When tigers used to smoke: why we still love fairy stories

Art & CultureLifestyle

Written by:

(Photograph courtesy of Steve Czajka)

Our PC world can’t stop us loving these ancient tales. Martin Duran Lopez examines why.

In Britain these days you can hardly take a bus without seeing on its side a picture of Emma Stone as Cruella, advertising the latest Disney film of that name. It’s a new take, of course, on the earlier Disney classic 101 Dalmatians.

Both films are based on Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel. It is therefore a relatively modern story, though with many traditional fairy story elements to it. But it did get me thinking about those more classic tales which have stood the test of time. What makes a fairy story and why are they still so popular? 

Again and again, Disney has trawled this magical world to find themes for its films: Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Aladin, the Sword in the Stone, and more. And the box office revenue only confirms their popularity. 

“Once upon a time …” The very words are soothing. Hearing them we know we can escape life’s stress and enter a magical world far away from the prosaic grimness of ordinary existence.

But for a little while it seemed that this fairy land might no longer be suitable for the modern world. A 2018 survey found that, at least in the United Kingdom, one in four parents edit fairy tales as they read them to their children to fit their own convictions. Moreover, in that same year, a number of Hollywood celebrities claimed they had banned their children from watching classic Disney films for the same reason. Could it be that contemporary society no longer had any use for these time-honoured tales?

Yet stories are as human as humans themselves. It is hard to disentangle them from the culture and language in which they were created.

And though fairy tales have come to us as written stories, they often have a long oral tradition, perhaps revealing deep and primeval traumas. 

Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, for example, was based on Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué. In turn, Undine was inspired by the medieval story Melusine by Jean d’Arras. The character Melusine was likely constructed on the basis of Echidna, a creature from Greek mythology, a half-woman half-snake monster who lived alone in a cave. Mate of the equally ghastly Typhon, she was the mother of numerous famous monsters of Greek myth. 

Maybe this story continues to be relevant because it conveys what the authors believed to be the dual nature of women, at least as men perceive them. Beautiful and powerful, attractive but dreadful, beyond male control, his dream and nightmare, the grace and flow of feminine beauty and emotions, a sea to dive into to explore, but also a tempest to drown in. Hence the story’s frequent connection to streams, rivers and oceans.  

Are fairy tales exclusively for children? Certainly, since children have less experience than adults, they are attracted by fantastic tales. Nevertheless, adults can be attracted to fairy tales even knowing that they did not happen in reality. 

Tolkien thought that children like fairy tales because they don’t yet have a clear grasp of what reality is. He wrote: “Children’s knowledge of the world is often so small that they cannot judge, off-hand and without help, between the fantastic, the strange (rare or remote facts), the nonsensical and the merely grown-up (ordinary things of their parent’s world).”

Adults, on the other hand, like fairy stories because we know all too well what reality is and want to escape it! 

The psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim in his book The Uses of Enchantment argues that children probably enjoy fairy tales more because characters are unidimensional. Many fairy tales portray a main character who has to confront the leading villain at some point of the story. 

For example, Little Red Riding Hood has to deliver some food to her grandmother but she encounters the Big Bad Wolf on the road. Hansel and Gretel have to escape the evil witch who wants to eat them. In this regard, characters can be easily categorized as good and bad. Real people on the other hand are more complex. It is frequently hard to understand people’s motivations and even harder to label them. Therefore, children can find it easier to understand characters with a sole motivation in the story.

Then there’s the question of the reality of fairy stories. If a story has imaginary creatures and magic, surely it cannot be real? Adults and even some children know that dragons, ogres and giants are fictitious characters. But what is reality, anyway?

And in our media dominated world with its surfeit of film stars and Netflix series, the distinction between reality and fiction is ever more blurred.

For many, what appears on the screen becomes their daily news and principal topic of conversation. 

The English author GK Chesterton also pointed out that there is a great deal of moral truth transmitted through fairy tales, what he called ‘the ethics of Elfland’.

Besides, the genre of fairy stories has its own way of warning us we are entering another world. Not just the already mentioned ‘Once upon a time’, but also phrases like ‘A long, long time ago …’ are lightly coded signals that it’s time to enter the realm of make-believe. 

Other languages emphasize this even more. For instance, some Slavic fairy tales begin with ‘Beyond the hills, beyond the valleys’ and some Korean tales begin with ‘In times when tigers used to smoke’. A few German fairy tales or Märchen begin with ‘In the old times when wishing was still effective…’

These statements warn the reader that the story actually happened outside of this world. So where do these stories take place?

Tolkien argued that these stories happen in the land of Faerie. According to him, this land cannot be fully described, though he did lay out a few of the elements which characterize it. He  saw this is a land of enchantment but also one of ever-present peril. In other words, two of the core elements of fairy tales are magic and danger. In this land there is always a ‘turn’ of events that could lead to unexpected destinations. 

Consequently, these stories are not factual accounts and they don’t happen in the real world. So what is their use? Why do people keep reading old fairy tales and producing new ones? In the book Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion, Jack Zipes argues that fairy stories are metaphors of reality. He explains that these stories ‘tell us metaphorically that life is hard, or that life is a dream’. 

In other words, they are descriptions of our reality told in symbolic form. Or more simply, they tell real stories in a fantastic way. It is true that sometimes life can be hard, but it can also, on occasions, seem rather easy. Sometimes our life resembles a wonderful dream and other times it resembles a nightmare. 

Therefore, according to him, reading fairy stories is like reading more entertaining versions of factual stories. For instance, a story where a little sea creature feels unrequited love for a human prince and resorts to magic to win his heart is more entertaining than a factual story of one-sided love.

Bruno Bettelheim argued that fairy tales represent a very specific human experience, that of overcoming an obstacle or solving a problem. For this reason, he emphasized the importance of fairy tales having a happy ending. Characters in fairy stories have to face threats and dangers in their journey, and by overcoming them they reach the happy ending.

Problems are inevitable in fairy tales, as they are inevitable in ‘real life’.

In this regard, these stories are not mere entertainment, they provide us with hope that despite difficulties we can get to a better place. In fairy tales and in real life there is always going to be an unexpected ‘catastrophe’, understood in its original sense as a ‘turn of events’. The true fairy story is the one where that catastrophe leads us to a happier existence, hopefully forever. After all, don’t most fairy stories end: “And they all lived happily ever after”?

Bettelheim, who focused more on the psychological benefits of fairy tales, acknowledged that the happy ending provides children with security when facing challenges in their lives. Yet, adults can also get a sense of relief and hope from the ‘good catastrophe’. In short, he saw the good catastrophe as a necessary condition for a true fairytale. 

Accordingly, for him, not all fairy tales are complete since they don’t have that joyous turn. For instance, if we compare Andersen’s The Little Mermaid with the Disney version, we can see that the latter has a happy ending while the former does not.

But is Bettelheim right? Many stories included in fairy tale collections do not have happy endings. Some might be cautionary tales. They warn us something bad could happen to us if we visit a forbidden place or commit a prohibited action. 

In this type of story, the tragic ending results from misbehavior of some sort. Perhaps the prohibition is derived from a taboo practised long ago and no longer has significance. Or maybe the prohibition is still relevant to our time. It might be useful to look into why the prohibition was included in the first place. As Chesterton once said: “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.”

Other stories have tragic endings in spite of the character’s ‘good’ behavior. These stories portray the hardships of human life. Many of Hans Christian Andersen’s tales do not have a happy ending, because often real life doesn’t. So in his tales the catastrophe does not lead to a better place.

Andersen’s The Little Match-Seller, for all its magical elements, is a good example of a story that does not end well. In this tale, a poor girl has to sell matches on a freezing Christmas Eve. She refuses to go home because her father would beat her if she does not sell all the matches. To warm herself up she starts lighting up matches and magically each flame provides her with a vision. She sees a warm stove, a holiday dinner, a Christmas tree and her late grandmother. After experiencing these visions, the little girl freezes to death. Despite seeing ‘beautiful’ images before dying, this is most certainly not a happy ending! So can this be considered a complete fairytale?

Probably not. Most people know that life can be hard because often the ‘turn of events’ is for the worst. Tragedy can come in the form of financial hardship, sickness or the death of a loved one. Nobody is immune from these events. The use of fairy tales is thus not to remind us of this truth but to relieve us from it.

Surely problems do not resolve themselves magically but perhaps it is magical to have the right attitude in the face of challenges. 

In other words, there is practical utility in these stories. Therefore, stories that lack this practical and positive  understanding might be entertaining, and even morally orientating, but in my view they are incomplete.   

As Bettelheim himself pointed out, fairy tales are pieces of art and, like any good art, can have multiple interpretations. Accordingly, the meaning of fairy stories can be different for each person and even different for the same person in different stages of their lives. Challenges we face when we are children might seem insignificant when we are adults. 

In this sense, different challenges in the fairy tale are highlighted depending on the situation of the reader. For instance, in the story of Hansel and Gretel, some readers might see the imprisonment by the witch as the problem while others see the abandonment of the parents. Yet in both cases readers can find relief that the problem is overcome. 

So as ‘inadequate’ and simplistic as fairy tales might seem to our politically correct world, it seems to me they still have a key role to play and parents should value and use them in the education of their children. In an age when you feel frightened to speak because anything you say might offend somebody, the very lack of subtlety and nuance in these stories is refreshing and much needed. 

Life can easily become oppressively grey, so let’s at least give our children a few years of clear black and white, or rather, the many fantastic colors which these classic tales paint for young imaginations.  

Like what you’ve read? Consider supporting the work of Adamah by making a donation and help us keep exploring life’s big (and not so big) issues!

One Reply to “When tigers used to smoke: why we still love fairy stories”

  1. Avelina Perez says:

    Excellent and thoughtful analysis

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.