Fairy Tale Syndrome
I loved fairy tales as a child. They opened up a world of possibility where there was magic around every corner. There were spells that needed breaking, magic in the unseen. Any path could lead to a magical world, and any tree could be hiding an elf or a fairy. Dragons were real, and you should always beware of old women you meet on your path. They are never what they seem.
Many authors cite fairy tales as their means of escape from abuse or a childhood that was otherwise untenable. I don’t know why I personally reveled in the escape of these stories. My childhood was happy. The only real trauma I may have suffered came from frequent cross-country moves. But I believe those merely led me to a love of adventure.
As an adult, when I allowed myself to wallow in my obsession with children’s fiction, I rediscovered Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm, Oscar Wilde and Charles Perrault and George MacDonald. I also discovered the fine collections edited by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow that were written with an adult in mind, as well as many authors that drew from the fairy tale tradition – Charles de Lint, Diana Wynne Jones, Robin McKinley to name a few.
So it is no surprise to me that when I attempted to write my first novel during NaNoWriMo, I started with the words “Once upon a time.” Those four simple words evoke mystery and magic every time I hear them. That phrase allowed me to just close my eyes and let the words spill out. I didn’t worry about the plausibility of my plot or if I would reach the end. Those words tell me that magic exists and is even encouraged, so anything is possible. If I reach the end and am at a loss as to how to wrap things up, I can always rely on “happily ever after.”
Recently, I read a book of essays called Mirror Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales. A few of the essays were what I had been expecting – writers discussing how a particular tale had an impact on their lives at a particular time. But many of the essays focused on how fairy tales subjugate women. While these essays made me think, they were not what I needed to hear.
I agree that the Cinderella story in its antiquated form may not be the best tool for teaching little girls to be themselves. Let’s face it, the only reason the prince gave her the time of day is because of how she looked that night. 🙂 But, I still love the story. There is romance and magic and Cinderella wins out over the evil stepmother in the end. Bear in mind, the original story is more violent than the Disney version we have all watched since we were young. In the original, birds peck out the eyes of the mean stepsisters in the end. So maybe Cinderella is not as subservient as Walt would have had us believe.
I understand why many people who study fairy tales now would see that the female characters were often portrayed as weak or pitiable. I choose to focus on the beauty of these stories though. The magic and rich settings and characters. Not every story needs to convey a strong female character to have intrinsic value.
Others would have us view fairy tales as simple, naive stories with neatly packaged morals. They focus on the sugar-coated Disney versions where good always wins over evil. Well, I am here to admit that when I was in my twenties and saw The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast on the big screen, nestled into a seat with a giant bin of popcorn, I was as enthralled and excited as any of the seven-year olds there that day. I loved it! I love the pure escapism in fairy tales. Ultimately, most of them are about justice and the power of love, and I think the world could use more of both.
Many writers have taken fairy tales and dropped them into a more modern setting or twisted them so the point of view or characters are different from how they appeared in the old versions.
The 10th Kingdom was a mini-series in 2002 that twisted a number of fairy tales together and mixed them in a New York City setting. The main character, Virginia, is stronger than her female counterparts in many of the original tales. I loved all ten hours of it!
Another place where you can see this mixing of fairy tales and a modern setting is ABC’s Once Upon a Time, which just completed its first season. It has everything a story lover would want – mystery, romance, magic. (If you have not managed to catch this show, I recommend watching free episodes on the linked site above, or just go ahead and preorder the Season 1 DVD!)
I think that is why I love writing children’s fiction. In fantasy especially, we are not bound by the constraints of the real world. Anything is possible. Things happen that in our day-to-day world we would never see. Magic is everywhere and objects are always more than they appear to be. I may suffer from fairy tale syndrome, but I would rather go through life hoping to see magic at every turn, than living a life where I am sure there is no such thing.