“Our magical friends outdid themselves!” Simplia declared stepping into the kitchen. She waved some letters in the air.
“What do you mean?’ Sagacia asked, rinsing off the last pot.
“Their responses to Skeptical in Skye give some really important reasons and specific examples of why we keep ‘The Dreadful’ in Fairy Tales.”
“For example, . . .” Sagacia urged, drying her hands on her apron.
“Okay; here you go,” Simplia said. “Listen to Charles Kiernan.”
If our folk and fairy tale characters always treat each other with no worse than a slap on the wrist, would we read them?
As in any good story there need to be stakes, something to be lost, something to be gained. If that is the hero or heroine’s life and limb, all the better. The tales are short, the stakes need to be established quickly with certainty.
We can take comfort in that the violence in these tales is not gratuitous, but serves the purpose of driving the story forward.
The predominant formula dictates the tale to end happily for the protagonist with evil being punished. A slap on the wrist of a witch will only promise her revenge. The witch must dance to her death in red hot iron shoes. There is, sadly for evil, no other way.
“Sadly–or maybe gratefully!” said Sagacia. “But he’s right: there is no other way in a fairy tale. Besides, what’s the point in dealing compassionately with a character who doesn’t even exist!”
“Nothing, I guess.” Simplia said. “And storyteller and therapist Erran Sharpe locates that character–the one who doesn’t exist–in our internal world. Listen!”
As for dread, ghoulishness and brutality… yes, it exists in the real world. But fairy tales are not so much about the external world as they are about our internal world (thank you Bruno Bettelheim for making a case for this!) Hearing fairy tales helps us to know ourselves, and to understand others. Fairy tales show us that there are solutions to life’s problems that are beyond the scope of our rational brain, solutions that seem magical.
“Remember that old ’90’s TV show, Herman’s Head?” Simplia interrupted herself to ask.
“Where those four different stock characters–archetypes–argue in Herman’s mind about what is going on and what Herman should do?” Sagacia asked. “They are all part of Herman–the sensitive one, the lustful one, the hypochondriac, the scholarly one.”
“Yeah!” said Simplia. “All of the characters in any fairy tale are like that. They are us. We are Snow White; we are the seven dwarves; we are the prince; we are the wicked queen. The story is really all about ourselves.”
“But there’s more,” she added.
The great psychologist Gordon Neufeld at U.B.C. Vancouver talks about how our growth and maturation require us to come up against our limitations, and to feel the “tears of futility” when we are desperate and defeated. Because then the events that we cannot change will transform us internally. This happens over and over again in fairy tales. The hero/heroine cannot accomplish the impossible task, they sit down and weep, and magical assistance appears. Fairy tales teach us not to run away from impossible tasks. They teach us that we must come up against them, risk death (ego death), and allow ourselves to be taken over by something more powerful than our will.
Simplia continued reading Erran’s whole letter, and Sagacia, awed, was silent.
Simplia was, too, for a moment, anyway. “It’s all true, you know,” she said at last.
She fluttered through the pages. “Ah, here it is!” she said, pulling out a couple of sheets. “As a first year high school English teacher Barra the Bard had one student who wanted to become a police officer. Reading stories seemed pointless to her. Barra asked her . . .
Did you ever hear or read the story of Mr. Fox?” She hadn’t. I summarized it: serial killer, charming man who would woo wealthy young women, marry them, and once he had control of their money, would kill them…and being a sicko, he kept trophies in a locked room in his country home. Then one day one young woman couldn’t resist poking around, found the trophies, managed to survive, and his killing spree was ended.
My student was enthralled, pelting me with questions. I told her to go find a written version, read it, and write about it.
Her essay was well-thought-out, aside from some mechanical grammar problems, and I reminded her of our previous conversation. Stories like this, I pointed out, were useful in helping people be careful. “We can’t experience every single possible situation, and we wouldn’t want to go through some,” I said. “But if the more stories we know, the more we have guidelines for things like stranger danger, and how to react to situations we might encounter in our lives. You never know what’ll happen in your life ahead of time. And in serving and protecting, the more you know, the more you can help the public.
She got a B+ (to the shock of the principal and her parents), and later left the police dept. to get a degree in psychology and counseling. I met her years later while discussing fairy tales with a friend of hers who did seminars based on Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ books.
“That is some testimonial to the power of Fairy Tales!” said Sagacia, waving Barra’s letter, both pages of it.
“Indeed!” said Simplia. “I wonder if others have had such experiences? Where one of those ‘Dreadful Tales’ changed someone’s mind about fairy tales?”
“Or changed their life!” said Sagacia.
“Well,” Simplia added. “We can always ask!”