Here’s an anecdote that you might have heard before if you’re an avid birder. It won’t seem like it’s about fairy tales at first, but bear with me. A reporter once approached the great ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson to ask what was a fairly routine question: ‘So, what good are birds, anyway?’ Peterson had been asked this question before, much like writers get asked where their ideas come from. And he usually had a stock answer about ecology, birds eating bugs and planting trees, and so on. But this time he replied quickly, intuitively, without pondering the ‘correct’ answer. ‘What good are birds?’ the reporter asked, and Peterson said, ‘They’re alive, aren’t they?’
Now, recently I’ve been composing an essay with the rather bland title ‘How to Rewrite Fairy Tales’, and I might post it here later if there’s interest. And it was while I was pondering this question that this anecdote about Roger Tory Peterson came to mind. I’m throwing this anecdote on the table because I think it suggests something about how we too often talk and think about fairy tales. Go to your nearest bookstore—or a local university library—and browse through the selection of books about fairy tales. There’s a lot of fascinating material. The older books are psychoanalytic, or Jungian, or—in the curious case of Joseph Campbell—both. There’s formal analyses of structure and narrative, classifications and indices and bibliographies. All well and good—curious and functional, at least.
More recently, from around the 1980s onward, you’ll find a lot of sociopolitical analyses: what role did the collection and telling fairy tales play in society? What role should they play? On one end of the spectrum you’ll get ideologues like Richard Dawkins roundly declaring that the Philosopher General has determined fairy tales are hazardous to your rationality, or effusive commentaries in Favourite Fairy Tale collections about the golden age of childhood enchanted by fairy tale play, and so on. Much more will fall in the middle. There can be responsible historical analyses of the societal and political values that inform the adaptation of fairy tales. And, more insidiously, there’s also theory-driven, partisan readings that insist tale types must contain and/or be deconstructed by a certain political view, and only that view.
Put it another way, there seem to be a whole lot of ecological answers to the question ‘What good are fairy tales?’
So we find books and essays and editorials explaining that fairy tales are feminist or anti-feminist, religious or anti-religious, subversive or bourgeois, progressive or conservative, straight or queer, all of the above and none of the above. We find eloquent arguments that fairy tales form a rich and beautiful part of childhood development, and eloquent arguments that they form a distressing and destructive constriction on childhood. We find tales by Jane Yolen and Angela Carter, by Terry Jones and J. K. Rowling, Walt Disney and A.S. Byatt; funny and sombre, traditional and deconstructive, enchanted and sarcastic. Some will insist, unequivocally, that fairy tales contain deep truths and dwell on dark and terrible things; others will declare, just as unequivocally, that fairy tales are light and clear and hopeful, and point to higher realities. But there’s a bit of a consensus that fairy tales contain Serious Meaning—either through their grotty realism or their lucid artificiality or, more sensibly, both.
All of these things are probably true.
But I have wondered, and still wonder, whether this fairy tale ecology—this pragmatic defense of the fairy tale form—is necessarily the best approach to take. Certainly it has its place, and, perhaps because of its multitude of contradictions, helps us better understand the form itself. But is that really why we enjoy them? Do we read and write fairy tales because the can be used to Mean Something?
In other words, What good are fairy tales? Well, they’re alive, aren’t they?
It may seem fanciful to talk about ‘living’ fairy tales, in the biological sense. But it’s not, really, in the linguistic sense—we talk about ‘living languages’ for instance. And in that sense, the fairy tale, along with the folktale, is a living form—as the multiplicity of pragmatic and artistic uses suggests. As such, there is a continual need to understand not just the pragmatic uses of enchantment, if you will, but the aesthetic of the form itself—an appreciation not only of structure but of the artistry and effect of the tales. The Victorians attempted this to some extent; so did Tolkien in his Andrew Lang lecture. Their aim was not simply the classification of tales but the composition and creation of them; here the aesthetic understanding and enjoyment is, I think, essential. It is likely that, as with poetry, each generation will not only accept the previous aesthetic tradition, but will have need to reassess and re-express their aesthetic.
Because the root of it is a joy—one is tempted to say elevation—in the presence of beauty, and in beautiful things. Look at one of Peterson’s bird guides again, especially his paintings.They’re a wonderful technical tool, precise and pragmatic in its detail for field identification, for describing the birds. That’s what makes them an indispensable reference guide. But what makes them genuinely fascinating to browse through is the sheer joie de vivre in each painting of a bird; Peterson didn’t just draw with a trained scientific eye, he drew with an almost childish delight—enthusiastic astonishment at the quirky, individual beauty of each bird.
It’s this simple, aesthetic delight in fairy tales which I believe should be both the start and the end of any study of fairy tales. Certainly it’s the be all and end all of any task of retelling or creating fairy tales. What’s needed for the student of fairy tale, whether as a critic or an artist of all kinds, is a curiosity and delight in the aesthetic of fairy tales. What’s needed, ultimately, is a keen sense of wonder.