To what do we credit the enduring power of fairy tales?
At first they may appear to be merely entertaining stories about fantastic places and strange events. Looking at them again, they might appear to be straightforward morality tales or instructive lessons: whistle while you work, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, have courage and be kind. Academics have built careers constructing socio-cultural and psycho-sexual interpretations. Fairy tales can bear many interpretations and be enjoyed on many different levels.
There is, however, something deep at the root and core of fairy tales that invites them to be reread and reinterpreted and reimagined every generation, from paintings on cave walls to CGI musical spectaculars on the silver screen. This enduring power is wonder.
One of the greatest defenders that fairy tales have ever had was the Edwardian writer G.K. Chesterton. Recalling his youthful days, he reminisced,
When the business man rebukes the idealism of his office-boy, it is commonly in some such speech as this: "Ah, yes, when one is young, one has these ideals in the abstract and these castles in the air; but in middle age they all break up like clouds, and one comes down to a belief in practical politics, to using the machinery one has and getting on with the world as it is." Thus, at least, venerable and philanthropic old men now in their honoured graves used to talk to me when I was a boy. But since then I have grown up and have discovered that these philanthropic old men were telling lies. What has really happened is exactly the opposite of what they said would happen. They said that I should lose my ideals and begin to believe in the methods of practical politicians. Now, I have not lost my ideals in the least; my faith in fundamentals is exactly what it always was. What I have lost is my old childlike faith in practical politics… My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery… The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales.
Chesterton listed some of the valuable lessons to be gained from fairy tales: "There is the lesson of 'Cinderella,' which is the same as that of the Magnificat—EXALTAVIT HUMILES. There is the great lesson of 'Beauty and the Beast'; that a thing must be loved BEFORE it is loveable. There is the terrible allegory of the 'Sleeping Beauty,' which tells how the human creature was blessed with all birthday gifts, yet cursed with death; and how death also may perhaps be softened to a sleep." Yet for him, it was not the specific lesson of any one particular fairy tale that matter most, but rather, "a certain way of looking at life, which was created in me by the fairy tales, but has since been meekly ratified by the mere facts."
For Chesterton, that certain way of looking at the world was to witness its everyday magic, and to delight in it. "I observed that learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened—dawn and death and so on—as if THEY were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as NECESSARY as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not." He observed "you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail… The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, 'charm,' 'spell,' 'enchantment.' They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a MAGIC tree." Perhaps he summarized it best by saying "It is one thing to describe an interview with a gorgon or a griffin, a creature who does not exist. It is another thing to discover that the rhinoceros does exist and then take pleasure in the fact that he looks as if he didn't."
Fairy tales charm us into recognizing the wonder of everyday life. It is wonderful to consider the pixies that may be lying in wait beneath a blade of grass. It is more wonderful yet to consider the blade of grass, and that the blade of grass is yet it might just as easily not have been. More... practical... persons have taken on the exercise of explaining humanity in purely materialistic, mechanical terms that succeed in truly explaining nothing. More rightly the Psalmist declares "I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made."
Wonder, fear, and praise seem to be closely aligned. The sort of delight and fascination described by Chesterton – the magic by which a tree should produce apples and not tigers – is fixed on the idea that it could have been something else. By some quirk of a quark or sleight of hand on the part of evolution, apple trees could have produced tigers, or pixies, or devils, a million other joys or a million other horrors. Underlying this is the dreadful realization that the world is not under our control, and indeed, is terrifyingly indifferent to us most of the time. A mere dragon or a giant or a wicked stepmother would be a blessing.
Here fairy tales charge once more to our rescue. Against well-intentioned concerns that fairy tales were too frightening for children (or these days, too anti-social), Chesterton had this to say:
Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; 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. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. 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.
Fairy tales were the first to open us up the idea that our world is one of limitless possibilities, with which come limitless terrors. But, as Chesterton went on to say, fairy tales were also the first to accustom us "to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear."
"At the four corners of a child's bed stand Perseus and Roland, Sigurd and St. George," he concludes. "If you withdraw the guard of heroes you are not making him rational; you are only leaving him to fight the devils alone. For the devils, alas, we have always believed in."
If the world could have been made any other way, then who is to be praised for it being the way it is? And if it is full of devils of our own making, what great commander should be given the laurel crown for sending so mighty an army as the Brave Little Tailor, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, the Sorcerer's Apprentice, Peter Pan and Tinker Bell, Alice, J. Thaddeus Toad, and Snow White to fight alongside us?
"I was right when I felt that roses were red by some sort of choice: it was the divine choice," answered Chesterton. The modern sarcastic might say that it is no wonder, since the Bible is just a fairy tale. Chesterton might reply no, the Bible is not a fairy tale, it is only the meek factual ratification of the eternal truths he learned from fairy tales. Jesus is not a fairy tale, but He certainly heard some while sitting at Mary's feet.
Wherever one stands on the subject of religion, what cannot be denied is that the lion's share of these stories, inherited from European cultural roots, reflect 1800 years of Europe's Christian heritage. Some reflect this heritage more deeply than others, as in the case of Hans Christian Andersen's moralism. Nevertheless, no interpretation of fairy tales can be accurate that does not take into account that the first giant-killer these writers were familiar with was David, and the first magical chalice they saw was the cup at Eucharist. Theirs is a worldview in which God is very much active as the beginning and end of all wonder, and mingled with fear, and worthy of praise.
Perhaps that is why more materialistic, mechanical interpretations of fairy tales always seem to fall short of explaining their enduring power. Divested of pious allegory, they are typically reduced to mere good advice or metaphors for puberty, which are always the least interesting interpretations.
In most of the world touched by the light of a film projector, Walt Disney’s name has become synonymous with fairy tales. For thousands, even hundreds of thousands, Disney’s film adaptations of these classic stories are the definitive versions.
When he just started out in animation in a small studio in Kansas City, Missouri, Walt’s first films were based on fairy tales. These crude “Laugh-O-Grams” cartoons modernized such stories as Cinderella, Jack the Giant Killer, Jack and the Bean Stalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and Puss in Boots. The studio’s final film after bankruptcy was Alice’s Wonderland, a blending of animation with live-action footage of a girl's dreamtime foray into the world of cartoons.
The success of Alice's Wonderland allowed Walt Disney and his brother Roy to set up shop in Los Angeles in 1923, starting the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio. In 1926, this was changed to the Walt Disney Studio and a new home was found on Hyperion Street. Then in 1928, Disney hit the big time with the creation of Mickey Mouse.
The Mickey Mouse cartoon series was largely inspired by silent films, current affairs, or barnyard gags. Wanting to branch out artistically, Disney began the Silly Symphonies series in 1929. For the most part these were simple strings of gags synchronized to classical music, but over time developed more complex plots for which Walt once again turned to fairy tales. Magical, fantasy characters were always a favourite subject of Silly Symphonies, building on the strength of animation to visualize the imagination, but the first formal adaptation of a fairy tale came in 1931 with Mother Goose Melodies and The Ugly Duckling. These were followed by The Tortoise and the Hare, The Grasshopper and the Ants, The Pied Piper and the smash hit Three Little Pigs. The Silly Symphony series ended in 1938 with a remake of The Ugly Duckling. By that time, Walt had moved on to bigger things.
Artistic and technical advances made through the Silly Symphony and Mickey Mouse cartoons reached fruition in the first full-colour, feature length animated film from Hollywood: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). To produce the film, Walt "bet the farm" by putting the entire studio up as collateral. Industry wags called it "Disney’s Folly" and predicted that no one would want to spend an hour and a half watching an unending series of gags like those in the Silly Symphony films. Audiences were unprepared for the drama, pathos, horror, comedy, and romance of this adaptation from the Brothers Grimm, and they rewarded it handsomely. The future of the Walt Disney Studios was secure, a new studio complex was custom-built in Burbank, and Disney cemented its association with fairy tales.
Following Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs were Pinocchio and Fantasia (1940), The Reluctant Dragon (1941), Fun and Fancy Free (1947), The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949), Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), Peter Pan (1953), and Sleeping Beauty (1959). Walt’s vision for animation extended into the real world with the development of Disneyland, which held at its heart a fairy tale castle and picturesque village called "Fantasyland" where these storybook characters could live. Whenever company fortunes have flagged, it has always been fairy tales that have brought it back to the spotlight. The release of The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1992) ushered in a new golden age of Disney animation. Tangled (2010) and Frozen (2013) charted the course for the company in the new age of CGI animation. Today, the Disney Princess franchise is the company’s most lucrative.
In addition to wonder, fear, and praise, fairy tales also offer flexibility. Some of these stories have specific authors, a Hans Christian Andersen or Kenneth Grahame or James Barrie, but many were inherited from folk traditions. These folk traditions were were told and retold and adapted for each new audience in each time and place they were repeated, over the course of hundreds of years. When Disney adapted Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it was just as timely and original in 1937 as when the Grimms first recorded the German fairy tale in 1812. Fairy tales mirror and respond to the concerns of the age in which they are shared afresh, and ironically it is that flexibility which helps to make them timeless. Fairy tales have consistently helped the Walt Disney Company endure, and in turn, the Walt Disney Company has helped these stories endure in the age of film, theme parks, and modern entertainment.