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 Facebook, Instagram, 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.