Fairy Tales for Adults

Once upon a time, when I was a little boy, there was one story I would return to time and again. Before I learned to read, it was my mother or my sister I nagged to read to me and  I would even ask my nanny, Edna, to read it to me. Edna was illiterate so we used to discuss the pictures and I suppose I would tell her the story, which by then I had learned by heart. That story was The Ginger Bread Man.

There was something in that story about this gingerbread boy leaping away and running from the old woman, the old man, the pig, the cow and the range of other creatures that entranced me. The sly fox that entices the gingerbread boy onto his tail, then his back, then nose and finally snapped into his mouth brings a definitive end to – let’s face it – the pugnacious gingerbread boy. This satisfied me deeply.

Fairy tales and children’s stories reduce ancient mythical themes into human proportions making them more relatable to our everyday challenges. For example, as a child I never saw that Little Red Riding Hood is a story about female maturation. It carries a stark and foreboding warning to young girls on the brink of mensuration that this new journey into the woods of their sexuality hides some dangerous creatures:
Little girls:

As you’re pretty, so be wise.

Wolves may lurk in every guise.

Now, as then, ‘tis simple truth;

Sweetest tongue hath sharpest tooth.

Fairy-tales reflect the phases in the struggles of everyone to fulfil his or her potential and achieve individuality. Most of these stories involve confrontation with the shadow side of nature (the fox, the wolf, the witch, the troll). As soon as we hear the beckoning words of ‘once upon a time…’ we are signalled to suspend conscious reckoning and allow the story to speak directly to our conscious – in fact to our collective unconscious.

When we were in America, we were invited to join in with my sister’s tradition of seeing a movie on Boxing Day (which is actually not Boxing Day in America). For some reason I was anointed the chooser of the movie and I chose Into the Woods. I was attracted to the tagline of it being ‘a reimagining of fairy tales’. I completely missed the fact it was a musical. Literally from the opening line of the movie the characters burst into song. I heard my brother-in-law voice out loud my own internal thought: “Oh #@c* is this a musical?”

So the movie (and what I now know is a Broadway musical) was clever – Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, Cinderella – all ingeniously entwined into an adult interpretation of life messages. As some point in the movie the unsurpassed Meryl Streep belts out the Steven Sondheim number of Children Will Listen, and ironically enough I had never listened to those lyrics until then – mainly because I don’t habitually listen to Sondheim musicals.

How do you say to your child in the night,

‘Nothing’s all black, but then nothing’s all white”?

How do you say ‘It will all be alright”

When you know that it might not be true.

What do you do?

Careful the things you say,

Children will listen.

Careful the things you do,

Children will see and learn.

Children may not obey

But, children will listen.

I am always awed by artists who can take complex messages like the power of stories, the psychologically transformative power of parenting and the universal experience of childhood and unite them in a message that enlightens us. There is true alchemy in this.

So what? How does it help us to know these stories and to know we have a collective unconscious that sings to us about all of the phases of life? Does it help me to see represented in a fairy tale that a longing that would take an ambitious lifetime to fulfil is a wish granted instantly in a fairy tale. Does it bring it home to me that there is only one wish and no chances of another wish precisely because life has run out? Do I then understand better the overbearing significance of using my life on purpose?

Here is how I think fair-tales help. This week, I saw that photograph of the 5-year-old Syrian boy’s dead body washed up on shore. Like most people  around the world my heart broke for him and his family. He belonged to all of us. His five-year-old life, perhaps his unquenchable love for fairy stories were all obliterated. His potential, all the people he was loved by and who would have been loved by him had he lived out his full life were wiped from our universal history.

The philosopher, Hannah Arendt wrote a ground breaking paper on the banality of evil after she had examined the behaviour of Eichmann post the Holocaust. She proposed that Eichmann operated unthinkingly, following orders, efficiently carrying them out, with no consideration of their effects upon those he targeted. The human dimension of these activities were not entertained, so the extermination of the Jews became indistinguishable from any other bureaucratically assigned and discharged responsibility for Eichmann and his cohorts.

It was not the presence of hatred that enabled Eichmann to perpetrate the genocide, but the absence of the imaginative capacities that would have made the human and moral dimensions of his activities tangible for him. Eichmann failed to exercise his capacity of thinking, of having an internal dialogue with himself, which would have permitted self-awareness of the evil nature of his deeds. This amounted to a failure to use self-reflection as a basis for judgement. In short he did evil because he didn’t think about it.

It’s precisely because we do have a collective unconscious that we can imagine the world of others and empathise with the human condition. The Syrian child’s story becomes my story. It’s our story.  Fairy stories for adults are going on around us all the time I think. Perhaps the witches and trolls are the inhumane policies and their enforcers living amongst us and perhaps the Hansels and Gretels who kill the witches are really just you and me showing the children of the world how you stand up to witches and trolls and how you emancipate yourself from the very shadows you have created.

Children may not obey

But, children will listen.

Children will look to you

For which way to turn,

To learn what to be.

Careful before you say,

“Listen to me”.

Children will listen.

You might also like


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Join the Mailing List