On the Importance of Fairy Tales (Irrespective of Your Age)
The pleasure and enjoyment of some stories is hardly exhausted in childhood.
Our earliest memories as readers are probably anchored to such characters as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Three Little Pigs, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, and so on. Like the mythical accounts of all peoples and cultures, fairy tales are a narrative form that not only appeals to the aesthetic enjoyment of the reader. They also fulfill an initiatory role, in which takes place a didactic transmission of unwritten rules. Exemplary situations are presented, and the future adult will sooner or later experience these.
The psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim suggests that the importance of reading fairy tales as children goes beyond the objectives of mere reading competence. Fairy tales can help “the child to draw a coherent sense from the tumult of his or her feelings.”
Feelings – or drives – develop in us from an early age. Our ability to process and give them a healthy expression is not always in line with our educations nor with our places in the world. The histories of a tribe, or the formation of a mythical and religious universe, have, historically, served to bring a sense of rootedness and duty in children with respect to their places of origin. But from modernity onward, borders change, and migrations put the physical permanence of families at a distance from their places of origin, and so stories serve as a moral handgrip giving us the ability to respond to new and complex situations.
The child needs ideas on how to put his inner house in order and, on this basis, to be able to establish an order to life in general. The child needs – and this hardly requires emphasis at this moment in our present history – a moral education that subtly conveys the advantages of moral conduct, not through abstract ethical concepts, but through what seems tangibly correct and, therefore, meaningful for the child.
Further, “the shape and structure of fairy tales suggest to the child images that will serve to structure their own dreams and to better channel their lives.” This point is important because fairy tales, although they don’t have a rigid, strict structure like poetic verse, do rely on techniques like repetition, omission, and climax to attempt different solutions to the same problem. A dragon, or the guardian of a certain place, isn’t content with just any offering, and the hero sometimes understands this only by seeing how those who’d come before had been devoured. Through this repetition, the child can understand that there’s no single solution to a problem, and thus they allow themselves to try several.
These pedagogical mechanisms don’t end with childhood. Authors like César Aira and Pascal Quignard – writers of “adult” literature – have addressed their fascination with the seemingly repetitive, even tedious structures of fairy tales. They don’t lose their charm in the hands of the seasoned author. One of Quignard’s latest tales, (published in Spanish as El niño con rostro color de la muerte, Cantamares, 2016), comes to mind. Despite the author’s discursive density, it’s a tale built on a classic repetition structure: three sisters are sent by their poor mother to marry a mysterious rich man obsessed with children, and whose wives often die mysteriously on their wedding nights.
It’s widely believed that the infant universe is both naive and kind. But psychoanalysis shows us that not only as children but also as adults, we have unconscious content. Often repressed, this can be difficult to deal with, and it that can seriously affect our personalities. Violent fantasies, anger, aversion, compulsion, fear, uncertainty about the future, impotence, the dangers of orphanhood; all of these are elements through which fairy tales come together to provide creative outlets and to propose tools that feed the imaginations of children. Adults too gain a moral direction during times which, outside of art, offer little direction.
*Images: 1) Pan’s Labyrinth; 2) Alice in Wonderland by Arthur Packham, 1907
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