Darkness and Hope: the History of Fairy Tales

Very interesting article about fairy tales by Joan Acocella over at the New Yorker. One part I found especially interesting:

“The main reason that Zipes likes fairy tales, it seems, is that they provide hope: they tell us that we can create a more just world. The reason that most people value fairy tales, I would say, is that they do not detain us with hope but simply validate what is. Even people who have never known hunger, let alone a murderous stepmother, still have a sense—from dreams, from books, from news broadcasts—of utter blackness, the erasure of safety and comfort and trust. Fairy tales tell us that such knowledge, or fear, is not fantastic but realistic.

I wonder if fairy tales have to be hopeful or realistic. Many tales end with the villain defeated (even if it’s a violent manner, ala The Goose Girl), which suggests hope. Maybe it’s not as bright as Zipes would like, but I think it balances with the realism and darkness Acocella mentions. Cruelty and violence are real. We need to confront the world and its violence. But I think folktales also reference how goodness can prevail, even if death is inevitable.

Make sure to check out the whole article through the link. Lots of engaging history and literary criticism.

(image: Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Mrs. Edgar Lucas, translator. Arthur Rackham, illustrator. London: Constable & Company Ltd, 1909, via SurLaLune Fairy Tales)

2 thoughts on “Darkness and Hope: the History of Fairy Tales

  1. Originally, fairy tales were meant to be cautionary tales–usually more so for adults than children. Little Red Riding Hood warns children of the dangers of going into the woods, but stories like Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel were warnings for adults about remarriage. (In both cases, the stepmother abuses the child/ren.) Parents boasting and/or making outlandish promises (Rumpelstiltskin, Rapunzel) also get their children into trouble.

  2. Thank you for sharing this! I loved reading this article find fairy and folk tales fascinating. They take such deep root in our psyches, and everyone feels so differently about their goodness/badness for children and adults. I read part of Bettelheim once and was intrigued that he wasn’t that bothered with gender roles, but instead said that a little girl reading hearing “Rapunzel” might identify with the heroism of the Prince, climbing the tower, depending on how she saw her world. Have you read “My Mother, She Killed Me; My Father, He Ate Me?” The title comes from The Juniper Tree, and it’s a contemporary collection of short stories based on fairy and folk tales, and they’re creepy and compelling as hell.

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