We craft and tell stories because we’ve stood on the uncertain edge between the waking world and our imagination, between enchantment and fear. And we remember other stories that help us build our own stories, scraps of lumber and fragments of narrative we gather together to make stories for ourselves.

What good are fairy tales?

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.

Reader Comments

  1. Well, you know, I should like very much to leave a lengthy and learned commentary on this.

    However, as both a keen birder and a dedicated storyographer, I can only say that I concur with your thesis.

    I used to know a fairly well-respected ceremonial magician (I am aware that is a little unusual)and his answer to the often asked question, “But why do you do it?” was always, “Because it does no harm and I thoroughly enjoy it.” That, to me, is a good answer.

    I like to say that fairy tales and folk tales are very current, quite the latest thing, in fact.

    When telling, or listening to or reading a folk tale you should now that it is very much an art of the present tense. What could be more real, immediate and modern indeed, than a story right now vibrating in the air around you, touching your ears and sparking visions, thoughts, feelings in your soul? And if you enjoy it, all the better.

    I do also enjoy the dusty scholar’s great endeavour to catch and hold this ephemeral, living tradition, too. Such efforts have their place. Although I am a little partisan, as I have friends who make their living by it.

  2. Austin — Never fear, I don’t think the Spelling Police don’t patrol the area. 😉

    Thanks for your thoughts. If you are moved to write ‘a lengthy and learned commentary’, please do share the link.

    Agreed that the ‘dusty scholar’s great endeavour’ is important–vitally so, I think. Particularly when we’re talking about ethnographic research and folkloristics proper. And the sociopolitical historographic approach has yielded some really remarkable insights, especially in re Andersen and the Grimms and so on.

    But part of what I’d like to see, what I do think is lacking, is renewed emphasis on the aesthetic and, if you will, poetics of the literary fairy tale, and folktales too although the forms are distinct.

    Max Lüthi did some very strong work on this but it isn’t really picked up, as the discipline turned another corner. Tolkien of course addressed it at length, but his argument was idiosyncratic and, again, hasn’t been developed that much except by JRRT fans.

    I’d love to see more serious academic consideration of fairy tale aesthetics, as well as care and work and discovery from the trenches–by writers and storytellers. there’s a lot of material and a lot of approaches but too often we restrict ourselves to that pragmatic channel, which can only take us so far.

    Personally, I think we’ve gone about as far as that channel will take us. We’re dealing with a living art form, as you say, and like anything else living there’s a lot more to it than its sociopolitical ideologies.

  3. A lovely post! Being an academic, I’m partial to the analyses of the meaning and personal/psychological importance of fairy tales, but am provoked to think further about your thesis.

    Speaking about aesthetic, it’s wonderful that you found a painting that incorporates both birds and fairies. What painting is it?

  4. Thanks, Carrie-Ann. I was pleased to find the image, too. It’s “Golden Autumn Fairy Tale” (1910) by Kazimierz Stabrowski. There’s rather a lot of birds in fairy tales, as it turns out.

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