I’m baaack! My depression did not defeat me! Anyway, I’m here to rant about this one quote that gets passed around a lot by this writer that I’ve never read, because I am very Normal, and I enjoy ranting about fairy tales. Sorry, G.K. Chesterton.
Every so often, I’ll see people talk about fairy tales, and occasionally the question will come up: Why DO kids like fairy tales even though they’re so violent? Isn’t that a little weird? What’s up with that? Eventually, someone inevitably pulls out the Chesterton quote:
“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
And I’m sorry, I’ve never read Chesterton before (I’ll get to him eventually! I will!), but I literally hate that quote so much. I know my reaction is probably unfair, but I remember what it was like reading those Brothers Grimm stories when I was eight! I don’t remember everything from my childhood, but I remember that, and I know it wasn’t like how Chesterton said!
I genuinely wonder if this might have to do with having two parents who were abused as children, and then growing up in an area that had violent white supremacists who were…distressingly normalized by certain people in my community (including the police), but that quote has never rang true for me at all. Fairy tales didn’t appeal to me because they showed me that good will win against evil in the end. No, the violence WAS the appeal.
Allow me to explain. I will admit to being a deeply edgy(tm) eight year old who thought I was SO hardcore for reading a story in which someone got their eyes pecked out by doves, but that wasn’t all of it. Do you remember being a young child? Everyone wants to protect you from knowing about all the Bad Things that are out there. You hear about Bad Things every day. Sometimes your own kith and kin are the ones doing and saying the things that are Bad. Some of the ‘good’ people around you are so invested in defending these awful people. “This man isn’t bad for stalking your sister!” they say. “He just likes her! This boy isn’t a white supremacist! He’s just a eighteen year old
putting swastikas up in his window! Your grandfather isn’t bad for hitting your mother! He’s your grandfather, you guys should talk to him!”
(No, literally, my dad called the police on some guy who was stalking our place when I was little, only for the dispatcher to tell him that the guy must JUST LIKE MY SISTER. WHO WAS A TEENAGER. AND WHO DIDN’T KNOW THIS GUY FROM ADAM. Anyway, fuck the police system and all the abuses it perpetrates, but that’s a completely different post that I won’t write. So many other people have said it better, I think)
The fairy tales I read didn’t tell me that I could defeat evil things. But they told me that these evil things existed, and that was enough. Sometimes a witch decides to behead a girl, and then the girl tricks her into beheading her own daughter. Perhaps the daughter was innocent, perhaps she wasn’t. It doesn’t matter. Sometimes a stepmother decides to brutally kill her own daughter, only for her daughter to turn around and force her stepmother to dance to her death in hot iron shoes. Violence is a senseless, meaningless pursuit that everyone participates in anyway, because someone else was violent first, and that is the nature of humanity.
I loved these fairy tales because they didn’t pretend that violence made any sense. They didn’t pretend that everything would be wrapped up by the end, that good would always triumph over evil. The dragon can be defeated, to be sure, but sometimes only when the heroine becomes worse herself. There is no reason for the stepmother to try to poison her daughter, and there’s no reason for Snow White to force her mother to dance to her death in hot iron shoes, and there’s no reason for that woman down the street to beat her child, and there’s no reason for that other man down the street (the one no one in town wants to talk about, but who people will say is a great guy if the topic comes up) to be a white supremacist. There’s no sense to any of it, and none of it is neat or clean.
There were definitely fairy tales that were too violent for me and that I didn’t like, especially the ones that just had this sort of…legalistic morality, I guess (The Red Shoes, I am looking at you), but let me tell you, I absolutely adored the ones that went ‘hey! Isn’t this thing fucked up?’ Yeah, maybe life IS full of bad things that don’t make sense, but we all have to survive anyway! Maybe people are pointlessly cruel, and maybe you yourself will sometimes become pointlessly cruel in turn, and yet you still have to live and go on! Not everything in life makes sense, but we still have to live with ourselves (and hopefully get that magic castle along the way).
Obviously, the violence wasn’t the only appeal of fairy tales to me. I loved the monsters, I loved the motifs, and I loved the fact that they were just cool. Hey, there’s a group of sisters that goes down below each night to dance until they wear holes through their shoes! There’s a boy and a girl who raise a forest, a river, and a mountain range behind them as they escape from their evil mother! There’s a woman who asks the sun, moon, and wind for help to save her husband from a witch! But I definitely liked the violent aspect some of them had when I was a small child, and I think it’s really oversimplifying it to say that it’s appealing because the violence is defeated at the end. Violence is not always defeated. Sometimes it simply transmutes, becoming a thing that’s handed down from perpetrator to victim. But I would argue that that’s what makes them feel real.
Obviously, my experiences are not universal, so I’m really curious as to what you guys think. How did you react to fairy tales growing up? Did you guys also absolutely adore the version where Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off parts of their feet to fit them into the glass slippers when you were tiny, or were you normal? Also, I hope I don’t sound disparaging to anyone who likes that Chesterton quote or anything. Of course it’s going to ring true for some, but it never rang true for me personally.