Do Fairy Tales work in a modern world?

Who are you calling an ugly duckling?

The Fairy Tale

I entered a competition recently. Write a modern fairy tale, referencing to an old, familiar tale.

Well, that sounded easy enough – until I thought about it and began to write.  At which point I decided it wasn’t easy at all.

Sleeping or just awkward

I started with Sleeping Beauty and was mixing in traces of the Ugly Duckling. You can guess how it went: the adolescent and spotty girl attempting to take control of her own adolescence. Postponing the growing up and dismissing marriage, mortgage and 2.4 children as irrelevant to her life. Emphasising that conflict between wanting to grow up, yet shying away from it, wishing to stay a child.

Purpose of a Fairy Tale

I got to thinking about fairy tales in general and how  they seem to have been corrupted by the film world. Once they had great power. Stories were told to teach, to illustrate. Do they still have this role, or have they just been relegated to pure entertainment? Has their purpose been eradicated? Does the moral flavour of the original fairy tale still hold sway today, or was it never there in the first place? Magic and fantasy walk hand in hand to bring suitable (and sometimes rather horrible) comeuppance to the villains in all the tales, a literary suggestion that being bad brings a bad end. It’s not biblical, but it is attempting to teach.

An ordinary child 

I am a very fine swan indeed

The children in the tales are ordinary, even if they are princesses. They are identified with sufficiently to produce sufficient empathy for their plight. Wincing when Aurora pricks her finger and falls into a deep sleep. We know that pricking fingers hurts, we’ve anticipated that it will happen and the incident occurs in the right moment to fulfil our expectation. And we know about sleep too, but not the sort that goes on for a hundred years, wrapping the castle in thorns, putting to sleep everyone else in the kingdom. The enchantment means that time stops. And there is a certain bated breath that awaits the arrival of the prince to kiss the princess and make everything all right again. So is this magical time-out supposed to give Aurora time to grow up, or does a child simply work out that adolescence happens anyway, and he/she might as well settle down and lump it? Does it reassure that in spite of everything, things happen for the best and everything will be all right in the end?

Ugly Betty

So there she is, our ugly duckling, hiding away in the bushes until someone pops up and tells her, ‘Hey, beautiful. What are you doing hiding away in there?’ That horrible adolescence is over and now she’s an adult, someone who, even if not the most beautiful creature in the world, someone somewhere may decide she’s not that bad. She is a human being and her face and body are pretty much the same as everyone else’s and thus suitable to join in the adult scene. Life isn’t so bad after all.

Fairy tales are for children?

So are these tales wasted on the very young? Hijacked by the film world they may be, but thousands of young people go and see them when the films come out and in their droves love them enough to buy the DVD and sit curled up on sofas throughout the land, watching and re-watching. Maybe these stories still tell their tales and still have a point. And not just for very young children. Perhaps the film world is giving those stories a new place – in the hearts of those who need them more. Giving permission for those who are not so young to have their own time-out. To re-live childhood fantasy and put the real world on hold for a while.

What do you think? Do you watch the fairy tale films and if you do, how do you compare them with the tales of your childhood?



14 responses to “Do Fairy Tales work in a modern world?

  1. I’ve been watching a series called “Grimm”. The premise of the show is that Grimm’s Fairy Tales weren’t stories for children – they were documenting actual events.

    On a personal note, I’ve abandoned my catsworld1 site – one of my scam postings was deemed advertising and my account was suspended. Despite being told by WordPress 24 hours ago my account had been reinstated, I still can’t access it. Hence, I now have “anewcatsworld”.

  2. I identify with the ugly duckling fairy tale-though I wouldn’t exactly go so far as to say I’ve become a swan! LOL

    Fairy tales serve a purpose. They instill values and lessons into young sponge like minds that soak into the unconscious. At some level it serves to enforce certain oppressive practices/beliefs (women usually need saving by a man), whilst on another level they teach children things like beauty is on the inside and patience will eventually yield desirable outcomes.

    Unfortunately, the lessons don’t really work very well because they tend to favour men. What fairy tale actually validates the girl/woman in the story? I can’t think of any except the modern revamped versions (feminist).

    • You’re right – there is a definite need to find a man who will protect in all of them.
      But I do think everything about them, including that moral tone of teaching what is right, has been lost in the fluff that is Hollywood.
      Can you find any moral high ground in the film versions and does anyone actually read the originals any more?
      Maybe we have moved on and we need different stories to teach for the modern life. Including validating the woman’s role in society.

      • I haven’t seen too many of the Disney fairy tales apart from Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, maybe others I’ve forgotten. I think Cinderella still teaches something valuable about beauty being greater than wealth-though it makes girls seem like they’re only valuable if they’re pretty.

        I think you’re right, we need new fairy tales to reflect women’s new role in society. We aren’t just trying to look our best and find a husband anymore! LOL Also, some of us can save ourselves, thank you very much! lol Oh well, you know what I mean hopefully 😉

  3. I think that there is a fairy tale in all of us, at least in our imagination. My favorite are the real life ones, the exceptions to the norm… like people doing great things from small means.


    • I agree – but they ought to be written down or they will be forgotten. I think children do need an example. Not sure much that’s available on the internet provides much of a role model.

  4. If you go back and read a lot of the fairy tales, especially by Grimm and Anderson, it is quite clear that they were never intended for children. But I guess somewhere along the line somebody decided that fantasy is always for children and the stereotype stuck.

    • Well, Grimm’s are certainly Grim.
      You might be right. Stories were for teaching originally, and not necessarily for teaching children.
      Sitting around camp fires listening to some elder wise man was not necessarily for the babes in arms.
      Even in some of the Disney cartoons, there are moments of toe-curling horror.

  5. You know, it never once clicked that the Ugly Duckling story could be about adolescence. Doh. Mind you, the reason I never made the connection gapes back at me whenever I pass a mirror. When do I get to be a swan??
    Much as I loved the films, its sad in a way that the Shrek series lampooned almost every fairy tale ever made.
    Stories that would often be told to starry-eyed children at bedtime by loving parents seems like an archaic concept. Today’s parents would have to insist; ‘either the iPhone goes away or the storybook gets recycled.’ Too many distractions in today’s world.

    • Oh, I hope you’re wrong. Stories are really important. Maybe the old fairy tales are told less, but I hope Roald Dahl and his ilk are out there, shining away like beacons in the darkness of the computer world.
      Books won’t die. And if children don’t learn to read, then they can’t do anything at all.
      But you’re right about the distractions – and everyone has the attention span of a gnat these days.

      • I just occurred to me that Star Wars (especially A New Hope) has all the essential elements of a fairy story. Captured princess, a brave hero, faithful steed (Millennium Falcon), comic characters (droids) and a dark villain.
        Could there be others out there?

        • Actually, I think Star Wars is at every level incredibly clever. Yes, it’s a fairy story, but it is also the Hero’s Journey told over and over again.
          Faithfully follows every single element and gives it a new twist.
          I will give some thought to ‘others out there’.

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