Why we need fairy tales

By Laura Packer

packerThe recent resurgence in fairy-tale based media, such as movies (Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty), TV shows (Once Upon a Time, Grimm), literature (Kelly Link, Neil Gaiman, Bill Willingham, and others), and games (The Path) makes it clear that these stories have deep resonance in our culture. But what is it about them that drives us to them, over and over again, when we are being bombarded with so many new kinds of stories all the time?

Fairy tales endure because they are, at their most basic, the stories of our lives in their most stripped down form. They are stories of love and loss, desire and death, riches and ruin. They are the unadorned stories of what drive us, without the civilizing details of technology and manners. They teach us how to survive in this wily and wicked world. They are a shortcut to a common understanding of the way the world works.

I love fairy tales. I grew up hearing Grimm’s stories, not from books, but passed down to me by my mother from her mother from her mother, through the oral tradition. I went on to read as many fairy tales as I could find and earned my degree in them. I love the mystery and magic, the possibility and even the moralizing. I learned how to solve problems, trick my way out of dangerous situations and see beyond the obvious.

As a storyteller, I know if I tell a fairy tale or a story structured like one, my audience will understand what I’m doing and come along for the ride. They are a common cultural language, with familiar symbols and pathways, that let us connect more easily with one another.

Fairy tales are potent for retelling and healing. When we tell the story of our own broken youth, we can tell it as a fairy tale and make it easier to both state and hear. We can talk about the dark and process those experiences without frightening ourselves any more.

Fairy tales help us understand that the values of once upon a time aren’t so different from our values now. We still yearn for love, for fiscal comfort, for a better life for ourselves and our children. We want to overcome the ogres, move to better pastures, be cared for as best we can. If those values, carried across time, still endure, then perhaps values across cultures can be similar as well. Fairy tales help us break boundaries of time and culture.

And fairy tales feed our imaginations. The wondrous is matter of fact in these tales, so we are encouraged to look for wonder in our own lives. We are given permission to see the world as one of possibility. Einstein said “Imagination is more important that knowledge”. If you believe that, as I do, then fairy tales are one of your most potent tools to feed your imagination.

It’s important that we keep these stories in circulation, even the disturbing ones, because they tell us so much about what it is to be human. They allow us to talk about dark and scary things through metaphor (how many wolves have you met today?) and find ways through the woods in the safety of our own homes. They help us understand that yes, there is a woods, and yes, there is a wolf, but if we are wise or kind or clever, we will survive. They offer us unexpected solutions to the oldest problems. They remind us that strangers can offer kindness when we are kind in return. They teach us that we do not need to be alone.

(c)2012 Laura S. Packer
This article was originally published in a slightly different form at truestorieshonestlies.blogspot.com. Please do not reproduce without permission.

About Laura

Laura Packer knows that the best way to the truth is through a good story. Whether folktale or true, epic or flash, her stories captivate and amuse audiences around the world. Laura has told, taught, ranted, raved, consulted and considered storytelling around the world. When she isn’t telling, she runs venues, coaches, writes, and helps people and organizations find their stories, hone their vision and use their voices to make the world a better place. For her story and more, go to www.laurapacker.com. For her blog go to www.truestorieshonestlies.blogspot.com. And to learn more about her organizational storytelling work go to www.thinkstory.com.

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Why we need fairy tales — 9 Comments

  1. Wonderful insights as always Laura.

    I was just thinking about this same question recently after viewing a trailer for the upcoming movie, Jack the Giant Slayer…coming soon to a theater near you. It is indeed both a bit perplexing and interesting to observe all of the old fairy tales currently being filmed for the big screen.

    I think it says something about the difficult and uncertain times we are living.
    Indeed, fairytales teach us that the dragons and giants don’t always win, and gives us hope for that wistful “happily ever after…” ending.

    Thank you again Laura for sharing your thoughts so succinctly.
    Karen

  2. Laura, you hit the nail on the head. Folk tales are like pebbles at the beach, all the rough edges have been worn off leaving the smooth center for us to find. Your words echo that center, your words are that center, giving from the middle of the middle of you to the middle of the middle of me. And I am grateful.

  3. This isn’t the first time there’s been a resurgence of interest in fairy tales. I know this happened in the 20s and likely other times, too. Yeats and his crowd were great fans of folk tales.

    I think that just underscores the value of these old stories that help us remember who we are at our most basic.

  4. fairy tales are food above survival level…they are the inspiration for art, Art is Food…Art begins in the kitchen. Fairy tales are the only path I ever found over the world of whine, kvetch, weep and mourn and beg for help….
    A fairytale saves lives….it saves our very world.
    Thank you for your article about why we need fairytales.

  5. What we don’t need is cleaned up, disney-fied versions of fairy tales that lose the lessons contained in the originals. My pet peeve is “The Little Mermaid,” which was a lesson in what happens to a woman when she gives up her voice for a chance at marriage with someone who isn’t even supportive of her. In the original version, she dies and the prince marries someone he can relate to better, it’s a sad ending, and a good warning. In the Disney version? Everthing works out alright, and the moral seems to be that if you’re sweet and pretty and want something enough, you’ll get it. That’s not doing womanhood a service.

  6. True! The Golden Age, right? I love the artists of that period, and there are a small few who can do the quality of those days today. One of my favourites (now sadly passed) is Trina Schart Hyman. I wonder if this resurgence has anything to do with the lack of these tales being in the front windscreen (shield), as it were, and the realization of the need for them? Or if the ‘storytelling renaissance’ has slowly been working on the collective conscience?
    Simon

  7. This article has offered me a lot of food for thought. A very good argument for keeping the stories alive so people can know the “originals.” I am afraid that the TV shows and the novels are doing to adults’ understanding what Disney did to children; give them the form but not the real substance.

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