A beautiful young girl strays into a deep, dark wood, and BAM! Big bad wolf.
What is it about fairy tales that we love so much? And why are they having such a moment just now, with young authors like Daisy Johnson, Jen Campbell and Melissa Broder reworking the old stories into new, modern versions?
You could say that the good old fairy story has always been popular. And you’d be right – they are one of the traditions that has always been in the background of popular culture, part of the fabric against which we build our own narratives.
But in my opinion, the recent uptick in releases with their roots in the magical forest is simply because there has never been a more appropriate time to return to fairy tales. Here’s why.
- New ways to tell
As we know, fairy tales were a predominantly oral tradition back in the day. In fact, the basis for many of the best-known fairy stories have been around in some form for centuries. They were first called ‘fairy tales’ by Madame D’Aulnoy in the late 17th century (as an aside, it was during this time that several talented female writers emerged specialising in this genre. Go the sisterhood!). Later, in the 18th century, they were collected and organised by those dons of the fairy tale world, the Brothers Grimm.
You might think that endlessly recycling stories we’ve all heard before would eventually become boring, but not so. It could in fact be the familiarity of the basic plotline combined with the added interest of the author’s personal flair that makes fairy tales do enjoyable.
And nowadays we have vastly more tools at our disposal to capture and spread folk and fairy tales. While the salons of the 17th century could only enjoy local stories passed around by voice or pen, we now have access to folk tales from around the world, each regional style rich in its own cultural and social heritage.
Once we have this huge arsenal of stories at hand, we also share them in new ways. They have gone from an oral, to a written, to a visual medium, most recently in the huge number of film adaptations coming out (think: ‘Beauty and the Beast’, such a good example the same company produced it twice!). Jason Weiser’s podcast on ‘Myths and Legends’, which often covers fairy tales, is one of the highest-ranking podcasts on iTunes.
If part of the joy of fairy tales is to hear them endlessly tweaked, reworked and reorganised to suit the style of a particular teller, then it seems natural that the new availability of film and radio would herald a new age for the fairy tale.
- They’re a comfort in times of adversity
Would you describe us as currently experiencing a ‘time of adversity’? I think I probably would. Western politics is as unstable as it has been since the Cold War, and if you are ever close to relaxing you have only to google the latest missive from Washington to reignite that latent sense of dread.
As an adult I’ve never managed to recapture the feeling of security I had as a child tucked up in bed with one of my parents reading a story. There was no need to worry about the Big Bad Wolf, because ‘Mum and Dad will take care of it’.
Even now, as adults, fairy tales provide us with the comfort of ending predictably and happily. But they also recall a cosy, cocoa-scented nostalgia for a time in our lives when a benevolent authority would fix everything so we didn’t have to worry about it.
In the current climate, existing even temporarily in a universe where you are allowed to completely displace responsibility is – let’s say – not unattractive.
- Refitting for purpose
So, say you have a young child and you want to pass on some of the warm fuzziness that comes from reading a fairy tale (not from the Brothers Grimm collections, obviously).
You extract the large, careworn tome from the bookcase, blow the dust from the cover, and begin to read. Only to discover that you’re accidentally indoctrinating your beloved child with a heavy dose of misogyny and bloodlust.
There is much good in fairy tales as an educational tool for children (the classic example being the ‘big bad wolf’ standing in for ‘don’t talk to strangers’. Naturally, the prospect of being eaten is a stronger incentive against this than simply incurring Mummy’s displeasure). They also introduce children to the possibility of threat and darkness in a manageable setting. However, the times they are a-changing, and we need to update our stories.
Consider ‘Frozen’ (I’m loathe to use this as an example here but it’s handy that I know you’ve all seen it): our heroine’s true love is her sister. In short, ‘she don’t need no man’, and so much the better for it.
The trend against telling stories which universally feature a strong and swarthy straight white male rescuing a beautiful but pathetic straight white woman (or, often, underaged girl) comes from our boredom with this narrative everywhere in our lives, from advertising to Hollywood.
It’s also a reclamation of some of that diversity in our culture. Perhaps in a few years’ time, when the fairy tale has adapted to include gay, black and transgender characters as easily as white folk and talking animals, we will consider this period of time as a renaissance.
- For goodness sake, somebody tell me what to do
In the tales collected by Charles Perrault, at the end of the story the author would tell you what you were supposed to learn from it.
Isn’t a world where bad people wear their immorality on their faces, à la ‘three ugly stepsisters’, where you are politely informed not to speak to strangers because one of them just ate your grandma, slightly easier to navigate than our own?
In fairy tales one does not need to worry about fake news, or evil kings being appointed by democratic election, or whether the deep dark forest will vote to remove itself from the wider union of fairy tale towns, villages and castles, presumably without freedom of movement.
Were we to exist in a fairy tale, the justice system would be infallible, there would never be a hung jury, punishment would always be just, evil would always be thwarted, because we would always know exactly what the right thing to do was.
For an era plagued by uncertainty of almost every imaginable type, votes on which our future and livelihoods will hang, decisions that will affect our lives and those of others more profoundly than at any other time: long live liberty! But also, sometimes, tell me what to do with it, please.
- Take what you need
You might think that part of the appeal of a fairy tale is the simplicity of its message. And you’d be right. But a fairy tale is multi-faceted – it looks different depending on where you are.
While for example, one might register that the moral of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ is not to talk to strangers. Charles Perrault might have chosen this very phrase for his appendix.
But if you were particularly family-focused, you might also think: ‘you must look after your defenceless elderly relatives (so that they don’t get eaten)’ or – alarmingly – if you were of a particularly trusting nature you may think: ‘you can always rely on a random man in the woods to help you out.’
Furthermore, the natural romance associated with fairy tales invites us to use them as evidence of some kind of imaginary moral determinism.
For instance, should you find yourself in an office job with crippling rent to pay, you might say to yourself: ‘I may be poor now, but just look at Cinderella. Good things happen to good people!’
Fairy tales have a moral backbone, but the rest is there for the reader to take what they need. Often, spuriously.
I loved fairy tales as a child, and I love them as an adult. It’s a delight to me to see them return in new and interesting guises.
Please do comment with your favourite fairy tales and recommendations for modern reworks!