Grimm Stories: Why fairy tales are not just for children
Winter is the time of year for fairy tales; long dark nights mostly spent indoors lend themselves to storytelling, and the promise of snow and Santa Claus rekindles the sense of magic that exists in most of us. If this doesn’t make you think about fairy tales, then all the Disney films on TV will: giants, goblins and fairies pop out of the woodwork and remind us of the stories we were told when we were young.
But despite first appearances, fairy tales are not something reserved just for children, in fact many have undergone a literal ‘Disneyfication’ to appeal to the child audience, disguising their more sinister and grisly roots.
Filled with sex and violence - sort of like a Quentin Tarantino film - fairy tales were not the sanitised versions we know today.
Before the Victorian period when many stories became moralised and used as a vehicle for teaching children right and wrong, fairy tales were often written with adults in mind. Filled with sex and violence - sort of like a Quentin Tarantino film - they were not the sanitised Cinderella, Goldilocks and Red Riding Hood we know today.
Many of the original versions of fairy tales were much more sinister. In the original Snow White by the Brothers Grimm, the Queen who ordered the Huntsman to capture Snow White was in fact her mother and she requested he bring back her liver and lungs - so she could eat them. Not exactly bedtime reading for children...
There is something universal about fairy tales, they are a cultural currency we can all relate to: the battle between good and evil; human struggles; perseverance when the odds are against you; and the reality that things don’t always end well.
Through reading fairy tales we are participating in, and identifying with, an enormous network of others around the world (something that doesn’t happen all that often, except perhaps when a Harry Potter book comes along.) They make us a part of something much larger and enable us to share some common ground.
Like all good stories, fairy tales provide food for the imagination, an escape from our worlds and are good fun to read, but they also do something else – they offer reassurance. There is a moralising branch of fairy tales that allow the good to flourish and the evil to be punished, these please our moral compass, are a comfort to us and let us live our lives the way we'd like.
Then there is the other branch of stories which provides another more odd satisfaction - the ones where things don’t always go well for the virtuous: they struggle, they are unfortunate, they try to turn it around but in the end they’re still eaten by the bear. These please us in the sense that they reflect reality more accurately and prepare us to deal with adversity when it happens to us. This is a very important skill for children to learn, but just as important for adults to remember.
Child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim wrote about the importance of fairy tales for children: for emotional growth, the ability to resolve issues and handle challenges later in life. Whether this view is shared by all, it is worth considering the value of fairy tales for adult readers and the possibility they might equip us to emotionally interpret and manage our lives more successfully. Beyond Disney there awaits a much broader and more complicated genre with lots to offer the older reader.
So whether for fun, to reset your moral compass, to rekindle your childhood or discover them for the first time, put away the Disney and dig out the Brothers Grimm and be prepared for a fairy story with a bit more bite...