The Enduring Appeal of Fairy Tales
Once upon a time, a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there lived a story. It was a very important story, both to the people who told it and to those who heard it. This story was told generation after generation, changing over the course of its telling, altering to reflect the needs and times of the ones who shared it. This story is still being told today, but in a different way that speaks to something deep inside all of us.
Ever since people started speaking they were telling these sorts of stories, crouching over campfires at night, huddled together for protection and warmth, recounting tales of monsters and heroes to hold back the terror of the night. Partly for entertainment, and partly for comfort, telling stories helped those who listened to make sense of the world they were living in and their place in it.
The same holds true today for storytelling, and the oldest kinds of stories we still like to share…are fairy tales. But why are these “children’s stories” the kinds of stories that keep getting told and retold? What is it about their messages that makes them seem so timeless? If we believe that the stories are told because they need to be, because there is an audience with a need or desire to hear the message, then what relevance to the modern world can we extrapolate from a story like Sleeping Beauty or The Little Mermaid?
The answer lies in the concept of archetypes. In a story, an archetype is a typical example of a person or a thing, a recurring motif or symbol that represents something else on a deeper level. Think good and evil, right and wrong, hero and outlaw, or princess and prince. In a fairy tale, these recurring characters and concepts are always present, and always in an extreme form. Dragons aren’t real, but when they exist in a fairy tale they represent something real enough to the audience: evil, wrongness, the bad guy, a formidable obstacle for the hero to overcome. When the hero slays the dragon, the listener interprets that as they, themselves, overcoming some sort of hurdle in their own lives. In other words, an archetype in a fairy tale is a metaphor for something in the real world and what that metaphor is depends on who is listening to the story.
The Little Mermaid provides a good way to explore this idea. The story, as most of us know it from the 1989 Disney movie, goes a little something like this: a young mermaid, Ariel, dreams of marrying a human prince, Eric, and is willing to sacrifice her greatest asset (her voice), as well as her life as she knows it, to be with him. Ariel’s plight was relatable whether you’re a boy or a girl (or somewhere in between)–that you must make sacrifices for what you really want. It wasn’t just a love story: Ariel felt as if she were not living the life meant for her thought that being human was the only way to do so. And the road wasn’t an easy one for her; not only did she have to meet a strict deadline and win over Eric, but she had no efficient way to communicate with him, and her actions were being thwarted the entire way by the sea witch, Ursula. By the time the story reaches a climax, we’re all on the edge of our seats hoping that Ursula will be vanquished and that Ariel’s sacrifice will not have been in vain. Read as a metaphor, we all wanted to think that it was possible to change and live the life we want, happily ever after.
What is interesting is how Disney chose to reimagine the original plot, and how both versions provide a mirror to the society of the intended audience. Where in the Disney version, Ariel feels out of place as a mermaid and desires to become a human and marry Prince Eric, in the Hans Christian Andersen version, the mermaid is struggling with a more spiritual problem. In his telling, mermaids live up to 300 years and when they die they turn into sea foam, whereas humans, with their shorter life spans, have souls that ascend to heaven when they die. The Little Mermaid in the Andersen story doesn’t just desire the love of the prince, she also desires the soul that comes with being human. This is not a surprising problem, considering Andersen wrote this story in 1837, when these sorts of moral dilemmas and questions of faith were common.
This begs the question, then: what sort of retelling will we have of The Little Mermaid in the years to come? Will the titular mermaid be a metaphor for transgender and gender fluid people who are looking for acceptance from society at large? This question gets at the heart of what makes fairy tales so compelling; they have the ability to change with the times of those who are sharing them. These sorts of stories live with us long after their telling because they are imminently relatable. It doesn’t matter that there is no such thing as magic beans that grow into a giant beanstalk overnight (or that a giant can live up in the clouds, for that matter), but that each of us has a way to relate to Jack’s story. We are able to tap into an archetypal world full of mermaids, sea witches, giants, and dragons while still telling a story that helps to make sense of our own lives.
How have you been able to relate to a story or character in a fairy tale? Do you find that, regardless of how old the story is, that the basic bones of the story itself still resonate with you? What is it about the universal messages and archetypal characters that hold relevance to your life in the modern world? What modern retellings have you noticed in pop culture? What ideas do you have for ways to alter these old stories to make them more relevant for the modern age? Sound off below!