Fairy Tales: Honest Harshness, Wishful Hoping


Folktales, bedtime stories, and reworked myths open us up to the power contained in the “amoral scheme of the world.’ Fantastic images can become mundane by having pithy morals at the end… but they can be reinvigorated and lead beyond stymied notions of good vs. evil when they remind us of the part we play in a world of “hopeful anarchy.”

[Marina Warner’s] …conclusion is that “fairy tales are gradually turning into myths”: paradoxically, in our day, it is adults who seem most to need and use them, because they are just about the only stories we have in common with which to think through deep dilemmas and to keep alive registers of emotion and imagination otherwise being eroded. The fairy tale now has to carry an unprecedented burden of significance, and it is not surprising that modern versions… produce a darker, more complex, less resolved narrative environment than hitherto.

The point is that myths don’t need happy endings; they are not ways of resolving the unfairness of our experience or the frustration of our emotions. They provide a framework for imagining our human situation overall. But the fairy tale has its roots in a mixture of what Warner calls “honest harshness” and “wishful hoping”, depicting the hardest challenges we face as human beings and the possibility of “alternative plot lines”, ways out or through. But when we become culturally more suspicious of ways out, something changes: stories have to be coloured with a tragic palette, a recognition of what can’t be wished away.

This is fair comment up to a point, but there is a bit more to it, as Warner’s own argument elsewhere in the book suggests… There are undoubtedly contemporary versions of fairy-tale themes (Warner points to Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves of 2012, a visually beautiful and narratively dark reworking of “Snow White”) which refuse traditional closures. But the force of this refusal must lie in the fact that we know the story: the provocativeness of a new version is highlighted by our knowing what it is not saying. It isn’t just a replacement of an old story by a new. What becomes important is how we hold together “resolved” and “unresolved” versions. It’s not that there is no way out, but that the thicket from which we seek deliverance is more tangled and painful than we thought…

One way of understanding the fairy tale is to see it as dramatising the human confrontation with nature and “the impenetrability of destiny”. Our environment, the fairy tale says, is unpredictably hostile and destructive; it is also unpredictably full of resource. Family members may turn out to be murderous and treacherous, ordeals may face us in which our life is at stake, horror and suffering may bear no relation to merit or innocence. At the same time, animals turn out to be saviours, winds and waves mobilise to rescue us, lost parents speak to us through trees in the garden and forgotten patrons (“fairy godmothers”) turn up to support. The amoral scheme of the world can work in our favour; we never know when help is at hand, even when we have gone astray.

The message is not just that there is the possibility of justice for downtrodden younger sisters or prosperity for neglected, idle or incompetent younger sons… the world is irrationally generous as well as unfairly hurtful. There is no justice, but there is a potentially hopeful side to anarchy, and we cannot tell in advance where we may find solidarity. Or, to put it in more theological terms, there is certainly a problem of evil in the way the world goes; yet there is also a “problem of good” – utterly unexpected and unscripted resources in unlikely places. And at the very least this suggests to the audience for the tale a more speculatively hopeful attitude to the non-human environment as well as to other people. Just be careful how you treat a passing fox, hedgehog or thrush . . .

via Rowan Williams: why we need fairy tales now more than ever.

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