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How Children’s Fairy Tales Ease Our Lockdown Blues
We’re all familiar with the fairy tales and classic stories of Cinderella, The Three Billy Goats Gruff or Robin Hood that permeated our nightly routines as our parents or loved ones tucked us into bed. Stories of bravery, risk and redemption give way to didactic lessons that many of us carry with us, even today. Cinderella must overcome the horrific conditions imposed on her by her evil Stepmother, eventually learning a much deeper sense of self-actualisation through stepping out of the domestic limits of her family home. In The Three Billy Goats Gruff , the eldest billy goat overcomes the evil troll, by facing fear head on. Similarly in Robin Hood, we’re presented with a fearless vigilante, who commits the risky, yet seemingly noble crime, of stealing from the rich to give to the poor.
In more modern times, particularly with COVID-19, children’s tales may provide a sense of comfort in an otherwise chaotic world. Many of us will be familiar with the fairy-tale genre, which scholar Marina Warner describes as “A short story filled with enchantments that is a classic and familiar, often nursery standard.” Examples of a fairy-tale include Cinderella, Rapunzel and Snow White. They often infuse an other-worldly element in the form of magic and can contain dark themes, such as death. A great number of these stories were also popularised by Disney, beginning with the release of Snow White in 1937. With Disney, the fairy-tale genre became a staple of commercial cinema. Even today, many of these tales are still in production, most notably the live-action remakes of Cinderella (2015) and Beauty and the Beast (2017).
The allure of fairy tales and children’s tales comes from their predictability. The reader knows that the story will follow a prescriptive structure. It usually begins with a protagonist, of genial nature or admirable beauty, who undergoes a great test, ultimately emerging victorious. However, these tales contain a unique quality in that each time we read the story, it feels like the first time. In Snow White, for example, no matter how many times I read the story to my nephew who is six, he still covers his eyes when the evil queen appears at Snow White’s cottage door with the notorious red apple.
Writer and scholar Ellen Handler Spitz sums this up when she says:
Fairy tales carry us back to this primordial kind of attention, the attention we gave the world when everything was “for the first time.
This idea of experiencing things for the first time leads to comfort and discomfort. We know Snow White will die, and can’t help but feel a deep pang of anxiety as she incredulously bites on the apple. If reading with a child, you may even hear a protestation, “No! Don’t do it!” Or your little one might recoil, placing their hands over their eyes to protect themselves.
In our modern word, with lockdown imposed on most major countries, themes of death and sickness may be particularly sensitive. Yet, we are still comforted by these old tales. Take Disney+, the corporation’s latest venture into online streaming. The site has over 28 million active subscriptions as of May 2020 and rising. It would seem that parents are keen to impart these stories on their children. Just look at the biggest takers at last year’s box office with The Lion King and Aladdin both earring over one billion dollars each. With the advent of COVID-19 Disney may see an even greater uptake in its streaming numbers. It seems that whilst depictions of death are prevalent in these stories, readers or viewers are reassured that there will be a moralistic lesson or happy outcome by the resolution.
A key theme in these tales is also facing fear, something we call all relate to, especially given the uncertain times we live in. The classic tale of The Three Billy Goats Gruff epitomises this, and is a story about using your resources to face a great obstacle. In the story, three billy goats of varying age, shape and size eat up all the grass around them. Looking around disheartened, they spot an Eden like mirage on the opposite side of a bridge. There’s just one issue; it’s guarded by a mean and violent troll. The goats decide to, one by one, attempt to cross the bridge. The youngest goes first, claiming he is much too small to eat and that his older brother would make a more scrumptious meal. The troll agrees and allows him to pass. The second goat tries the same tactic, suggesting the troll eat the eldest billy goat. It works and he’s also allowed to pass. Then comes the eldest billy goat, who faces the troll head on, using his horns to drive him from the bridge.
All the goats make it to safe pastures, but it’s the eldest who is most admirable. The troll is a metaphor for fear. By looking at the fear and not allowing it to control him, the goat unleashes his greatest strength, one that was inside him all along. Of course, adults, teenagers and children will all have a different interpretation of the story. As Ellen Handler Spitz accurately states:
A very young child will listen wide-eyed, an older child will pose questions, and an educated adult will feel impelled to criticize but with a gnawing deep-down feeling that the story merits attention and bears a species of uncanny truth.
The skepticism here perhaps comes from adults being more detached from their child-like sense of wonder. How empowering could it be if we viewed the world through the eyes of a child? The troll here could be any fear we consciously or subconsciously harbour. It’s a staple of buddhist spiritual teaching that sitting with our fear can actually allow for a softening of the fear. As child psychologist Sally Goddhard states
Fairy tales are important because they give form to deep fears and dreams about life through fantasy.
At a time when uncertainty is a staple of our lives, could rereading children’s tales with that child-like wonder allow us to relax? Calm, a meditation and mindfulness app, which has been downloaded over 10 million times on its Android version, is now promoting children’s stories for better sleep. These stories which include The Velveteen Rabbit and Sienna The Sleepy Sloth, are not advertised primarily for kids however, as most paid subscriptions on Calm are owned by adults. This demonstrates that the soothing quality of children’s tales is needed on a globe scale. The predictability, but acknowledgement of fear is what makes those stories so likable.
Yes, we are heading into the unknown, but like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty the hardships we encounter may give way for a greater sense of purpose and freedom. Those stories once provided us comfort as children and perhaps still do. We should grab one, sit down and read it all over again, as if for the first time.
Featured Image Credit: ID 170959039 © Chernetskaya | Dreamstime.com