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Why have Fairy Tales continued to be valued in the 21st Century

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Fairy Tales entertain us and teach us significant ethical lessons through the tried and tested formula of binary opposition. The constant triumph of good over evil and the vast array of righteous heroes send overwhelmingly positive messages and offer a scaffold for moral behaviour that is socially accepted. The tales promote cultural values and teach us how to cope with life’s challenges. However, the thing that we truly value about Fairy Tales is that they achieve all this in a straightforward manner that can be easily understood by children.

The fact that Fairy Tales are valued in the 21st century is undeniable. The stories would never have survived if we did not place such enormous significance on them. The truth is that they haven’t just survived the many centuries since the days of Perrault, Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, they have flourished. The more interesting question is why this is true. Many people have addressed this issue and returned a wide range of explanations. One such person is psychoanalyst Carl Jung. He believes that Fairy Tales are part of a collective unconscious shared by all human beings.

Jung sees Fairy Tales as life in miniature and the characters within them as representative of different aspects of our own personalities. This belief that Fairy Tales are such an intrinsic part of the human psyche is Jung’s explanation of the value we place on the tales. His theory is supported by the archetypes that run through all Fairy Tales. Recurrent motifs of fairy godmothers and marriage to a prince are common in Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty as well as countless others. These common elements are not restricted by cultural, political or economic barriers.

Anything powerful enough to traverse these boundaries is valuable. Freud tells us that Fairy Tales provide a glimpse of the unconscious and embody the storyteller’s hopes and desires. He says that anything this deep-rooted will always be valued and resonate strongly with any audience. The Brothers Grimm first heard the story of Cinderella from Dorathea Viehmann. Dorathea was a self-sufficient widow who, as part of the lower-middle class, would have worked as hard as Cinderella. She would have been oppressed by her class in feudal Germany, just as Cinderella was by her step-family.

Viehmann obviously appreciated this particular Fairy Tale because it provided her with a happy ending to dream of. While Cinderella may not characterise everyone’s desires, with so many Fairy Tales regarding nearly all the basic needs and wants of society that it is safe to say that this is a major reason for the impact Fairy Tales have on our lives. While these are both valid points I personally think that there are much less complex grounds for our respect for Fairy Tales. Perhaps the most important, yet largely overlooked value of Fairy Tales is the happy ending.

The simple line “they lived happily ever after” provides an escape route from the cynical, post-modern world we live in. Our 21st century society is constantly confronted by images of war, poverty, loneliness, isolation, oppression and injustice. We are beginning to believe that happy endings are unattainable. In Fairy Tales however, these issues are deconstructed and rewritten in a simple and accessible form. They are then faced and overcome. Sleeping Beauty shows us that even when you have been isolated and cursed to an early death, you can overcome, marry your prince and live a long and happy life.

Our love for happy endings was proven in recent times by the Beaconsfield mine disaster and the media circus that ensued when it became apparent that the trapped miners had been found alive. Happy endings, such as this rescue, aren’t the only social values promoted and reiterated by Fairy Tales. Value systems constantly explored in the myths include beauty, gender roles and wealth. Fairy Tales appropriate established ideas and reinforce conventional values to ensure that they are treated with the same reverence. The 21st Century is capitalist and consumer driven. We are increasingly desperate for money and wealth.

This desire, in another example of Freudian theory mentioned above, is what makes Cinderella’s rags-to-riches story so popular. The consequences of gaining popularity by using social values are that it often leaves Fairy Tales open to condemnation. The Prince in Sleeping Beauty falls in love with his princess without talking to her or knowing her name. She relies entirely on the Prince to lead a normal live. Cinderella is blindly obedient and doesn’t have the self-respect to stand up to her family, yet she is rewarded by marrying the prince simply because she looks good in glass slippers.

Some say that the message being sent out to young girls who read these stories, is that personality is irrelevant and the most important things they can do is look pretty and bear children. This idea can be applied to any Fairy Tale in which there is a damsel in distress. While feminists would see this as sexist and promoting negative stereotypes, it is not surprising in a patriarchal society. It is important we remember that a child audience will probably be unaware of this prejudice and more interested in the overall meaning of the story.

Reading too far into simple stories is dangerous when looking at Fairy Tales. If we accept the stories as they are, then Cinderella is and excellent role model, she does all her chores, helps her family and never complains. She is rewarded for this and her reward may encourage children to behave in a similar fashion. Fairy Tales can be summarised as good triumphing over evil. This is the main reason why we expose children to Fairy Tales from such a young age. Characters in Fairy Tales face situation children will have to deal with in their own lives.

Cinderella is part of a dysfunctional family and has an evil step-mother to contend with. She remains good and does as she’s told. This is an important moral lesson, especially in the 21st century as divorce rates rise. Through watching Disney Fairy Tales, children are bombarded with simple examples of what is right and what is wrong. It is made obvious by Cinderella’s step sisters that selfishness and materialism is wrong. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and all heroes and heroines in all Fairy Tales personify what it is to be good.

By watching these films, or reading the stories, children are entertained and taught moral lessons at the same time. Both entertainment and morality are important reasons for which we continue to value Fairy Tales. Fairy Tales bridge generation gaps. The oral tradition and cultural heritage that is passed down to children from their parents and grandparents is invaluable. The timelessness of Fairy Tales ensures that no matter how much technology changes and widens the gap between generations; older generations will always have something meaningful in common with their children.

Although the core of the stories remains untouched after hundreds of generations and hundreds more years, the tales are amazingly adaptable. The most obvious change to the stories is the mode of transmission. Technology has allowed us to transgress from chapbooks, to colourfully illustrated picture books, animated movies and feature films. The ability of Fairy Tales to be told in so many forms has contributed greatly to their survival. If the stories like Sleeping Beauty, so rich in visual imagery had not lent themselves so well to visual media, they may have been lost long ago.

The adaptability of Fairy Tales into contemporary contexts is another root for our appreciation of them. It is this adaptability that allows for the infinite appropriations available today. Italian Giambattista Basile’s 1634 version of Sleeping Beauty, known as ‘Sun, Moon and Taliah’ the prince impregnates the princess while she is asleep and she wakes to the birth of twins. Perrault’s later version excluded the idea of rape, but went on to include the prince going to war and his mother eating Sleeping Beauty and attempting to push their children into a pit of snakes.

These confronting stories had to be adapted to suit a 21st Century audience. The Grimm Brothers’ version of Cinderella is gory, involving Cinderella’s step-sisters cutting off parts of their feet so that they fit into the slipper. Modern versions don’t include this part of the story because it could promote self-mutilation, which is a touchy issue. Modern versions of Cinderella, such as ‘Ever After’ and ‘Pretty Woman’ portray a feistier, more independent heroine, breaking down negative gender stereotypes.

The comparison of various appropriations of these tales echo subtle changes in social values and shifts in the cultural paradigms that provide the framework for the conception of the texts. We continue to value Fairy Tales and their various appropriations because they teach us morality and provide us with priceless escapism. Fairy Tales bring people of all ages and cultures together. They engage our subconscious and show us how we can overcome any restrictions placed upon us. They and allow us all to dream of our own happily ever after.

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