. Or does it?
First, I want to dismiss the argument that a lot of people probably think of when they’re trying to justify their existences. The argument goes like this: “Well, it matters because it’s beautiful. Man cannot live by bread alone! Art and scholarship are needed, just like we need medicine and engineering.”
No. Art is a wonderful, glorious thing. But we don’t need it like we need medicine and electricity. And man can live without the artists, the writers, and the fairy tale scholars. Would they miss us? Maybe. After a while, probably. But taking away their doctors and engineers would be a lot more noticeable and hurt a lot more because society truly needs things like medicine and infrastructure.
So if fairy tales and fairy tale scholarship aren’t necessary to society, why bother?
The easiest way out of this conundrum (for me, at least) is to say: “Well, maybe fairy tales and fairy tale scholarship have no worth in and of themselves…but I plan to be a Professor. And teaching others is always good, because it gives them a sense of purpose, develops their minds, encourages research, philosophy, debate, and personal growth.”
True. Teaching is always meaningful, no matter if you’re teaching conceptual physics or fairy tales. But this doesn’t give fairy tales and fairy tale scholarship themselves any meaning.
Some scholars (like Bruno Bettelheim or Eugen Dreweremann) would argue that fairy tales matter because they tell us something about ourselves. They matter because we can discover ourselves within them, because they are a part of us, because they are related to our inner psyches.
We can’t prove or disprove this idea. But it’s shaky at best.
Some scholars (like Jack Zipes) might argue that fairy tales matter because through them, we can understand our history. After all, the Grimms’ fairy tales tell us something about the history of German nationalism and romanticism, and also about the history of German language and literature.
This is undoubtedly true, but we could ask: “So? What makes German history any more worth studying than German fairy tales?” We’re justifying one discipline we don’t “need” with another discipline that we don’t “need.” This argument is not enough.
Here’s my argument. We need fairy tales not because we need to understand ourselves, but because we need to understand – and change – society.
We look at the world around us and we think: “Damn, this is weird. This is complex. This is…strange, scary, awesome…how does it all work?” A fairy tale is part of the process – that also includes things like getting an education, reading novels and travel – of how we come to conceptualize the society. They aren’t ways to understand our inner lives, but how our inner lives fit into our outer lives, into society.
Well Dae, that’s all well and good you might say, but our society has moved beyond the Princess and Princes of old fairy tales. We’re advanced now. We don’t work like that anymore.
This is mostly true. The societies that the Grimms, Perrault, Afansayev and MacDonald were writing about have changed.
That’s why fairy tales are really, really and truly awesome. Because they evolve. Because they change us and are changed by us at the same time. Nowadays we have feminist fairy tales and marxist fairy tales along with the more ‘Classical’ fairy tales. People create brand new fairy tales, like “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Or more frequently, they build upon and change the old fairy tales – as countless adaptations of classics like Snow White can attest. And when we read these fairy tales to ourselves, our friends, and our children (especially our children) we are shaping the way that we view society, and at the same time putting the control to change society within our grasp.
This is why we each have an affinity with certain tales. It’s not that we say: “Ah ha! I am Cinderella! That’s who I want to be!” It’s that we (or in this case I) say: “Look at how the world is portrayed in ‘The Peasant’s Clever Daughter.’ That is how I want reality to be. I am going to go out there and make reality that way.”
Fairy tales matter because they are both prisons and free, open spaces. We can imprison people in fairy tales – just look at Disney’s “Princess Collection.” Think of all the young girls who grow up experiencing reality through that Princess lens. Thinking, “This is what reality must be like, this is how I should grow up, I should be just like these Princesses.”
We can free people by fairy tales. Why do new regimes (witness: Soviet Russia, or Industrial Age England) and new social movements (Feminism, Marxism) move to create new fairy tales? Because they are trying to create new realities, and creating new fairy tales is a way to do that on both a personal and societal level.
In a way, this conception of fairy tales is closely related the Bettelheim/Drewermann conception of fairy tales telling us something about ourselves. What they get wrong is that they fully internalize this “telling.” Fairy tales present worlds. Whether they do it “accurately” or “as they should” is a matter of debate. The point is, that we see ourselves against a background, not in isolation. As part of a painting, or a machine. We need not only to understand the Self, but also the Self as it relates to society. This view of fairy tales encompasses both the importance of understanding our history (Zipes) and our inner selves (Bettelheim) with the added caveat that we also understand our present, and our relations to others. They are a way of studying (depending on the tale/era) how these things are, how they should be, or what’s wrong with the way they are/should be.
Fairy Tales do matter. And I will shout it from the rooftops until I’m blue in the face. We may not need fairy tales like we need doctors and farmers. But they do have a place. And – by gum – what a place it is.