Tread softly into an enchanted forest, where the lush green foliage envelops you with its magic. On your right, you might glimpse a cottage made of candy and two young children sampling its sugarcane gates and gingerbread door. On your left, you might see Peter Pan and Tinkerbell whooshing past you in order to catch the sunset from Mermaid Lagoon. Right in front of you might be a magnificent castle, home to Sleeping Beauty and her Prince Charming. And up there in the sky, are the millions of glittering stars that have witnessed these stories as old as time. If you believe in magic, you might just see a sketch of their stories there.
Welcome to the world of fairy tales. A place where you can get a spinning sensation of admirable characters, twisted plots, cauldrons of magic, and oodles of fun. If you’re a first-time reader, you will feel nothing short of bewitched. If you’re returning to the nostalgic world of your childhood, evoking the feeling of being back in your princess or pirate-themed bedroom, reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales under your blanket with a penlight, then you will believe in magic once again and find comfort in the healing powers of stories.
People love good stories. Storytelling has been part of our literary heritage as far back as the Ancient Egyptians 3,000 years ago. In Europe, fairy tales grew out of folk stories and oral storytelling traditions. The term fairy tales comes from the French version, conte de fées. In his book, Fairy Mythology, Thomas Keightley informs us that the origin of the word “fairy” is the Latin word fatum, meaning, “to enchant”. Similarly, in French, fée means “illusion”. The French had a great interest in fairy tales, so much so that Louis XIV had designed the gardens of Versailles to include thirty-nine fountains that portrayed stories from Aesop’s Fables. Each fountain was engraved with the fable on plaques. Interestingly, it is from these plaques that Louis XIV’s son learned how to read.
Children’s literature historian, Seth Lerer, says in his book Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter:
“Fairy tales, as we know them now, are really the creation of literature collectors, editors, and authors working from the late seventeenth until the mid-nineteenth century. They appeared as literary texts during the age of Louis XIV, not so much as children’s stories but as exemplary fables for the courtier adults. They taught ideal behavior. They became the fashion of aristocratic salons.”
It is for this reason that some fairy tales are tinted with promiscuity, violence, and societal ideals that are unsuitable for young children. The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen, portrays the story of a young girl who was out on a cold winter’s night desperately trying to sell matchsticks for her poor family; as the story explains “She was getting colder and colder, but did not dare to go home, for she had sold no matches, nor earned a single cent, and her father would surely beat her.” It was New Year’s Eve and people were passing by, ignoring her pleas. Finally, she succumbed to her death; out of hunger and cold. However, the tale ends with a note on how she went to Heaven though people were too late to help her avoid her premature death; “She took the little girl in her arms, and both of them flew in brightness and joy above the earth, very, very high, and up there was neither cold, nor hunger, nor fear-they were with God.”
There’s more to fairy tales than the interwoven wisdom. Fairy tales groom readers to appreciate the finer, sublime things in life. Your five senses are instantly awakened to experience the scent of the Beast’s rose garden, to taste the Gingerbread Boy and the finesse that went into baking him, to listen to the music that Cinderella and her Prince were dancing to, to see the splendor of The Little Mermaid’s underwater world, and to feel the reality of a goose laying golden eggs. Even the choice of language is in itself beauty and gratifies a children’s curiosity for vicariously experiencing what the world can offer. For example, I love the fact that Belle from Beauty and the Beast has a passion for reading and feels strongly independent and reliant on herself to succeed in life without a man.
In The Little Mermaid, Hans Christian Andersen begins with a picturesque image of the underwater world:
“Now don’t suppose that there are only bare white sands at the bottom of the sea. No indeed! The most marvelous trees and flowers grow down there, with such pliant stalks and leaves that the least stir in the water makes them move about as though they were alive. All sorts of fish, large and small, dart among the branches, just as birds flit through the trees up here. From the deepest spot in the ocean rises the palace of the sea king. Its walls are made of coral and its high pointed windows of the clearest amber, but the roof is made of mussel shells that open and shut with the tide. This is a wonderful sight to see, for every shell holds glistening pearls, any one of which would be the pride of a queen’s crown.”
Modern fairy tales are equally delightful and offer the advantage of dealing with contemporary issues. Aprilynne Pike’s debut, Wings, talks about an average girl who finds out she is a flower fairy when she starts growing petal-shaped wings. Pike uses a mixture of traditional folklore on fairies and gives it a new twist with modern themes like first loves and friendship. Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and The Kane Chronicles talk about kids who discover they have supernatural powers as demigods or magicians. Throughout the books, you will experience a rollercoaster of an adventure as you learn about Greek and Egyptian myths. My favorite is Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, which is the story of a father who has the power to bring stories to life whenever he reads aloud. It is easy to fall in love with all these characters not only for their sense of humor and adventure, but also for the nobility of their actions during challenging times. Certainly many stories offer that feel-good euphoria when you finish reading that last line. It seems as if we are subconsciously yearning for the same happily ever after for our own lives.
So whether you’d like to rekindle your belief in true love, escape your humdrum life and experience a multi-colored multi-dimensional fantasy, or salute the courageous characters for restoring goodness back to their worlds, delve into the pages of a fairy tale. It might just put a smile on your face.
My favorite fairy tales are:
- The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis
- The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
- Swan Lake
- Thumbelina by Hans Christian Andersen
- Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling
- Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
- Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie
- Beauty and the Beast by Jeanne-Marie LePrince de Beaumont
- The Fisherman and his Wife by the Grimm Brothers
Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.
C. S. Lewis
Faeries, come take me out of this dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind,
Run on the top of the dishevelled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame.
William Butler Yeats
The Land of Heart’s Desire