Fairytales : Old And New
Everyone needs to believe, somewhere, somehow, in happy endings.
When we were very young, we had the happy knack of transferring our everyday fears and our night time nightmares to the familiar figures of the ogres, witches and monsters we were told about and saw pictures of : the more frightening they were, the better we liked them, because our pains and troubles were solidified into a concrete form that was always defeated in the end by a kindly grown-up or several grown-ups or, even better, a lucky child.
A truly lucky child is a child whose imagination has been fed over the years from babyhood onwards with tales that colour life forever after.
As I wrote in one of my poems, “FAIRY TALE REVERSED…
All the stories tell you
not to walk in the woods
There is the wolf,
with the grandmother warm in his belly.
There is the gingerbread house,
with a cage inside, for fattening children.
There is the crone,
with the juicy, poisoned apple in her hand.
Keep to the path
and look straight ahead :
better the hard, safe stones
than the soft grass
and the enchanted river.
But there is also the castle :
blue turrets behind blue hills
waiting for its queen.
There is also the lucky third son
you might meet around the bend
and marry, easy as cherry pie.
There is also the nightingale
made of gold and jewels,
in the grove of singing trees.
There is so much more, on the other side of the line.
and change the colour of your eyes
The child can externalise his or her troubles, rooting them in fantasy figures and animals. The violence that is an essential element of fairytales – the devouring wolf in “ Red Riding Hood “; the wicked stepmothers in “ Cinderella “ and “ Snow White “; the terrible giant in “ Jack and the Beanstalk “ – acts as a catharsis for the child, because the wicked are always overcome or punished by the good and the brave – or just the clever and nimble witted. There are also morals to be imparted – the race is not always to the swift; the eldest child is not always the winner of the prize; hard journeys end in lovers meeting.
Imaginations are enriched by transformations : the Beast is in reality a King; the frog, when kissed by the princess, turns into a handsome Prince; King Cophetua weds the beggar maid. People are not always what they seem, is the lesson : an ugly exterior can conceal a heart of gold; if you look beyond appearances, you can have revelations that can change your life.
Order is brought into chaos; if you work uncomplainingly, you will be rewarded. Even better, children learn that they are not alone in their troubles : Hansel and Gretl lost their parents but were reunited; Cinderella was abused by her siblings, but triumphed in the end; Rumplestiltskin was defeated by the clever girl locked in the attic trying to spin straw into gold.
Children in fairytales are never talked down to : they are the ones who hold the seed of magic, as Jack does when he plants the beanstalk which will take him up to the giant’s treasure.
At every level, the child has access to deeper meanings which, planted in his or her subconscious, will flower later. Children need to be delighted to learn, rather than being force-fed with information : to them, fairy tales are more satisfying, in every way, than any other form of literature. “ Tell me a story ! “ they plead at home and, at school, what is more magical than a schoolmate who is a teller of stories ?
What is more entrancing than a teacher who transforms history into reality by adding details of scandals and trials, triumphs and sorrows, fleshing them out with the types of clothes that were worn, food that was eaten, ships that were built ?
Fairy tales unfold by means of symbol and image.
“ The Three Little Pigs “ teaches that it is better to spend more time and work harder to build a solid house than to spend a short time rigging up a straw shack that will soon be destroyed by the enemy; “ The Goose Girl “ tells the story of a princess who learns to be responsible and to survive, autonomous from her parents. Boys can learn to be chivalrous from stories of heroes slaying giants and monsters to rescue maidens; girls learn that there are two sides to mothers : the “good “ mother and the dark side, represented by the wicked stepmothers.
They help children to build a bridge between their inner reality and the encompassing world around them, allowing them to know themselves better and to communicate better with those around them. They are, of course, an escape as well, when the realities of a child’s life are harsh. A hurt child can find solace and comfort in a magical world where change is not only possible but inevitable and where, in the end, everything comes right. This not only gives the child more confidence in herself or himself, but also makes it easier for them to deal with the “ real “ world around them; to view an unpleasant or frightening event in some sort of perspective : to think, “ well, the Ugly Duckling turned into a swan ! “
Fairy tales build a child’s self esteem; they give the child hope and, as a corollary, moral strength. They also preserve a certain way of looking at the world.
It was the poet John Keats who said that every true creator saw with the eyes of a child; without this purity of vision every act of creation lacked something essential.
As we grow older, the fairytales we read turn into beloved books of wish-fulfillment. In “ Anne of Green Gables “ a plain, red haired, skinny little orphan with a head crammed full of imaginary friends and a burning desire for love is taken in reluctantly by Marilla and Matthew to their house known as Green Gables and finds the place she has always longed for in her dreams. Pollyanna, adopted even more reluctantly by her unloved and unloving Aunt Polly, transforms an entire town with her “ Glad Game “; the innocent, bright and whole-hearted young Cedric, in “Little Lord Fauntleroy “ , changes the life and heart of his embittered grandfather, the terrifying Earl of Dorincourt.
The moral is clear : if we wish to love, we cannot but be loved.
What is Jane Austen’s beloved “ Pride and Prejudice “ but a fairy tale of its time ? How about Dickens’s favourite novel, “ David Copperfield “ ? Not to mention Charlotte Bronte’s “ Jane Eyre “ ?
Tragedy is meant to strengthen us; but it does not nourish or delight as fairy tales, old and new, do.
With my hand in Keats’s, I write :
THE GOLDEN CHILD
There is a child in each of us,
who sees more than we can,
and believes the extraordinary is the only life.
This child who lives in the heart of us
lives in the heart of the rose
opens itself to something that is more than real :
first principles its water
innocence its air.
It is hard, barking one’s shins on the stones of the ordinary,
to believe that everything can be so much more
if we undo the chains of what we think is the real world,
and let go.
To sink into to the heart of the rose and say :
take me with you.
I will unfold with your radiance,
live with your simple joy in what is true reality
and shine back to the world
the radiance you taught me.
Then, I will take my first footsteps
back to that golden child.
I will begin to live my real life.
So few of us feed that child :
how else can we be saved ?