As a person with high anxiety, I have long loved fairy tales. So I guess it is not so surprising that I started writing them. In college I analyzed fairy tale symbolism in women’s studies classes, but once I was writing my very own intersectional feminist fairy tales, I needed to think about fairy tales and their many, many layers in a whole new way.
In the USA fairy tales have been largely discounted as a form of literature. They are considered children’s stories and thus are treated as less deep and meaningful. In addition, fairy tales are often romances, another genre that is looked down on as less meaningful. And yet, fairy tales are rich with symbolism and meaning. All of the things about fairy tales that on the surface seem simple, like their formulaic structure and happy endings, actually can serve to create a container for the exploration of intense topics like death, abuse, and injustice. And, as I learned from writing them, their symbolism can contain endless layers.
Well, not too long ago, I was listening to the podcast Why Are People Into That? and I suddenly asked myself, “What is it about fairy tales that appeals to me?” and “Why do I write fairy tales?” Then a rush of thoughts about all of the unique things fairy tales have to offer came pouring out.
So here it is. My list of the things that fairy tales do which make them amazing works of literature and why I find them so compelling:
- Happy endings: Many fairy tales contain a promise of justice and happiness at the end. This is something that I love because we live in a complex, uncertain world, and the kind of certainty that fairy tales offer is reassuring. That in itself is valuable, but the happy ending plays another role in the story; it creates the feeling of safety that is necessary for many readers to be willing to dive into intense themes such as violence and abuse.
- Deep symbolism: This is such a rich area that I will give just a few examples. Deliberately murderous family members can be symbolic of toxic family dynamics that threaten to harm the essence of who we are. The monster who takes off their animal skin to turn back into a human reminds us all that the most important parts of who we are lie under the surface. And love’s magic power to break curses shows us the power of love to help us all heal and connect to each other. This wealth of symbolism is also a big responsibility for writers, because, as is clear from many historical fairy tales, this potent symbolism can also reinforce sexist, racist, ableist, and anti-Semitic messages if we aren’t careful.
- Formulaic structure: Many fairy tales have a formulaic quality, whether we are experiencing a brand new tale or enjoying the retelling of a classic. Things happen in threes, generosity gains you magical help, and everyone (even bloodthirsty robbers) feel empathy for the pure of heart. This formulaic structure is another way that fairy tales give us a sense of safety that makes room to tackle intense topics. This formulaic quality can also shift the focus of the story from the suspense of worrying “What is going to happen next?” to one of delight where we can instead wonder “What is going to happen next?” and revel in the magic, humor, and romance of the story.
- Simplicity: The plots of fairy tales may be intricate, but at their core there is a kind of exaggerated simplicity, such as the theme of good verses evil, which can give us a break from the complexity that exists in our world. This also works in combination with the formulaic structure to enhance the focus on the symbolism and magic of fairy tales.
- Intense subjects: Fairy tales frequently tackle intense subject material such as abuse, death, and injustice. They do this using other aspects of their structure, such as happy endings, symbolism, and formulaic structure, to create a sense of safety that allows us to delve deep into these issues.
- A relationship focus: Relationships and family play a deeply significant role in most people’s lives and fairy tales are a genre that makes a lot of room for exploring both their positive and negative aspects. This focus is also the bridge that connects fairy tales to the romance genre, as many of the relationships being focused on are romantic relationships.
- Female main characters: In most areas of literature, women are underrepresented as protagonists. Improvements have been made, but we still have a long way to go. Fairy tales are one of the few genres where, even historically, we could find a wealth of female protagonists. It is true that many historical (and some modern) fairy tales also contain sexist messages, but, with a little searching, numerous strong, clever, and determined female heroes can be found.
- Coming of age stories: Coming of age stories have strong appeal to many people. I believe that this is because we are all growing and changing throughout our lives. As life moves forward, we are regularly in new situations that require growth and change. When this happens to us, it can be very satisfying to witness a character going through that (often challenging) transformation and coming out on the other side stronger and more whole.
- Creativity: Fairy tales are full of fantastical imagery that is at times wondrous, at times humorous, and at times dream-like in their strangeness. They are one of the few places for where creativity can so wholly defy logic and explanation. And just like a dream, in fairy tales bizarre and amazing things can calmly exist right alongside the ordinary.
- Adventure: Fairy tales are frequently stories of adventure and wonder, where characters encounter the strange, magical, and unexpected. Older fairy tales, in particular, can be very action focused, leading readers on fast paced adventures. And the free creativity and magic of fairy tales creates amazing adventures that are freed from the bounds of the ordinary and plausible. In fact, the presence of structural elements like a happy ending can shift the focus from one of suspense to the excitement of finding out what surprising or wondrous thing will happen next.
- Magic: This is the element that is the hardest for me to describe. I can’t fully explain the appeal of magic. Possibly that is because I personally feel the appeal of magic on so many levels at once. Magic can be symbolic of inner power. It can give additional force to the nature and actions of the characters as well as providing vivid symbolic imagery. Magic can function as a plot device to allow fantastic things to happen, which, in turn, opens the door to creativity, humor, and wonder. It also allows stories to cross back and forth across boundaries that can’t be easily crossed in the real world, such as the boundary between life and death, the boundary between animate and inanimate, or boundaries between species. Magic can create a tangible (and yet often intangible) mechanism to illustrate the depth of connection between people or between characters and the world around them. And magic allows stories to have endings that possess a deep, all encompassing justice that isn’t possible in the real world.
In writing fairy tales I have gained a new appreciation for the ways that their structural elements come together to create compelling stories. Fairy tales may seem simple on the surface, but in reality they are rich, deep, and complex. As a genre, fairy tales have a lot to offer, both as entertainment and as literature, and they should not be underestimated.
(Please note that in this article I’m am focusing on the Germanic fairy tale traditions that came to prominence with the work of the Brothers Grimm.)