It always irks me when I hear someone say , “Life is not a fairy tale.“ They are referring, of course, to the standard ‘“happy ending” of so many fairy tales. I’m fairly certain that the people most likely to belittle fairy tales are those who have never read any. Or maybe they are thinking only of the Disney movies. (Which, by the way, I loved when I was growing up).
Dedicated readers of fairy tales know that in spite of the happy endings (royal marriages, re-united families, persons released from wicked spells) fairy tales actually have more in common with “real life” than the average TV sitcom. Since when have poverty, neglect, ridicule, jealousy, domestic turmoil, greed, duplicity, murder and the abuse of power not been part of real life? That fairy tales offer a way out , by means of magic or trickery, is no more unreal than what might actually occur in a “real life “ situation, if one is lucky. Or persistent. Miracles do happen — and plenty of people still believe in them.
It says a lot about our materialistic present-day culture that the tale of “Cinderella ”, in particular, has achieved mythical status with its dream of “rags to riches “ — although the story, in all versions, is also about coming to terms with loss and grief. The heroine manages to discover the inner resources she needs to overcome adversity —- even if it is wishful thinking. And there is a high price to be paid for avarice and dishonesty —- the bad sisters not only mutilate themselves for the sake of gaining status and wealth, but —- in Grimms’ version—- are blinded. Cruel punishment doled out to evil doers is also part of our wish-inspired myth, as tenacious as the “happy ending.” For an intensive study of this aspect of fairy tales, you can read Maria’s Tatar’s The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales.
Is it any wonder that fairy tales have provided fertile ground for modern writers and artists, who mine them for hidden truths and new insights, including social criticism?
Fairy tales are hybrids of myths, legends, epics, religious beliefs and wishful thinking (of the oppressed). The many retellings do them no disservice —- rather, it keeps them fresh, vital and —- yes —- political. The folklorist Jack Zipes has written about the subversive nature of fairy tales —- how ordinary heroes and heroines, through deception and ingenuity manage to free themselves or a loved one from oppressive circumstance and thereby also achieve emotional and spiritual growth. Not entirely unlike real life.