You hear it everywhere, don’t you? People describe things like “Twilight” as “dark fairy tales.” Romantic comedies are always “fairy tale romances.” Any book with love, magic, a fairy, a prince, even *a pony* must be called a fairy tale. I think it’s written somewhere in a Very Important Book. Does this make me shudder? Yes. What do I think we should do about it? Absolutely nothing.
I think that one of my pet peeves is when purists in any given field start whining about how the Great Unwashed Masses are “doing it wrong.” “They just don’t understand” seems to be the sentiment. Why can’t they realize that the fairy tale is a historical, literary form which sprang up from a combo of French Salons, “blue books,” German bourgeois culture, with a little folk culture mixed in? Now what’s so hard about that?
Here’s the thing: I think that the over-use of “fairy tale” should actually be studied as an interesting phenomenon rather than decried as something silly. People are using the words because they mean something, or because they think they should mean something. So what exactly is that “something,” anyway?
Let’s look at two of my favorite example of this phenomenon. I know you’ll like the first one: it’s that timeless Julia Roberts movie Pretty Woman
You remember that scene from Pretty Woman , right? That one where Richard Gere asks Julia Roberts what she wants from him, and she gives him that whole spiel about the prince and the white horse rescuing her from the tower. “I want the fairy tale,” she says. Usually, this is the point in the film when I have a stroke.
However! This is the most common thing for which “fairy tale” is shorthand, isn’t it? Perfection. Not just romance, but perfect romance. These stories are perfectly encapsulated gems. They always end with the declaration of perfect love (conveniently stopping before the problems set in). Their world is uncomplicated, based on merit, filled with love between two characters who are just vague enough to be any one of us. This type of fairy tale represents more than “romance,” it represents achievement. Attainment. The possibility of a gem-like whole.
Now hold on to that, because I’ll come back to it. The second way “fairy tale” is commonly used is the way that G.K. Chesterton uses it in his book Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is a very unusual, but delightful book. It’s a work of Christian apologist thought, meaning that Chesterton seeks to defend Catholicism. Whether or not you agree with him, the book itself is cheerful, funny, and very sweet. Maybe you’ve never heard of this book, but I assure you you’re familiar with the way Chesterton uses “fairy tale.”
For Chesterton, the fairy tale represents an alternative to materialism. He believed that fairy tales were a doorway into a “romantic” world, but he doesn’t mean “romance” in the rom-com sense. He means “romance” in the lit-crit sense: a world of fantasy, daring adventures, wild impossibilities, heroism, etc. In short, his fairy-tale world is one based on faith, adventure, romance, and a certain kind of mysticism. He contrasted this world with the dull, overly materialist, rationalist and scientific world for which he saw many of his compatriots advocating.
When you put these two together – romance + Romance or “Perfect world” + irrational fantasy world – you get an idea about why the word “fairy tale” is thrown around so much. Or at least, you get an idea about why *I think* the word fairy tale has been thrown around so much. Fairy tale is more than shorthand for Disney-ified princess culture. The fairy tale world is seen as a plausible and desirable alternative to an overly determined, materialist world. But this world is also seen as broken. It is filled with unfair twists and turns, in which the good don’t always win. It is often nasty, brutish, short…all that usual and unfortunately apt philosophical stuff.
Fairy tales posit two things, with the possibility of a third. One: this world is not the only possible world. We could have another, a “romantic” one a la Chesterton. Two: this world could be perfected, enclosed and gem-like. Here is where most people (myself included) get scared. This kind of thinking is nice, sure, but it could lead to wayyyy too much day-dreaming, blindness about the evils of the world, and to little action (except wishing on stars and the like).
However, fairy tales also posit something else, something which you get if you put Pretty Woman and Orthodoxy together (what strange bedfellows). The combination of the two promises that this world could be better, that we could *make* it perfect through work, instead of wishing. Now, this idea also has its problems. The world is not fair, and the idea that we could make it such in our lifetime is probably a false one. But the idea that action is not futile, that something could be done is, I think, a good thought which most people welcome. And the way the words “fairy tale” are thrown about all the time might point to a certain misty-eyed wish to see a rom-com, but it also points to an acknowledgment of the possibility for change. Well, at least I hope so.