The fairy tale … It will always be a wondrous story. In our childhood it brought us a little enchantment before falling asleep. Many still experience that same enchantment when visiting a theme park. Fairy tales invite us into a world that can only exist in fairy tales. In that wonderful world, anything and everything is possible, it is filled with magic and wizardry and the inexplicable suddenly becomes explainable. Fairy tales, in all their subtle simplicity, have intrigued both young and old for centuries. As a fan, writer and illustrator of fairy tales I hope they will continue to do so happily ever after.
The contemporary fairy tale is believed to have its origin in medieval storytellers. Their tales were recited from generation to generation. People in those days were illiterate and the tales taught them the wise lesson that Good would always conquer Evil. The stories were eventually written down and century-old tales were saved for generations to come. Nowadays, they paint an imaginative picture of what the world was like then.
In many famous and less famous fairy tales, one often finds similarities in construction and style. Everybody knows the standard beginning of ‘Once upon a time…’ and many a tale ends with the fully accepted ‘… and they lived happily ever after’. Within the fairy tale a story is told of the protagonist having to conquer Evil or another seemingly insurmountable barrier. He or she eventually succeeds by pulling off a heroic act (like in Tom Thumb) or by intervention of another virtuous person (a handsome prince or a fearless hunter). Add a considerable dose of magic and some inexplicable events to this recipe and behold, the DNA of the fairy tale unfolds on paper.
Were we to dissect that DNA further, we would find some more remarkable qualities. For example, you wouldn’t do fairy tales a great injustice by stating that the stories are often uncomplicated and the characters rather one-dimensional. The latter aspect clearly presents itself in the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood, in the version of the brothers Grimm. Everybody knows the tale, but how well do we know the girl? If Little Red Riding Hood indeed has a proper name, we never learn it. What we do know is she lives together with her mother in the forest. Dad or any other family members remain undiscussed. We also know Riding Hood has an evident preference for a specific red cap and that the child goes through life happily. The description of her personality doesn’t go beyond those facts. Other characters in this fairy tale suffer the same fate: not a word is uttered about a possible tense relationship between mother and grandmother and we hear nothing about the friendly side of the Big Bad Wolf. The characters have entirely been reduced to the function they hold in the story. In a novel, a carefully constructed character shapes the story. In a fairy tale it demolishes it.
Just as symptomatic is the paradox that fairy tales, although having a childlike nature, are often full of grown-up violence. I can vividly imagine the complaints of parents should Bert and Ernie engage in a fistfight one night on Sesame Street. But moments later, those same parents happily read to their offspring how the witch puts Hansel and Gretel on the menu and the Queen demands the heart of her stepdaughter Snow White. You can ask yourself if those fairy tales should not get the ‘Parental Guidance Advised’ qualification. However, this violence is widely accepted. And understandably so. Because the more gruesome Evil is, the more there is to shudder and the bigger the triumph of the hero. That morality, together with the other wondrous characteristics, forms the DNA of the fairy tale.
Evidently, this DNA does not match that of modern fiction in many ways. You could have a lively discussion about how the fairy tale relates to ‘serious’ literature. What is the heritage of the brothers Grimm, of Andersen and Perrault? And what place do they deserve in your bookcase? My answer is: ‘Make up your own mind. It is after all your bookcase’. But don’t hesitate to put your storybook next to Hemingway or Austen for a while. It won’t bite. Slide it between history- or poetry books. And by all means put it on the lower shelves to ensure young hands will have easy access. But read it, rediscover it if necessary, because I believe this piece of culture will survive through people that are willing to preserve it.
Critics may say that the fairy tale is a childish and old-fashioned piece of prose. The enthusiast will say ‘thank goodness’. Because precisely because of that stubbornness, the fairy tale has kept its worth: a pretty picture in words, a piece of cultural heritage that captivates and charms young and old. The fairy tale is like a little old barrel organ in the modern High Street or a nostalgic Pre-Raphaelite painting in a museum of Modern Art. It’s been holding a unique place in our culture for centuries. And for those who want to listen, it still has a lot to tell. I wish you many fairy tales.