The Secret Life of the American Fairy Tale
It’s pretty easy these days to see that the world isn’t doing so well. Babies are murdered by the thousands because they are inconvenient, divorce rates are sky-high, and the government of the country that once played the role of superhero for the world has shut itself down for the personal gain of its members. It’s obvious that the world, in accordance with its habits, has gotten pretty messed up. Of course, life is not a fairy tale, as people are only too happy to remind each other. There is no rule that says that the bad guys always lose and the good guys always get to be happy. In fact, the argument could be made that there aren’t really even any bad guys. There are only people who have chosen a different set of morals.
And yet, the further the world moves from being fairy tale-esque, the more we seem to be drawn to those stories. They are no longer merely children’s tales or stories told by uneducated wretches. Fairy tales have taken over pop culture. They are retold in movies, adapted in television series, rewritten as books for children, teens, and adults.
These retellings are generally seriously altered to fit modern ideals. They are stripped to fit into society (and since fairy tales have always reflected and helped shape society, that is not very surprising). They are “darkened” to remove the lovey-dovey traces of Disney-style true love, infuriating optimism and squeaky clean heroes and heroines. It seems as though each month brings on a new dose of modernized fairy tales, and their popularity doesn’t really appear to be dwindling.
Considering the way our messed up society is clinging to fairy tales, one begins to wonder if there are elements in these stories that speak to us on a far deeper level than mere entertainment. The Land Before Time and Air Bud were also entertaining, but their stories did not hold up to countless retellings as fairy tales do.
There are reasons that the earliest stories from ancient history are fairy tales that are still told today. A widespread nutritional theory claims that when one’s body craves some particular food, it signifies certain nutritional deficiencies. In the same way, society craves what it lacks. So as people reject the basic elements that make up fairy tales they simultaneously turn to stories built upon those rejected ideals.
For instance, moral relativism is dearly beloved to modern society, but fairy tales do not have a place for it. It is not possible for the bad guy to continue in his evil ways and still get to be the good guy. He has to first make the decision to change himself and work to become a hero. There are just not that many examples of fairy tale heroes saying to the bad guys, “It’s okay. I understand that you have your own set of moral standards. You believed that it was morally acceptable to curse the princess and try to kill everyone. I don’t agree with your decision, but I accept that you should be able to decide what’s right for you.”
Fairy tales also show us the big picture about life. In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, it is very easy to get overwhelmed with stress and busyness. And while we know, somewhere in the backs of our minds, that we spend our lives working for something, it’s difficult to keep in mind that that vague something is actually quite solid. In fairy tales, we get to see both the struggle and the payoff, and are reminded what we are struggling for. Question 6 in the Baltimore Catechism tells us, “God made [us] to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.” We were made to have Happy Endings—it is just a long, hard struggle to get there.
In that long struggle to find a happy ending, fairy tales highlight the fact that the greatest battles are fought within a single person. Blessed Mother Theresa is credited with the saying, “In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.” This is true of fairy tales. We get to see the individual struggle against his own desires, for food, for comfort, for what seems to be happiness. Those individuals who cave to their own desires lose out. Those who are able to overcome their own selves get to reach the realm of happy endings. Fairy tales, although they reflect the state of a society, are not stories of societies. Each tells the tale of an individual who struggles, defeats himself, makes sacrifices for some greater good, and moves on to happiness.
While they tell us that we have to fight an interior war with ourselves, fairy tales also remind us that we are not fighting that war alone. A hero rarely achieves anything without some kind of help. He is able to do things that are far beyond his natural abilities through the aid of outside sources—helpful old women, magical objects, unwitting witches, talking horse heads, and so on. He does not earn these things, except through a willingness to be kind or generous. In The Philosophy of Tolkien, Peter Kreeft writes, “Grace is needed because evil is powerful. We are far too weak to have much hope without it.” Of course, fairy tale characters receive grace in the form of lights that shine in dark places, eggshells that turn into mountains, rhymes to make goats able to conjure tables out of thin air, and woodcutters who burst in at the last moment, but in reality, grace transforms lowly humans into creatures who hope for eternal happiness.
These elements are present in the vast majority of fairy tales, even after they have been redesigned to suit modern viewers. They cause a momentary suspension of logic and call for a celebration of truth and goodness. They attempt (and, honestly, fail) to fill the void left by the widespread rejection of virtue. Sadly, just as junk food will never put an end to a craving caused by a nutritional deficiency, fairy tales with just the barest hints of real meaning cannot actually fill the need for the virtues that they feature. That only happens when people become heroes for the real world. But then, of course, we call them saints.