Image by Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, in the public domain (see Wikimedia Commons)
It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality. (J.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”)
Ultimately, many traditional fairy tales, if not offering straightforward “happy endings” do frequently embody in their outcomes the themes of restoration, transformation, and redemption, and while perhaps complex themes for children to absorb, they are, psychically and spiritually speaking, indispensable ones that foreshadow the individuation struggles to come. Marie-Louise von Franz says that “[i]n fairy tales redemption refers specifically to a condition where someone has been cursed or bewitched and through certain happenings or events in the story is redeemed.” (Psychological Meaning of Redemption Motifs in Fairy Tales, p. 7) Why does this matter? Because all of us are bound to become doomed, cursed or “bewitched”—in other words, held back, distorted and tormented by something in our own psyches. Fairy tales dramatize this in a spare, elegant, but powerful way, and generally provide certain formulas for overcoming this predicament, and achieving redemption.
In the process of getting to that outcome, it seems to me that the message (not moral!) is usually that: 1. Things will not be easy or fair; 2. Being brave and bold, even a little foolhardy, is necessary to overcome this; 3. At the same time one should be humble, compassionate, observant, attentive and trusting (this is normally how to gain favor with the helper or “donor” character); 4. Things will not resolve right away, and one normally must fail multiple times (usually at least twice) in one’s goal. I think these messages can be taken as guidance for both outer and inner life, and are useful for both children and adults.
Not all fairy or wonder tales are of this caliber, though. Some promote values of obedience, conformity and punish intrepid characters for their initiative and curiosity. These are the sorts of tales (along with the overly “cleaned up” cutesy fairy tales that swamp us today) that I find more objectionable from a psychological point of view. I believe they may pose a different but significant sort of danger to children, because they undermine values of individuality, initiative, ingenuity, and choice. I tend to agree with Guillermo Del Toro when he says, “I don’t like fairy tales that have a moral teaching at the end; I like them with a more subversive teaching.” (Read more here.)
I will, for one, indubitably be reading fairy tales to my children, and to myself, and will probably continue to write them as well.
Let me leave you with Neil Gaiman’s Instructions, which does a better job than I have in expressing what is essential and life-affirming about fairy tales, for children and adults both: