Yesterday, my youngest daughter and I were driving in the car, listening to the latest news on the radio about baby Prince George, when she asked me, “Why are we so obsessed with the British Royal Family?”
After pondering the question for a bit, I told her I didn’t think it was their fame or wealth that fascinates us, it’s the narrative that goes with it. We all like a good story.
And that got me to thinking about fairy tales, and my obsession with them when I was younger. Obsession is probably too strong a word, but I read more fairy tales (and folk tales) than any other fiction from age nine to about age twelve, at which point I moved on to works by C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lloyd Alexander – essentially fairy novels. I still have most of my old fairy tale books, and I’ve added to the collection since then; evidence of their importance to me (or the difficulty I share with Julie Larios in clearing off my shelves).
My favorite book was Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales, A Selection published by Oxford University Press in 1959. Andersen’s tales are more complex emotionally than the average fairy tale, and they don’t always end happily ever after. I also enjoyed Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books (The Blue Fairy Book, The Crimson Fairy Book, The Olive Fairy Book, The Grey Fairy Book…) but I pretty much read everything in this genre that I could get my hands on.
The influence of fairy tales on my pubescent psyche was profound. I think I still live by rules that came largely from the moral lessons sprinkled throughout my fairy tale books:
Don’t trust appearances.
Have faith and persevere.
Don’t be lazy, selfish, greedy or vain.Cinderella – Gordon Laite
True love is worth the necessary sacrifices.The Sleeping Beauty – Adrienne Segur
Usually.The Little Mermaid – Edmund Dulac
Keep your wits about you.Blue-Beard – Kanako Tanabe
Be careful what you wish for.
Be nice to old hags, animals in need, and dead people, just in case.
Do we follow the stories of real Princes and Princesses because of the fairy tales we heard in childhood, or did Princes and Princesses show up so often in fairy tales because of what they represent to us in the larger picture of the human narrative?
Bruno Bettleheim‘s The Uses of Enchantment (I made my parents buy that one for me too and yes I still have my original copy) attempts to explain why fairy tales make such “great and positive psychological contributions to the child’s inner growth.” They give children stories that they can stretch their newly formed emotional muscles on, and they do it through colorful, imaginative storytelling. “The fairy tale could not have its psychological impact on the child were it not first and foremost a work of art.”
But nowadays we must suffice with William and Kate, Jay-Z and Beyonce, Kanye and Kim. For the sake of the children, I hope they can all live happily ever after, at least most of the time.
But that wouldn’t make for a very interesting story, would it?…