I learned a lot from fairy tales. My earliest memories are of curling up on my dad’s lap, begging for “ The Little girl Sold with the Pears” for the billionth time. And I’ve learned from them, more than just how a story sounds, or how the miller will always have three daughters- I’ve learned Truth from them. Not truth, things that seem to be and maybe are, or things we assume, but Truth, something solid, capital letter T Truth. And while I learned a lot of it as a kid, It’s not until now that I think I understand what I learned.
I’ve learned that things work out. Not always right away, like in Italo Calvino’s “The Slave Mother”, where the farmer’s wife spends most of her life a slave and miserable, but is in her old age at last reunited with her husband and sons. Sometimes the happy ending doesn’t come like we think it should. The little match girl of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale dies, but is warm and safe and home- in heaven. That doesn’t stop the little kids from crying or telling Daddy to “tell it right”, but when I look back, I see that it’s true. Life isn’t always easy, and sometimes things don’t work out on this planet. But they will end well, if not in this life, then in the next. I don’t think that I understood that as a child, not in so many words. Still, the idea that everything working out was comforting, and something I clung to, and probably always will.
I’ve learned how to tell a story. I know that they begin, grand as a ball, with those famous words, “once upon a time,” or else as soft as a mother’s prayer for a child. I’ve learned that everything starts, somewhere, somewhen. Fairy tales taught me that there’s a middle, a trial, a challenge, a dragon to slay and a princess- or a prince- to save. Fairy tales taught me that everyone faces hardship, and you can’t just run away from them. I’ve learned that sometimes, it’s not a princess the hero saves. Sometimes, it’s yourself you have to rescue. Fairy tales showed me that I could be my own knight in armor, my own brave maiden chasing down the north wind to find her beloved, if only I believed in myself. I’ve learned that there are endings- endings that are beginnings, endings that hint at story left untold. Because nothing really ends in the world- things change, things transform, things even seem to end- but there is always something beyond “ happily ever after.”
I’ve learned that there is darkness. Good and evil are complex. Any five year old can tell you that Billy shoved her and made her cry, or that in church she learned that before the world, there was someone that didn’t like God, and he was evil. But darkness is a strange thing, and as we grow, we try to see people as gray, not black and white, and before long, we try to see it all as gray. Fairy tales taught me, long before I met my first bully, that there are some people that don’t care. There are wicked stepmothers and greedy coal sellers and evil princes that turn into dragons and try to eat you- adults that are cruel out of spite or anger, people who seem nice until you cross them, and then you’ve made a life long enemy. But more than that, Fairy tales taught me that there is light. That there are kind serving maids and good Faeries that will bless you for doing good- that there are people that do good for the sake of good, people that will be your friend. I’ve had trust issues since I was small, and found friends in the pages of books, but fairy tales have reminded me to take a chance.
Fairy tales have taught me about the world, about the people and the nature of people that live in it. Fairy stories have taught me about the important things in life- friendships, love, loyalty, goodness, courage. I have learned that there is darkness and wrongness in the world, but that we can fight it. I have learned about beginnings and endings. But mostly, I have learned about myself. Fairy tales hold the most complex ideas- good versus evil, the powers of love and trust, endings not being endings so much as changes- and simplify them, enough so that children can understand them, or start to. Fairy tales have taught me Truth, about the world, and about myself.