I’m doing a lot of reading of fairytales at the moment, and am being struck by the narrative joy inherent in them. ‘Once upon a time’. It’s a glorious, effortless phrase. It transports you instantly into a world of wicked stepmothers, princes turned into frogs, and talking cats.
I always tended to read fairytales as fairly unique creatures, personal to my own settings and surroundings. I mapped the troll bridge from the Three Billy Goats Gruff onto a bridge in the middle of the North Yorkshire Moors. I imagined the fat round pumpkins from the vegetable patch next door being transformed into Cinderella’s carriage. And yet, something like Cinderella has been being told across the world from the 1st century BC! I find that fascinating that a story can grow and spread and grow again in intensely different contexts.
But that’s the thing about fairytales, I feel that for all their prince and princesses, they are stories based very much on the common experience of being human. They teach us not to judge on appearances. Not to trust strangers. About sex. About growing up. About surviving when your parents drop you off in the forest and a witch decides to stuff you into an oven. Which is exciting, and also sort of subversive in a kind of splendid manner.
The other thing fairytales also allow us to do is work out the boundary of our world – of our experiences and of our selves. They allow us to learn how to control our surroundings, and to engage in fear in controlled contexts. I always remember a quote I read about why people read crime and horror fiction – and it was because when events like this occur in a story, we know that there is control. We know that this event is controlled, either through the page-turn of a book, or through the fact that the storyteller will finish their story and we learn to ‘manage’ that horror.
Critically speaking, it’s worth having a look at the Aarne-Thompson Index, and also the work of Jack Zipes and Maria Tatar who excel in this area. I’ve also got a lot of love for the work of Iona and Peter Opie (and not just for their fairytale work, the Opie book on the Lore and Language of School Children is superb though sadly feeling a bit aged now).
And, obviously, on a fictional note, the wondrous The Jolly Postman, which should be on mandatory reading for pretty much everyone