Where are we going?
Welcome to WonderLit! We're going to begin with a little introduction to fairy tales so that you can see what kind of stories they are. Then I'll give you a couple of exercises that will lead you to the pictures you find intriguing.
When you have finished this chapter, you'll be ready (and, I hope, willing and able!) to work with a single story through the Warm Up section. By the end of the section you'll know that story well enough to tell it, and you'll also probably know if it's a story you want to spend more time with in Section 2.
If you have already chosen a story to explore, you might want to skip the exercises in this chapter, and go straight on to Chapter 2.
What is a fairy tale?
There are many misconceptions out there about what fairy tales are. In fact, there are so many that I'm tempted to say the fairy tale herself has come under a spell!
So, to find out what a fairy tale is (and isn't), let's start by addressing some of the predominant "myths."
Fairy tales are stories for children. True or False?
False. While many fairy tales have been rewritten for children, they didn't start out that way. They began as stories for everybody.
They come from a time when people worked on the land and spent long winters inside. Fairy tales were often told by women who were spinning. In fact, says Marie Louise von Franz, these "yarns" are so connected with the spinning wheel that some people have called them rockenphilosophie, the philosophy of the spinning wheel.
With the advent of the printing press, people began collecting folk and fairy tales. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in Germany, Alexander Afanasyev in Russia, and Giovanni Francesco Straparola in Italy were some of the collectors who listened to the stories that were circulating, made some adjustments, and recorded them in print.
Other people have written fairy tales, and these are known as "literary fairy tales." Charles Perrault, Madame de Beaumont, and Hans Christian Andersen gave the world some of our favorite literary tales. More recently, Richard Kennedy, Jane Yolen, and L. Frank Baum have contributed to the rich tradition of stories that come from the mythic imagination.
Whether the fairy tale comes to us through oral transmission or the pen, any fairy tale worth her salt is meant to speak to everybody, at every age.
Fairy tales are archaic fantasies. True or False?
That's actually true. Fairy tales go a long way back. They spring up all over the world in many varieties, but the themes are universal and extremely old, going as far back as 25,000 years.
If a fairy tale has been told over and over again you may think it rather common, but in fact numerous retellings give a story power. Why? Because so many people have related to it and have woven their experience into it. Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty, Jack and the Giant Killer, Sealskin, Skeleton Woman, The Six Swans, The Swan Maiden, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, and Snow White have been told for generations in cultures all over the world. Cinderella, for example, goes all the way back to ancient China and Egypt.
Fairy tales have nothing to do with the real world. True or False?
False. Fairy tales are not about outer reality. They're about inner reality. They take us to imaginary places to meet powers that express aspects of human nature. We meet feminine and masculine ruling powers, powers of love, powers of wisdom, and powers of magic. We also meet powers of darkness and adversity—wizards and witches, ogres and trolls, along with beasts and devils of all kinds.
The characters in fairy tales make it possible for us to see ourselves in a mirror, but they're not meant to be taken literally. A wicked stepmother is in no way related to a real-life stepmother, just as the wolf in Red Riding Hood has nothing to do with the wolf that we're trying to keep from becoming an endangered species.
In the language of Carl Jung, the characters in fairy tales are archetypes of the human psyche that belong to the "collective unconscious." Some of those characters are familiar to us, and others are less so.
Fairy tales are superficial. True or False?
False. Granted, on the surface, it may not seem that a fairy tale is very deep. The stories are action-oriented and don't appear to have much emotional depth. We don't know how Snow White feels, for example, about having to run for her life when the huntsman tells her that the queen wants her to be killed. But when you imagine how she feels as she flees into the forest, you soon discover that there is a lot more going on than meets the eye.
In fact, more than any other type of folk tale, fairy tales direct us into our depths. They take us downward and inward, into the place where our true feelings live: our aspirations, questions, wishes and hopes, as well as our darker feelings, our hurts and temptations. The stories usually begin with some sort of wound or loss. Hansel and Gretel lose their ability to find their way home, Cinderella loses her beloved mother, and the Steadfast Tin Soldier comes out of the manufacturing process with only one leg to stand on. The characters fall into a broken place, just as we do when we become seriously ill, or lose a loved one, or leave a familiar way of life.
What happens in a fairy tale is that the characters find a way through these dark woods. Somehow, they recover from losses and tragic turns of fate, and that is precisely why the stories can be so helpful to us. They give us the "thread of the path," in the words of Joseph Campbell.
In fact, you might find it interesting that the word fairy has an old connection to words meaning "fate." Fairy tales are concerned with fate: how we meet conditions that are not in our control, and how we realize our destinies. The word fairy is also connected to the French word fée, which is associated with marvels and enchantments. In a nutshell, fairy tales are marvels that take us to another world so that we can better understand our fates in this world and find the magic to realize our destinies.
Fairy tales are sexist. True or False?
Mostly false. Due to some spectacularly superficial modern retellings of fairy tales, however, some people have the idea that fairy tales are both shallow and sexist. The prince rescues the helpless princess, and everybody lives happily ever after. As Anne Sexton said of Disney's Snow White, she's nothing more than a "dumb bunny."
In fact, more often than not, it's the heroine in the story who does the rescuing. The swan sister in The Six Swans liberates her brothers from the swan spell. Hans Christian Andersen's Sea Maid saves the drowning prince. Gretel gets Hansel out of the witch's cage, and Rapunzel's tears heal the eyes of her blinded prince. The two leading characters, the prince and the princess, are on equal footing, and there's a very interesting dynamic going on between them if you look deeply into the stories.
That's not to say that fairy tales don't contain some sexist material. They do, and it's up to us as storytellers to sift the wheat from the chaff and carry the wholesome stories forward.
Fairy tales deal with spells and other superstitious nonsense. True or False?
False. Fairy tales are all about spells, but they don't have much to do with witches on broomsticks flying around and looking for "eyes of newts."
In fairy tales, characters cast spells with their words.
An exasperated queen can turn her daughter into a raven by uttering a string of words.
An outraged godmother can curse a child to death by declaring, that in her fifteenth year she will prick her finger and "fall down dead."
In these stories, words have power. They can change shapes, and change fates. Imagine what it would be like if our words actually had the power to change another's form? In fact, we do cast spells in real life. In what ways? And once those spells are made, can they be broken? How? These are all potent questions that your own explorations will inform.
The invitation of the fairy tale is to slow down and enter the story, go beneath words into the living beings they represent. And in a fairy tale, everything is alive. As J.R.R. Tolkien said in Tree and Leaf, it was in the fairy tale that he "first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine."