The World Needs More Fairy Tales

Artist: Seb Mckinnon —

The world needs fairytales more than ever. Besieged daily with news headlines that are by turns terrifying, infuriating, heartbreaking, and straight up unbelievable, we are desperate for solid footing in our new and wildly uncertain reality. Ironically, fairytales may be just the thing to ground us in this upside-down world.

While fairytales and myths may at first appear to live squarely in the land of make believe, their roots run deep in our collective psyche, easily reaching across barriers of time, geography, and culture. Masquerading as entertainment and escapism, they are in fact ancient threads in the tapestry of civilization. And they serve a critical role, especially in the lives of children.

The author Neil Gaiman sums up the special magic of fairytales thus, “Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” The sentiment is a paraphrasing of a longer quote attributed to another British writer, G.K. Chesterton. In the original, Chesterton adds, “Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him by a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.”

In short, fairytales teach us how to deal with monsters. They prove to us that monsters can be vanquished, and by so proving give us hope and courage and the audacity to take up arms against the darkness.

Fairytales also help us to recognize the monsters that we face in real life. Those well versed in fantasy and myth can spot a bad guy a mile off. We know their traits and their tells. They cannot fool us. We’ve read this story before.

Fairytales, myths, and their contemporary counterparts (urban fantasy, science fiction, superhero stories, and so forth) also help us recognize the heroes and heroines within ourselves. The stories we read become part of our internal identity. We become the protagonist on a journey or quest, and we learn through  vicarious experience what it feels like to do battle with evil and emerge victorious. Fairytales, in particular, seem to possess an especially potent magic that causes their DNA to merge with ours, changing us forever.

The real world is full of monsters. They may not look like the beasts and demons of mythical lore, but their hearts are as dark and their intentions as evil. There are people marching under Nazi flags, serial killers, and corporations savaging the natural resources that sustain us all. There are Machiavellian demagogues, morally bereft political operatives, and narcissists who are dangerously out of touch with reality.  There are schoolyard bullies, backstabbing co-workers, and online trolls. We have no shortage of villains.

But I like to think that we also have uncounted numbers of fairytale-reading heroes and heroines, just waiting for their chance to put the monsters in their place. You cannot tell me that a generation raised on Harry Potter doesn’t have the advantage against the forces of darkness. We may not have magic wands, but we carry within us the magic of those stories and hundreds more like them — stories in which the powers of kindness, friendship, and justice prevail against any adversary.

And I would add a gentle reminder that fairytales are not just for children. As C.S. Lewis, the author of the beloved Narnia tales, said, “When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” Perhaps it’s time for more adults to recognize the gifts of clarity and inspiration that are folded in the pages of magical stories. There is wisdom to be had, and great insight, if only we can be brave enough to look.



Jamie Lee Wallace I am a freelance content writer, columnist, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. For more from me, check out the archives for the  Saturday Edition and Sunday Shareworthy posts. Off the blog, please introduce yourself on FacebookInstagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

This post originally appeared as a column in the Ipswich Chronicle, and subsequently on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.

55 thoughts on “The World Needs More Fairy Tales

  1. Slaying dragons is part of my job as a fiction writer, isn’t it? The formula works. Just as James Bond is about to be sawed in half by the buzz saw, he is rescued, then saves the day. I saw a painting over the door of a medieval church in Greece a couple of years ago – with a heroic St George on a horse about to slay a dragon! The cross of St George is a part of the Union Jack. This story is as deep in our culture as George Washington and the apple tree. Thank you for bringing this connection to my thinking.

    • Hello, Robert! It has been so long.
      It is fascinating to me how interwoven the folklore and fairy tales of days gone by are interwoven into our contemporary lives.
      Me? I prefer to befriend the dragons. 😉

  2. Agreed. However, and not trying to be a drag, how many would truly accept one nowadays? Once semi-public, the scrutiny begins. Can you imagine how much “drama” it would be just to speak about the fairytale openly?

    • I actually think that popular culture is overflowing with fairy tales and their close relatives. While classic fairy tales usually exist in the realm of kids books and movies, there are countless related forms to be found in young adult and adult literature, film, and TV … On TV – Once Upon a Time, Stranger Things, The Magicians, American Gods, Game of Thrones, and pretty much every super hero series you can think of. (And, I know I’m missing some!) As far as books go – I just read a couple of books that are practically straight-up fairy tales, including The Wonderling (Mira Bartok) and The Trees (Ali Shaw) The Girl Who Drank the Moon (Kelly Barnhill) and The Bear and the Nightingale (Katherine Arden). Other books I’ve read recently that fall into that fairy tale-adjacent category include Fool on the Hill (Matt Ruff), Borne (Jeff VanderMeer), The Book of Dust (Philip Pullman), and The Glass Town Game (Catherynne Valente). There are myriad stories out there that can claim the fairy tale as their ancestor, even if they have evolved to something more “palatable” to today’s sensibilities. 😉

  3. Thank you for a well expressed reminder of things not always just for children. Every human heart needs at times in this stressful world to be reminded of the stuff of fantasy and make believe. C.S. Lewis was a master of his Gifting. He could weave so well the extraordinary tales of make believe with such truth of real life.

    • Yes, and often the stuff of make believe can lead us to what is most true in “real life,” giving us two gifts in one.

  4. I wish there was a love button. Maybe it’s time for me to start saying fantasy with the fierce pride I have for it when people ask me what I read, instead of making excuses for it. Most of the people in my life think they’re dry, stuffy informative texts are more valuable than my stories. I’ve let the convince me it’s true too long. Thank you for the reminder!

    • And I wish there was a love button to send back your way. I know exactly how you feel. A few years ago, I had an informal housewarming party, and I invited a couple I didn’t know very well, but whom I saw frequently at the local coffee shop. They were clearly people with literary leanings, so I felt the possibility of a kinship. During the party, I noticed the husband standing in front of one of my bookcases, passing a critical eye over its contents. The shelves he was perusing were primarily books on the writing craft, but nestled among many such volumes were a few classics including one called Short Novels of the Masters, which included works by writers like Melville, Dostoyevsky, Chekov, Joyce, etc. He asked if I’d read it. I responded that I hadn’t, that I mostly prefer speculative fiction (including fantasy, science fiction, and all their sub genres). I swear to you that he literally rolled his eyes at me. This man I hardly knew, who was a guest in my house saw no issue with overtly shaming me for my reading preferences. I was horrified.

      Because of this experience (and others like it), I was delighted to read the following in an article by Julie Phillips in The New Yorker. She was quoting the inimitable Ursula K. Le Guin, whom we lost last month (I will be writing about that in another post – so heartbroken). From the article:

      She was warm, difficult, brilliant, and not afraid to defend her prejudices. She disliked self-conscious literature and, despite years of trying, couldn’t stand Nabokov. (“I see him standing in the foreground, saying”—and here she put on a slight Russian accent—“ ‘Look at me, Vladimir Nabokov, writing this wonderful, complicated novel with all these fancy words in it.’ And I just think, Oh, go away.”)

      … I mean, how can you not love that? xo

      • To be honest I feel ashamed to say I had never heard of Le Guin until I just read your reply. I instantly bounded to google and from the tiny excerpts I’ve read she seems like a true fantasy hero. I’ll be reading some of her books as soon as I can. Thank you.

        And maybe the next time I’m in a situation like that, with someone rolling their eyes at my deep love for fantasy I can think of you and Le Guin and pull their snooty nose right back down. You’ve given me so much in one post!

      • I’m honored to be the one to introduce you to Le Guin and her work. I hope you enjoy what you discover, and would love to hear your thoughts.
        Meanwhile, here’s to giving snooty noses what for.

  5. Tôi cảm ơn bạn câu chuyện ý nghĩa , như bạn đã thắc mắc trong bài viết , ( không gì là không thể ) không phải phép thuật cổ xưa đâu , hiện tại luôn là thật . Vì mọi thứ luôn tồn tại kể cả những gì không thấy bằng mắt. Thật cuộc chiến cuối của sự thật !

    • For anyone else who needs it, here is Google’s translation of the above comment:
      I thank you the meaningful story, as you have questioned in the article, (nothing is impossible) not the ancient magic, the present is always true. Because everything always exists, including what is not seen with the eyes. Really late fight of the truth!

      And my response:
      I have always loved thinking about everything that exists beyond the range of our senses. Our perceptions are actually quite limited, and some of my favorite stories combine elements of fantasy with scientific concepts to open our eyes (and hearts!) to possible realities we never considered. 🙂

  6. One of the best blog posts I’ve read in ages. In part (a small part) because I’m trying my hand at a story of myths and I love your perspective on why we need to be reassured we can slay our monsters. But in a large part because, yes. We need fairy tales and myths and monsters and magic wands in these lives of cold technology. Reality can be a dark and scary place and fairy tales are like little fireflies along that path lighting our way. I’m very glad you thought of writing this post, and then wrote it so well.

    • Thanks very much, Lisa. I agree that part of the appeal of fairy tales and their more contemporary counterpoints is the way that they provide a valuable foil to the overabundance of technology in modern life. Technology removes so much of the mystery and possibility, while “fairy” stories (be they traditional fairy tales or urban fantasy or some other sub genre) restore our sense of wonder and open our eyes to all the questions that we can’t answer. I think that’s a good thing … I think that’s a vital thing.

      Thanks for being here & for taking the time to comment. Now, you’ve got me thinking! 😉

  7. Sometimes we read the right things at the right times. Your article was like that for me. You have talked of some thing very simple but which is actually a deep and very real thing. At times when happy endings seem far away, we need that small ray of hope to believe in. Thank you for a beautiful and reassuring post.

    • You’re so very welcome. Thank you for being here and for letting me know that there was, perhaps, some serendipity, in the timing of my post. That’s the best! 🙂

  8. Loved your writing! The words you use are so vibrant and rich. Personally, I love a fairytale – I’m a firm believer that cliches are overused for good reason! However, do you not think that it is very easy to lose sight of the morals and guidance for life hidden in fairytales when the plots are so captivating? If you agree, then I suppose that part of the value in fairytales is nullified…their entertainment value remains endless!

    • Thank you. 🙂
      I actually think that fairy tales are often rare examples of stories that shape us without being overtly “moral” or “educational.” The beauty, for me, of a great fairy tale or similar genre of story is that it can both sweep me away into an immersive adventure and – at the same time – illuminate parallels between that world and my own … all without feeling at all “preachy,” something that would definitely put me off as a reader. I think that the truths that exist in fairy tales exist on a level that is much deeper than the surface of the entertaining story. They are almost primal, and so we recognize them even when they are adorned in the trappings of the fantastic.

    • Hello, Tee. It has been too long! 🙂
      I’d love to hear more about how fairy tales give you momentum toward your goals. That sounds really interesting.

      • Hi Jamie! I’m so sorry it took so long to reply. I have been so busy and that is a good thing. I have read fairy tales since I was little. They always inspired me to be better as most of the time there was an underdog on the story. They always prevailed and if they could, then so could I! Even the Harry Potter series (a new age fairy tale) still inspires me every time I watch the movies. I read the series years ago with my children and fell in love with a little boy who was humble but a hero. I really liked Hermione also since she was a muggle girl and very smart! She never let anything keep her from her visions and goals!!

      • Glad to hear you’re busy, Tee. I hope it is with tasks and projects that make you happy. 🙂
        Thank you for sharing some more detail about how fairy tales inspire you. I have often felt the same way. It’s almost like because we have experienced fairy tales, we know how to cast ourselves in the role of the underdog who never gives up and eventually accomplishes her goal. Love that!

    • Hello, Christine!
      It’s very nice to BE back. Working on a piece on just that topic. It’s been much too long.
      Thank you for the nice welcome back, and for your enthusiasm about this post. Both give me the warm & fuzzies. 😉
      Here’s to slaying the monsters, wherever we find them!

  9. I love that Neil Gaiman quote! Funnily enough, The Chronicles of Narnia are a “children’s” book series I still love to read from time to time. They never get old. I definitely agree that fairy tales help in troubling times. 🙂

    • The best fairy tales are so deftly layered with story and meaning that they are perfect for readers of any age. I love rereading books that were childhood favorites and discovering a whole new experience now that I’m older. What a gift those writers give us — a lifelong friend in a story that evolves as we do.

  10. Pingback: The World Needs More Fairy Tales — Live to Write – Write to Live – Library Lizards

  11. Pingback: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone [Book Review] - Themself

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