The Nature of Fairytales

Fairy Tales

Editor’s Note: This is a Rebuttal to Stephanie Watson’s article written for titled, “The Best, Worst, and Weirdest Things Disney has Taught Us.”
Op-Ed Note: This Rebuttal is missing an Op-Ed. If you would like to write one to be published on, please let us know in the comments.

Once upon a time the fairytale was a unique narrative with cohesive themes and understood meaning.  Today, as more and more blog writers sink their teeth into princesses, princes, and magic – the actual nature of the fairytale seems to be lost on an entire generation.  I can pinpoint at least three reasons for this: a deficit in the rational understanding of gender, a growing trend of secularism ignorant of religious motifs, and the rise of realism as a backlash against optimism.

On Manhood and Womanhood
Few things are more interesting than to listen to two women with polar-opposite views, discuss Disney fairytales. On both ends, these girls most likely grew up with biased families.  One’s mom probably dressed her daughter in Belle costumes for Halloween, while the other encouraged her daughter to wear a scary outfit.  What I’d like to argue is not that women should, or should not, strive to be like a Disney princess. I’d like to argue that some women (and men) don’t understand the point of the Disney princess to begin with.

To many, the princess is the culmination of a patriarchal society’s dream for girls: to be beautiful, gentle, pure, and despite these things – in need of a saving prince. Each of these qualities are indicative, in their mind, of gender stereotypes. Such people either have a misconception of femininity, or believe femininity and masculinity do not exist. The later are very much beyond reasoning with, but the former typically require only a slight adjustment in worldview. To them, femininity is the opposite of masculinity, and vice versa.  They will argue pink is the opposite of blue, and as such either boys can’t wear pink (conservatives) or boys should be able to wear pink (liberals).  Either way, they believe there is a dividing polar line, and that we should cross it if we choose or never at all.  The entire conversation is miserable.

In reality, the opposite of manhood is boyhood, while the opposite of womanhood remains girlhood. The opposite of manhood is decisively not womanhood, and once this is understood the fairytale image starts to come slightly into focus. Dignity is returned to the sexes as each now possess value in their own gender without competing. The fairytale is not meant to suggest Cinderella is poor and must sweep the floors because she is a girl anymore than it suggests Arthur is poor and must sweep the stables because he is a boy.  You’re missing the forest for the trees with this line of thinking. Instead, focus on the narrative as a whole – Arthur must become a man to become a king, and Cinderella must become a woman to become a Queen. These are coming of age tales.

We’ve only moved the chains a few yards down the field with my last point.  Now, let us go deeper.

On Religious Motifs
Recently I read a blog post titled, “The Best, Worst, and Weirdest Things Disney has Taught Us.”  One paragraph, with the heading “The Bad: You Need to be Saved,” stood out to me as particularly misguided.

“Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella, all have one not-so-great thing in common: they’re all perpetrators of that nasty and totally unnecessary damsel-in-distress trope. Being the first full color and full-length Disney movie, Snow White set the stage for this kind of male hero-centric ending; we follow the female protagonist the whole way, only for the glory to really go to the guy. That doesn’t seem fair does it? Sure, Snow White couldn’t exactly click her fingers and wake up from her magic coma, but what if she saved her prince? What if they battled the evil queen together?”

That “nasty and totally unnecessary damsel-in-distress trope” is actually quite beautiful. Due to a rise in religious ignorance among secular writers, I find this critique on almost every Disney review site I read.  Fairytales aren’t simply for children – these are big-league narratives that deserve their philosophy to be upheld.  The princess does need saved, indeed!  What most of these writers are truly concerned about is the fact the princess is saved by a prince – rather than saved in general.  This is a uniquely feminist perspective with little cross-over.  In “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” Uhura (a female character) beams down from the ship and saves Spock (a male character).  You will find very little outrage over this plot point – but a great deal when one of the male protagonists saves a female one.

Once again, there is a lack of understanding in fairytale themes.  The princess does not represent ‘all women.’  The princess, in one way, represents ‘all of humanity.’  The need for salvation isn’t simply a modern revelation with billions of adherents, but a cross cultural motif that has clawed at our ancestors for centuries.  The princess, in this regard, isn’t just a woman – she’s the human race (including men).  The salvific hero isn’t merely a prince – but a Christ-like figure coming to awaken His bride with a loving kiss.

If one examines the ABC series “Once Upon a Time” through fairytale eyes, they will see these themes prevalent from episode one onward.  Snow White is in a glass coffin, she has been defeated by the Evil Queen, and has fallen asleep by curse.  Yet, in fairy world, love will break any curse – so when prince Charming offers love’s true kiss, it proves evil can not prevail over love.  This is Christ, coming into the world once again, to bring the dead to life through His great love.  Such a faith-filled theme is completely lost on a secular viewing.

That is not all though, it goes deeper, for in this fairy world a great curse has overcome the land which denies its inhabitants their happy endings.  They forget who they once were, and are trapped – powerless – until a Savior arrives in their sleepy town to bring them back to life.  There is not a more clear presentation of the gospel than that, as parable.  Sin has entered the world, we’ve all fallen asleep and gone astray – our happy endings denied.  Yet a Savior will come into our world to wake us up from our deep sleep – giving us new eyes to see and new ears to hear.  Seeing the damsel in distress as nothing more than a way for men to cage women into helplessness is a flawed philosophy.

What other religious themes can be found in fairy world?  For one, the land itself represents the Other.  This is a place where happy endings come true and good always triumphs over evil. C.S. Lewis wrote, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”  In Once Upon a Time, there is a nagging feeling among the fairytale characters – they feel like they belong to another world – to fairy world.  This is a world of absolute stunning adventure – it’s their true home, even if Story Brooke feels right at times.

What makes fairy world so different from our own?  In fairytales, there is often literal representation of spiritual qualities.  For example, the witch is ugly because the witch’s heart is ugly. The princess is beautiful because the princess’ heart is beautiful.  True love can not be resisted and has nothing to do with the lovers themselves.  This is representative of the love of God, which is unconditional and unfailing.  Magic exists and is in a constant struggle with Dark Magic.  This represents the Spirit’s battle with giftings given to mortals to wage a physical (because it’s fairyland) war.  Courage will always be rewarded, and cowardice will always lead to failure. The list goes on; these are principles that should be considered law in fairy world.

Realism isn’t so Realistic
The most troubling critique of fairytales is their ‘lack of realism.’  Most recently this was pointed out in the movie Frozen, which was used to combat the last 100 years development of the fairytale, viz. you shouldn’t marry someone you just met.  The underlying reason being, ‘they could be evil.’  On the flip side, Frozen sought to teach us that even the evil among us probably have good reasons, or are only mistakenly evil.  I’m fairly certain the latest rendition of Sleeping Beauty sought to humanize Malafecient in the same way.  Into The Woods, presumably sought to do away with Happy Endings. These are troubling developments for the genre, and they’re all in the name of, “well that’s just not real life.”

Yet the point of a fairytale, as I mentioned previously, is to depict that Other world.  They are not meant to be reflections of real life.  They are tales of something grander which seeks to pull us out of what we perceive to be reality, into what should be.  I view all of these developments as breaking the laws of fairyland.  The creators should be prosecuted for leading an entire generation astray.  I only partially jest here.

Ultimately, a child should be able to read, watch, or listen to a fairytale – and dream. He/she should dream of another world, another life, one they feel they are made for.  A world where love conquers evil, a prince is always there to catch them when they fall, grand adventure awaits, there are no borders, mystery thrives, and where bravery, purity, and beauty are revered and rewarded.

If you’re thinking about writing an article on fairytales, please pick up some of the following books/essays and begin to pull the pieces together on the nature of fairytales:

Orthodoxy by GK Chesterton – Specifically the chapter titled Ethics of Elfland
On Three Ways of Writing for Children by C.S. Lewis
In Defense of the Fairy Tale by Constance Rice
Tremendous Trifles by GK Chesterton – Specifically “The Grandmother’s Dragon”
The Complete Collection of Grimm’s Fairy Tales
On Fairy-Stories by Tolkien

Some bonus quotes about Fairy Tales for your enjoyment.

“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”
– C.S. Lewis –

“Sometimes fairy-stories may say best what’s to be said”
– C.S. Lewis –

“Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”
– G.K. Chesterton –

“Far more powerful and poignant is the effect [of joy] in a serious tale of Faerie. In such stories, when the sudden turn comes, we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.”
– Tolkien –

“I would venture to say that approaching the Christian story from this perspective, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. …and among its marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation.”
– Tolkien –

“It is at any rate essential to a genuine fairy-story, as distinct from the employment of this form for lesser or debased purposes, that it should be presented as ‘true.’ …But since the fairy-story deals with ‘marvels,’ it cannot tolerate any frame or machinery suggesting that the whole framework in which they occur is a figment or illusion.”
– Tolkien –

Photo by Liana Mikah on Unsplash

Written by James Thayer