A while ago I read (and also watched) Coraline, by Neil Gaiman. Marvelous book, but not at all what I wanted to write about here. What I want to mention is the book’s epigraph:
“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” —G.K. Chesterton
Yes! I wanted to shout. That’s exactly it! That’s the power of stories. When I look back at the tales that have changed me, made me think, made me want to take action—this is what they’re about. They aren’t about the darkness; they’re about the light that breaks through that darkness, the light that defeats it.
I find I want to pull this quote out and show it to everyone who has ever looked askance at me when I told them I love to read fairy tales. Read it every time I had to explain that my undergraduate thesis paper was devoted entirely to “Beauty and the Beast.”* Use it to justify my love of retelling fairy tales—my hope to publish a retelling. I want to say, “Look! Don’t you see the value in that? Scoff all you want, but it’s true.”
Despite the adoration I have just expressed for fairy tales, my feelings for them are actually far more complex, and often ambivalent.
I have, over the years (and sometimes over the days, hours, or minutes), alternately loved, despised, overanalyzed, or simply devoured most of the familiar fairy tales—and many of the lesser knowns. I cannot pick up my beaten-up copy of “Sleeping Beauty,” for example, without remembering my childhood concern over the economic impact of destroying all the kingdom’s spinning wheels. I cannot watch Disney’s Beauty and the Beast without a pang of annoyance for Belle’s snobbish attitude toward a “provincial life.” I can’t hear “Someday My Prince Will Come” without envisioning my sister belting it out in an exaggerated warble, pretending she’s waiting for her photographs.** And as I write this, I can’t help but be appalled that most of my strongest memories of fairy tales all come from the sanitized, frequently shallow, often annoying, always ridiculously anorexic Disney versions. Ah, Disney, how I feel about all you have done—both good and bad—with the canon. (Stay tuned another day to hear how I feel about Cinderella.)
I love and hate them, I laugh and cry as I read them, I plot and plan how to retell them. I am compelled to look at them again and again, and to pick out the parts that I think are more than true.
And now, I am off to slay a dragon.
*Please note: The thesis was not about the Disney movie version.**Get it? Prince? Prints? Har har har.