Thursday 27 May 2021

What's The Point of Fairy Tales - Claire Fayers

 Following on from my post about fairy tales last month, I've been wondering why we still tell these stories. (When I say 'fairy tale' I'm also including myth, legend and all kinds of folklore).

I know many people who can't abide anything that smacks of fantasy, who only want stories set in the real world. I also know people who think that all fiction is a waste of time and would never read a novel, because what's the point of spending your time reading something that's not true?

I might at that point be tempted to quote Neil Gaiman's famous paraphrase of GK Chesterton:

"Fairy tales are more than true - not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be defeated."

But I'm not sure that would convince my realism-loving friends. Fairy tales tell us that bad things exist in the world but they can be defeated. It's a good lesson to learn, but do we really need magic swords and talking flowers to get the message across? If the only purpose of a fairy tale is to teach a moral lesson, then we're better off leaving them in the past and embracing stories that talk about the real world.  

In fact, why not do away with the story altogether. "Listen, kids," we can say, "the world is full of bad things but if you're brave and kind and you try hard, you'll be okay. Probably." And then we can all go home, forget about being authors and get proper jobs instead. 

Fortunately, stories have a power that goes beyond any message they contain. I love the fact that myths and legends and fairy tales have been told and retold across continents and down through generations, so when we tell them again it feels like we are taking part in a vast conversation. I'm heartened to see new variations of old stories, some bringing back the darkness at the heart of the originals, others featuring courageous princesses who'd never sit about waiting to be rescued.

My Zoom book club was discussing The Little Prince this week, which is very much a fairy tale with a prince leaving his home and going out to see the world. He soon discovers that the universe is far bigger and he is far smaller than he had ever imagined. For a while the knowledge crushes him, and then he discovers, in probably the most famous line of the book 'the essential things are invisible to the eyes.'

As we discussed the story, we got onto the subject of how stories make us feel. For me, there's a particular wonder in fairy tales, a sense that the world is bigger and more magical than we can see with our eyes. That, to me, is the real value of fairy tales, and that is why, although I love real-world fiction, and will routinely devour non-fiction, I will always need magic swords and talking flowers.

Claire Fayers writes fantasy and adventure stories for 7-12 year-olds. Her new collection of Welsh Fairy Tales, Myths and Legends, published by Scholastic is out now.


Anne Booth said...

I agree, Claire. I will always need fairy tales - and I am so glad to live in a world with them in! And I must re-read 'The Little Prince'.

Susan Price said...

I'm with you, but feel that this can't be repeated often enough: In the original folk-tales, the heroines did not sit around waiting to be rescued!
Only in the literary retellings, tidied up to appeal to people who could afford to keep their daughters and wives at home, did it become standard for heroines to wait for rescue.

Lynne Benton said...

Love the post, Claire, and especially liked Susan's point about the tidying up of folk tales. I was recently asked to write a retelling of "Hansel and Gretel" but without the wicked stepmother, which felt a bit odd!