Finding the Fair in Fairy Tales
Once upon a time, a boar rampaged throughout all the land, destroying crops and killing villagers. The king offered his daughter’s hand in marriage to whomever could kill it and save the country. Two brothers set out to try their luck, but the older brother grew afraid and stopped at an inn to drink some liquid courage. The younger brother carried on, and with the gift of a magical spear from a dwarf, found the boar and slew it. He returned to the inn and told his brother of his adventure. They journeyed together back to the king, but on the way, the older brother murdered his brother and left his body under a bridge. He presented the boar’s body to the king and married the princess. Sometime later, a shepherd found a bone under the bridge. He carved it into a flute, and when he played it, the flute told the story of the brother’s murder. The shepherd told the king, who solved the mystery and executed the older brother for his crime. The younger brother’s bones were recovered and buried with honor.
– A retelling of “The Singing Bone” found in the Grimms’ collection of fairy tales.
When you started reading this story, you probably thought it would end with “And they all lived happily ever after.” Indeed, many of the fairy tales recorded by the Grimms do end happily for the protagonists, but not all, as you can see in the example above. Even the majority of the happy endings are accompanied by the gruesome demise of the villain, which might include being stuck in a barrel lined with nails, being pulled apart by wild horses, or dancing to death in red-hot iron shoes.
When we allude to fairy tales in popular culture, we often only refer to the pleasant bits: fairy tale weddings do not include public executions, thankfully. So, we are surprised when fairy tale landscapes are not populated by prancing unicorns and jolly elves but by hungry giants, witches, and wolves concealed in dark woods. Rather than reading scenes of everyone living in harmony, we are presented with humanity at their worst and their best: the selfish against the generous, the corrupt against the innocent, the secure against the vulnerable. Morality is hardly gray, and justice is on an eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth basis.
The real world is much less clear-cut than the extremes presented in fairy tales. Every person carries within them areas in which they are powerful and areas in which they are vulnerable. We might even find strength in our vulnerability, partly inherited from our national narratives of tiny colonies that overthrew an empire and of immigrants pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. It’s fashionable to be the underdog. So we grow uncomfortable, even irate, when we are told that we are in positions of power—that we might be contributing to a culture of oppression.
We long for a simple morality. When a scandal breaks out, we are quick to look for someone to blame and depose. But it is not often so simple. After the murder of George Floyd, I saw many writing on Facebook about the widespread problem of institutionalized racism, but I saw very few openly examining their own parts to play in these institutions. Yet surely a widespread problem has widespread roots.
It challenged me to ask myself what ways I was helping perpetuate a problem, even if only passively. Unlike the characters in fairy tales who are either all good or all bad, we are all flawed humans capable of good and evil at the same time. Without overlooking or discounting the areas in which we are at a disadvantage, we also need to acknowledge the areas in which we consciously and unconsciously hold power.
We are bothered by the extreme punishments in fairy tales partly because they seem excessive to the crime. After all, Cinderella’s stepsisters were the tragic products of their mother, only doing what they were told—surely they didn’t deserve having their eyes pecked out? In Mother Holle, the spoiled stepsister is only lazy and rude, but she is made a laughingstock for life—hadn’t we better rehabilitate her?
But we are also bothered, because we sometimes recognize ourselves in the villains. We relate—more than we’d like to admit—to the stepmother’s jealousy, to the sibling’s vanity or greed, even to the giant’s desire for a quiet meal and a home safe from trespassers.
Fairy tales, in making us uncomfortable, challenge us to examine where we are unjust. And they challenge us to look for a better justice than what is offered in the fairy tales. If we are uncomfortable, it is because we know that there ought to be a higher standard for justice beyond vengeance, that mercy and transformation ought to be pursued, too.
But that same eye-for-an-eye, black-and-white morality has its benefits, too.
While not a model for moral conduct, fairy tales simplify the messy questions about intention: if a character means well, they do well. Vice and virtue have tangible, immediate consequences. And most importantly, the total defeat of witches, ogres, and wolves allows for total happiness to also exist. The formulaic happily-ever-after ending teaches us that complete, thorough justice is possible.
I read an explanation once, which I’m afraid I can no longer find, that fairy tales begin with an initial act of injustice and end only when that injustice is corrected. They tend to depict sons and daughters who are unloved and mistreated through no fault of their own. This injustice is set right when they find acceptance, prosperity, and freedom from persecution.
Some might dismiss fairy tales for being predictable, others might find them dangerous for setting children up with unrealistic expectations. In this world, crimes do remain unsolved, and the families of victims might never find satisfaction.
In answer, G. K. Chesterton writes in Tremendous Trifles, “Fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. . .. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”
C. S. Lewis adds in his essay On Three Ways of Writing for Children: “Since it is so likely that [our children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. . .. Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book.”
It seems that more scientific research supports these two writers’ perspectives. The British Ecological Society published a review in August 2020 on the environmental education of children in a deteriorating ecosystem. The review found that children who were provided with tangible solutions and a personal role in helping the environment were able to maintain hope and a positive outlook, while those who encountered pessimism or dismissal fell into despair. Children need to experience the ideal before learning about the problems, and once they encounter the problems, they need tangible ways they can help bring about positive change.
These principles strike me as transferable to other areas of crisis. In my own personal experience, I have met children and young adults who were deeply influenced by the bleak sentiments they encountered in online forums and news articles. Without the tools or belief to improve their world, they have already lost the battle.
If the above review is to be taken seriously, if a belief in my agency to improve the world is necessary for me to act, then I need to be instilled with the hope that the dragons that are burning up our world can be vanquished and that the children being consumed by stepmothers can be rescued. Fairy tales play an important role in instilling hope.
There once were two brothers who set out to make something of themselves. The problem: only one can marry the princess in the end. Due to cowardice, the elder brother lost his chance at winning her hand, grew envious, and murdered his brother. Claiming his brother’s accomplishments for his own, the cowardly brother married the princess. But though the victim’s breath was taken, his voice was not silenced, as the lowly and the great alike demanded—and achieved—justice.
1. Chawla, L. Childhood nature connection and constructive hope: A review of research on connecting with nature and coping with environmental loss. People Nat. 2020; 2: 619– 642.