The Stories Behind The Stories

If you enjoy astonishing legends, there's little doubt that you've at least looked into the grim (pun-intended) origins of many fairytales. Many believe that fairytales are meant to teach us lessons and do so in the form of exaggeration, magic, and even repurposing historical events into something other worldly. And, there seems to be something strange about utilizing such horrifying, vulgar stories to soothe children and make them subconsciously remember the lessons of Snow White and Jack and the Beanstalk. However, are fairytales simply warnings in sheeps' clothing or, are they are a more complicated part of human history?

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In recent times - despite all the technology and seeming lack of wonder left in the world - there seems to be a fairytale resurgence. Marina Warner, a fairytale historian, says that fairytales have so much allure because they are "stories that try to find the truth and give us glimpses of greater things." And, if one drops the idea that fairytales are only for warnings (and children) i becomes clearer as to why there is a resurgence in the tech age. But how can a fairytale, quite literally something other worldly, hold so much truth about our own world?

Well, perhaps the need to move beyond reality is at the root of that tie to our world. Warner, in her new book, notes that fairytales, "untrue" stories, show a "need to move beyond the limits of reality" in the audience that is captivated by them. Ellen Handler Spitz, a writer for the New Republic, links this to a psychological belief of Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel who writes, "Man has always endeavored to go beyond the narrow limits of his condition." So, is the creation and enjoyment of fairytales a way to push our own beings farther and farther away from what we think our limits are?


Furthermore, the psychological element of the fairytale helps us to understand why we get so involved in the lives of actions of characters who are so under-described. Most fairytales aren't first person perspective, so we rarely get true interiority. In addition to that, many fairytales are lead by the action of the character, not necessarily their thoughts. Their motives appear clear. But what about ours?

Handler Spitz proposes something interesting, "when confronted with texts of this kind, whether scriptural, mythical, or faerie, we are hooked not only by what is given, the positive imagery, but by the very gaps—“the negative spaces”—as we might say in visual arts." So, it is precisely these scant descriptions and closed-interior characters that make fairytales so alluring. They allow the audience, us, to insert themselves momentarily into this fairytale. You might think, "What would I do?", "How would I feel", "Where is the nearest city to this village", "How do fairies fly?", "Where do centaurs come from?" ,"How wonderful!" or "How scary!" - all these thoughts and more dance across your mind when you read a fairytale. It is through this that we become the message-makers and answer-holders.

But we still watch the re-tellings, see the adaptations, read the modern takes on classic tales...because we want to think more about them. We want new and different ways to picture the unimaginable, and, more importantly, more opportunities to place ourselves into the unimaginable. 

The above image is liscensed under creative commons 2.0., thanks to the NYC Public Library!  It is an illustration of Cinderella at the Ball!