The writing life: 4

The importance of fairytale

When I was a little girl, fairytales were my favourite reading. They fed a child’s hunger for mystery, for magic and beauty, as well as for blood and guts and savage, poetic justice. They fed, too, into a child’s instinctive knowledge of the world beyond the world, that other country which we might also call imagination. In those golden, elusive, perilous realms where nothing was as it seemed, where a pumpkin might metamorphose into a coach and a dream house of candy turn out to be a fearful trap, you could wander at will, without rules but with a certain kind of arbitrary routine: for instance, things always came in threes. You could dream of a dress made of sky and shoes made of glass and the power to turn a wicked person to stone.

For a child, scrambling to understand the adult world, and at its mercy, fairytales indeed conferred power: the power to escape, the power to dream. And to change. Just as they conferred power on their original tellers: the cottagers and peasants who dreamt of another world, in which goosegirls became Queens and landless miller’s sons married the King’s daughter, and tyrants were cast into darkness.  

But you’ve grown up now, people might say. Isn’t it time you put those things away? Not at all. Even less now.

For in our modern society, to be left bereft of the magic and beauty, the robust humour and deep wisdom of fairytales and their older cousins, myths and legends, is to be open to every withering blast of nihilism. Never have we been more safe, more rich, more healthy. It would amaze those cottagers and peasants, to see their descendants’ material lives. But equally, it could be said that never have we been more unhappy, more uncertain, more discontented.

To all too many people, nothing seems worth anything, because everything seems to have a price. Nothing is worth discovering, because everything has been supposedly explained. Nothing, not justice, not love, not joy, not even life itself, seems to have any meaning, because meaning itself has been deconstructed out of existence. We are told gleefully we are no more than bundles of cells, or circuits of electrical impulses, that we are doomed to extinction either by ecological catastrophe or computer takeover.

Loneliness–the worst kind, in an unrelated crowd, on a meaninglessly spinning planet in a deaf, blind, cold universe–is the modern human condition, it seems. And it’s all too easy to be overwhelmed by these things, to take them as gospel truths, to lose all hope. Drug problems and the suicide rate, especially amongst young people, tell us so.

To advocate the telling of fairytales and myths, not only to children, but also to adults, in this despairing scenario might seem like an absurd irrelevance. But the knowledge of those deep, lively folk truths gives us a rich and accessible continuity with the past, enabling us to connect into the present and beyond into the future. They enable us, too, to connect into history itself, and the spans of human lives lived down the centuries. All at once, there is not an unrelated crowd, but a rich and diverse and linked human family, stretching all across the globe.

And there’s another thing. In fairytales and myths, the Otherworld, the fairy world of enchantment and lightness of spirit and freedom of the imagination is not in some unrelated spot, far away, but actually there with us, within reach. You don’t have to be bright or beautiful or powerful to know it. You don’t have to die to reach it, or take drugs. And that confers true power indeed: for the power to dream and imagine is the greatest of all human gifts.


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