on fairy tales

Why are fairy tales still so popular? What is the lure of this particular form of storytelling? And further, how do we understand and process the meaning of fairy tales in our collective consciousness and our individual minds?

As a writer who sometimes works within the framework of fairy tales, I am extremely interested in these questions. As with all stories, fairy tales have grown from an oral to a written form of storytelling. In the retelling, the storyteller would often revise the tale, a tradition that continued when the stories were printed, and continues to this very day.

The framework of fairy tales demands this reflexive approach, and relies on the storyteller to reinvent the tale.  In the retelling, the familiar tale is processed by the author’s (and the reader’s) unique perspective, and filtered through cultural, historical, environmental, psychological, and socioeconomic contexts.

Modern fairy tales, now more than ever, depart sometimes drastically from the “original” form. And yet, these modern tales are just as much fairy tales as the ones we grew up with as children. Perhaps more so, because these modern tales understand the essence of this form of storytelling. The retelling and reinvention of fairy tales is the natural evolution of the form. It is in this way that fairy tales are kept alive.

When I was growing up, I had a very small collection of books. Most of these books were fairy tales. As I grew older, I began to find alternate versions of the tales I knew and loved. These alternate versions did not detract from my love of the “original” tale. In fact, they enhanced the story – the essential story – and provoked me to think more and to open my mind to different possibilities, different perspectives, and different meanings.

One of the books I had as a child was a Disney picture book of Snow White. I loved that book deeply. How surprised and pleased I was to find another version of Snow White! Then, I discovered the Grimm’s brothers tale. Whoa. Then, I looked a little deeper and found the unabridged Grimm tale! Mind=blown.

Since then, I’ve read countless versions of that same tale where the fairy tale has changed perspective, plot, and point of view. I’ve read versions where the Queen is the victim, and Snow White is the villain. I’ve read versions where Snow White outsmarts the Queen and doesn’t need the prince to save her; she saves herself. I’ve read versions where Snow White was a whore, living very disreputably with seven men!

The most interesting aspect to these alternate versions is that the fairy tale is still, essentially, Snow White. And that’s the way fairy tales work – before even getting into a new take on the old tale, I am coming to the story with a set of ideas and expectations. I know this fairy tale. And yet, with each retelling, the story continues to expand and layer meaning. It forces me to revisit the tale in new ways, with fresh eyes, and to expand in turn.

A couple of years ago, I was interviewed when I first published my story “The Kiss” in the Cleis Press anthology Fairy Tale Lust. In the interview, I was asked what made my story a fairy tale, and why I thought erotic fairy tales were so popular. My response was:

My story is a fairy tale by both the nature of the tale and the plot elements that constitute a fairy tale. Fairy tales are set in an alternate reality, where fiction is real, and the lie is truth. There is a certain suspension of belief that occurs in fairy tales; we believe that there is a wolf in the bed when Little Red Riding Hood comes to visit grandmother. In reality, such a thing would be too impossible to believe. But we understand the wolf in the fairy tale, not in the literal sense, but the wolf as a symbol, and all that represents. We understand that, as surely as we understand the phrase “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”. It is language telling something essential, infused with metaphor.

Fairy tales are a way of teaching children how to work out issues, about showing them alternate paths, and allowing them fancies of the imagination and the certain pleasure derived from language and from reading and being told a story. An important aspect to fairy tales is the multilayered effect of the tale, which allows one to re-read any number of written tales with the basic parameters of one story. This is a very interesting way to tell stories, and features mostly in fairy tales, mythology, and folklore. The fairy tale is something flexible and organic, encouraging a continued re-visitation of the text, which should change in response to evolving perceptions of the self and the world.

“The Uses of Enchantment” by Bruno Bettelheim is an excellent book for those interested in the deep meaning and importance of fairy tales through a psychoanalytic lens. Fairy tales are written for children in our modern times, though we all know the Brothers Grimm and that fairy tales were often told to adults and have been sanitized for exclusive use in the realm of childhood. Therefore, in our present time, adults outgrow fairy tales.

I think that erotic fairy tales are popular because they are a place for adults to revisit the basic elements of the fairy tale story with adult content. The adult content still allows for the adult reader to connect with the tale, as a place to work out some of the mysteries and subtleties of our human experience. Sex is extremely mysterious. There exists an entire literature devoted to comprehending sex and even this falls short of tapping into fully understanding the sexual experience. So, it seems natural that we would turn to erotic fairy tales, and be interested in stories that work out certain issues, show us alternate paths, and allow fancies of the imagination, through language and the creative mental process of reading.

The framework of the fairy tale is a very interesting way to experience a story, for both a writer and a reader, which is why I think it continues to flourish as a medium of storytelling. These are stories we have known since childhood, stories that we have encountered since we first learned to read. These stories inherently contain archetypes, which speak to us on an almost unconscious level. These are simple tales with deep, deep roots.

And they change. And they are meant to change. In response, they provoke us to reflect, to expand our capacity for meaning, and to change as well.

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