Of “Once Upon a Times” and “Happily Ever Afters”

Updated: Jan 26


© Elaine Bontempi, Ph.D., 2022

All Rights Reserved


Almost all classic fairy tales begin with “Once upon a time…” and end with “…happily ever after.” Yet, this is one of the very things that critics of fairy tales, including feminists and some psychologists, point to when making arguments against teaching children these treasured tales. Others see great value in fairytales, including Albert Einstein, who is credited as saying, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” He added, “creative imagination is the essential element in the intellectual equipment of the true scientist, and that fairy tales are the childhood stimulus to this quality” (Frayling, 2005). The popularity of fairy tales and magical stories didn’t end with Hans Christian Anderson and Grimm’s fairy tales. One could argue that they are just as popular today with teens and adults alike in the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, and Phillip Pullman.

In their traditional form, fairy tales are culturally specific guides and warnings in the disguise of a benign story. On the surface they are fantastical tales of adventure, mystery, imagination, and triumph, but underneath the surface they teach cultural values, powerful lessons of transformation and autonomy, address frightening topics such as parental abandonment, provide suggested pathways, moral lessons, and warnings for those who “stray from the path.” Yet, perhaps the most powerful trait of fairy tales is their ability to provide examples of the power of faith, hope, love, and determination, while simultaneously encouraging imagination, dreaming, creative problem solving, and teamwork. Bettelheim (1977) pointed out that fairy tales and myths not only provide children with insight into what the world is really like but unlike myths, fairy tales also “imply solutions but never spell them out” (p. 45). The heroes and heroines encounter many obstacles in life as they pursue their dreams. These challenges come in many forms including barriers of thorny hedges separating one from their soul mate, other times they come in the form of evil step mothers and jealous step sisters, scary wolves waiting to devour the innocence of those straying from the path, or child eating witches living in gingerbread houses. These are sometimes very realistic examples of impediments that we may encounter in life, at other times they are archetypes of the evil that exists in the world, or even the shadow monsters living within.

Have Fairytales Lost their Magic?

Some people have argued that fairy tales do more harm than good. Those who hold this opinion frequently point to the sexist gender roles that many of the classic fairy tales promote. For example, some feminists have deemed stories such as Beauty and the Beast as unhealthy because it encourages women to stay with controlling and abusive mates. However, from another perspective the same story might inspire people to see beyond shallow physical appearances, instead, focusing on the true beauty of one’s soul that lies within. Those who point to the harm of fairy tales argue that they encourage girls to rely on a man to save them from all of the evils in life. They argue that stories such as Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty encourage girls to wait for their “Prince Charming” to rescue them from the perils of the world. In addition, they argue that such fairy tales set the stage for disappointment, the development of learned helplessness, and low self-esteem when their Prince Charming doesn’t come. That these stories do not represent reality, because in the real world there are many curveballs such as a diagnosis, loss of loved ones, divorce, bankruptcy, and mental illness. According to those who oppose teaching children fairy tales, these stories do not prepare children for dealing with such hardships or offer suggested pathways to lead them out of the woods and to the security of their palaces.

Seeing the Value in Fairy Tales

However, stories are a form of art, and as with visual art, meaning is in the eyes of the beholder. Bettelheim (1977) argued to that children find meaning through fairy tales and cited the German poet, Schiller, who wrote, “Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in the truth that is taught by life” (p. 5). Deep and meaningful lessons can be seen in most fairytales, including the tale of Hansel and Gretel, a story that tells of a poor widower who remarries after the death of his wife. His new spouse blames the man’s children from his former marriage for their current state of poverty, believing that if the children were gone, she and her husband would have plenty. Thus, she plots to lead the children deep into the woods so they will lose their way home. The first time she attempts this, Hansel leaves a trail of breadcrumbs along the way so he find his way home. Although this worked the first time, the second time he learns this is not a very reliable strategy because the birds gobbled up the crumbs, leaving him unable to navigate his way home. Tired and hungry, the brother and sister stumble upon a delicious Gingerbread house deep in the woods. There are so many lessons wrapped up in this story alone, that one could argue several possible parallel scenarios in real life. The impacts of poverty, loss of a parent, jealousy, parental abandonment and the harsh the reality that not all parents are nurturing and may actually plot the demise of children, the realities of the evils of the world, as well as the threat of children’s innocence being devoured by soul eating adults. There are also lessons regarding the danger of temptations that are most difficult to resist when our needs are unmet. Examining this through the lens of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we can see that Hansel and Gretel were hungry and felt unloved, leaving basic physiological needs for food/water, safety/security, and acceptance/belonging unmet (Maslow, 2011). They stumble upon a delicious gingerbread house in the middle of the forest and giving into greed and gluttony, start nibbling at the house. Out comes the witch, who at first, seems like a kind and nurturing grandmotherly figure. As a result, they let down their guards and do the very thing they should not do…trust outward appearances and go inside. Yet, this story alone, teaches us the power of creative problem solving and teamwork, as they worked together to outwit the witch, throw her into the oven, discover her hidden treasure, and find their way back home to their father, who had learned his own lessons. He too, was caught off guard when the thing he needed most after losing his wife, the love of a spouse, made him vulnerable to the temptations of a deceitful, materialistic woman. Ultimately, he rid himself of the scheming second wife and found his way back to the thing he had but didn’t recognize at the time…the unconditional love he had from his children.

Finding the Real Magic in Fairy Tales

Are we ever guaranteed a “happily ever after” in life? What happens when Prince Charming ends up being an abusive adulterer? Do we need to re-write the stories we have told our children for generations? Are we encouraging girls to rely on men or stay in abusive relationships, placing too much emphasis on physical beauty, or turning villains into heroes? Or are those who wish to shelter their children from fairytales perceived as “untrue” or “outdated” missing the bigger point? That fairytales, folklore, and other magical stories are meant to promote imagination, explore the seemingly “impossible” and encourage faith. After all, in a cruel and hostile world, one must have faith and hope if one wants to believe they can ever find their own “happily ever after.” One must find the courage to face “dragons,” “witches,” “hungry wolves,” and “jealous step sisters,” develop creative problem solving, and team working skills in order to avoid the pitfalls in life. It also takes a lot of faith to believe in a benevolent “fairy god mother” who unlike others around you, genuinely wants to help you to develop into your full potential and become the person you were meant to be.

Are fairy tales really promoting disillusionment in a world overrun by monsters? Or do they offer hope by encouraging imagination, problem solving, grit, and team building? Tinkerbell cautioned Peter Pan, “Every time you say you don’t believe in fairies, a fairy dies!” Perhaps a better way of saying this is, “Every time you say you don’t believe in magic, a dream dies!”

So…do YOU believe in magic?


References

Bettelheim, B. (1997). The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Vintage Books: New York.

Frayling, C. (2005). Mad, Bad and Dangerous?: The Scientist an the Cinema. Reaktion Books. ISBN-13: ‎ 978-1861892553

Maslow, A.H. (2021). Toward a Psychology of Being. Martino Fine Books. ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978- 1684226269

Rice, C. (2004). In defense of the fairy tale: C.S. Lewis’s argument for the value and importance of the fairy tale. Inklings Forever, 4. https://pillars.taylor.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1096&context=inklings_forever

Von Franz, M.L. (1995). Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales (Revised Edition). Shambhala Publications: Boston, MA.

VisikoKnox-Johnson, L. (2016). The positive impacts of fairy tales for children. Honohonu, 14, 77- 81. https://hilo.hawaii.edu/campuscenter/hohonu/volumes/documents/ThePo sitiveImpactsofFairyTalesforChildrenLeilaniVisikoKnox-Johnson.pdf

Zipes, J. (1991). Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion. Routledge: NY, NY.

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