10 Teachings I learned from Fairy Tales
Fairy tales often bring to mind rosy-cheeked children, sunny preschool classrooms, and lavishly illustrated storybooks. It is no surprise, then, that fairy tales become but an aspect of the childishness we put away later on in life, never to pick up again. They are made for the child’s world, while we have jobs to do and bills to pay.
But the truth is that fairy tales were created, told, and re-told by people very much like us – adults who led busy lives, engaged in hard, often physical work. They entertained themselves with tales produced not by commercial speculation, but by the timeless act of passing a story down from generation to generation, from hearth to hearth.
We like to pride ourselves on the unique complexity of our twenty-first century world, but who can claim with any seriousness that the world of yesteryear – the world that gave birth to story-telling traditions – was any less exposed to hard problems of love, life and death? We have only to consider the much higher infant mortality rates and deaths of women in child bearing in order to disabuse ourselves of that notion. We too have to face life and death, for all of our technical ingenuity. Could it be that the old tales still have something to say on this most important real world matter?
Each fairy tale has many different versions depending on what part of the world it comes from but also many different flourishes given to it by each unique voice that tells the story anew. Fairy tales are also much more dark and frightening than their later written and redacted versions might suggest. In earlier versions of the story Cinderella, for example, the vicious stepsisters actually cut off their toes trying to fit into those glass slippers. In more than one version of Little Red Riding Hood the scarlet cloaked maiden is simply devoured by the wolf, never to be seen again.
Due to their fantastic, otherworldly nature, even when we take fairy tales more seriously or encounter them in re-worked forms meant for adults (the wonderful film Pan’s Labyrinth comes to mind), we still tend to think of them as escapist and not really saying anything relevant about “real life”.
Before proceeding, it is important to see that this viewpoint rests on an inadequate premise. According to this premise, escaping, or taking time-off from “real life”, doesn’t have an important role to play in the way we confront the challenges of waking life. But we know from our own experience – and it is a fact established by much scientific research into the brain – that this is not the case. The greatest need of our time, in this age of ever-increasing anxiety, may not be to simply toughen up and face reality, so much as to find a means of escapism truly worthy of ourselves and the actual problems we face in the twenty-first century.
Fairy tales lend a guiding light through this terrain. They provide an entertaining form of escapism, but they also possess profound life-lessons. They contain little embers of wisdom that are breathed to life once again every time we utter the words “Once upon a time…” And so, here’s a short list of some of the life-lessons I have taken from my love affair with fairy tales and the worlds that they create.
1.) It’s OK to feel lost…
..for now. Fairy tales never really begin until at least one main character and often several feel lost, disoriented, hopeless, and confused.
Seeing the hero or heroine get abandoned or forsaken, listening to their words as they circle back in the wild wood one only to pass the same landmarks one more time, tells us that adventure is about to happen, that big choices are on the horizon, and that instead of always looking outside for reassurance and direction it is now time to look inward and come into contact with our inner knowing.
Feeling lost is often one sign that an initiation is about to begin and that the individuals involved will not be the same after their story has unfolded. The modern therapeutic term is dissociation and describes the cognitive event of detaching from this time and this place so that one may experience “time out of mind” as C.S. Lewis puts it – time beyond time and a world that is decidedly Other. It is in this rupture that great magic waits to be discovered.
So when we feel lost, overwhelmed, even abandoned by life, fairy tales instruct us to take a deep breath, get our bearings however we might, and begin again, one foot in front of the other. All is not lost, and many great discoveries are afoot.
2.) Life begins in the woods.
Or in vast deserts, rocky wastelands that seem uninhabited. Or at sea in a digital universe, flooded with more information than we know what to do with. It is a common trope in fairy tales for the main action to take place outside of the cities, towns, and villages and in the places commonly regarded as unknown, wild, and a little bit dangerous. So it is with us.
This does not mean that we must literally pick up and leave the city we love or the town we reside in. Rather, it encourages us to look for the wild places within our own lives – the talents, fears, delights, thoughts, and feelings that feel edgy and dangerous and vast. Working and living from our creative edge breathes great life into all that we do. It makes the words we speak truer, the songs we sing truer, and the lives we live deeper.
3.) Appearances can be deceiving.
Sometimes people, animals, and even objects are not what they seem to be. Beasts turn into cursed princes, scary women living alone in chicken-footed houses keep the sacred fires of all creation, and sweet treats hold a truth that can lead to doom.
On the other hand, sometimes things are exactly as they appear and the trouble is that the hero or heroine doesn’t believe what they know to be true. Yes, that witch firing up the oven really does intend to devour you. Yes, the fact that your grandmother is looking rather wolfish this morning should send alarm bells coursing through your body. So we must learn to…
4.) Try to see with more than just our eyes.
Because appearances only give us part of any story in fairy tales, we find that the key is to perceive reality with more than just our eyes. Fairy tales were developed in agrarian times when most everyone, certainly the people sharing stories with each other, were working on land and in the fields. Thus they speak to an original audience that would have been more easily able to “see” with all parts of the body.
This is a kind of seeing that calls upon all parts of ourselves. We want to see with our hands, learning from them as they touch old wood or the soft downy hair of a child. We want to see with our feet as they carry us from place to place; to see with our nose as we catch the scents carried on the breeze from so many directions. And we want to see most of all with a clear, discerning mind, and an open, sacred heart.
5.) Bad things will happen. The question is: how will you respond?
Bad things will happen, often with no apparent reason or rhyme. There you are minding your business and oops! a new person comes into your life who would like nothing better than to see you suffer, lose out, miss your chance at love, luck, or fortune, and most of all be convinced that you cannot do it and it won’t ever get better.
Maybe it is isn’t a person at all, but an event out of your control that brings you to your knees. Or a minor irritation like a pea under a mattress that keeps you from resting, from seeing clearly, from responding with wisdom and wit. Bad things happen in fairy tales all the time. Blood and ash are the fuel that feed many of our most beloved tales. The secret is not that bad things will happen, but how we deal with bad things, how we engage with them, is what brings out our inner hero or our inner villain.
6.) Be kind.
Be kind to everything, and I do mean everything. In many stories it is a child’s unhesitating kindness to a tree afraid of being chopped down, a cat that is hungry for some milk, or a gate that has not been oiled in years that ultimately saves the day, prevents certain death, and leads to happily ever after. Be kind. Even when it is hard, even and especially when you think no one will notice, kindness will carry you through. Of course in order to be kind you also have to see clearly (refer back to lesson number four).
7.) Time doesn’t always work the way we think it does.
Fairy tale characters experience time in unique ways. In the folklore surrounding faeries we often hear of young men and women of great talent and beauty who are whisked away to faerie land for what seems like a day and night or three days and three nights, only to re-emerge in their villages and find that one hundred years have passed. It is a good teaching to keep in mind when we feel that we are always running late, always behind, never prompt enough, never timely enough. Time works in mysterious ways. Chances are you are exactly where you need to be.
8.) Gold is not the goal.
Any time a character in a fairy tale does something purely motivated by gain, greed, and the desire for fortune things do not go well. Gold and riches often accompany the endings of fairy tales, but the real gold that is sought out has already been discovered by this point – the gold of inner character, inner strength, clear-eyed intelligence, and loving kindness. Characters who are only interested in the shiny coins wake up in the morning to find their palms filled with nothing but old, dead, leaves.
9.) There is a hero in every child.
Original fairy tale versions are dark and stark. Though they were told by adults to adult and to child audiences, and of course they often feature children. Children who live in and undergo the most impossible, crushing, depraved circumstances and conditions. In fairy tales we are first given the truth that not all elements of childhood are sugar sweet, innocent, and good. We learn that bad things happen to good people, and that children are not always protected as they should be. And it is this way for us too. Never in my practice have I come across someone who does not carry several wounds from childhood. Those children, wounded though they are, live on inside of us. And what is more, when we read fairy tales, we learn that children are incredibly resilient, intelligent, adaptable, and most of all courageous. There is a hero in every child and there is a hero within you.
10.) The most powerful magic always comes from an act of love.
An act of true love carries deep magic, whether it is the kiss that wakes a slumbering princess, the devotion that transforms a beast into something more, or the faithfulness of friends standing by their fallen companion no matter what. This magic is swift-acting, often curing immediately whatever hurts have been suffered up to this point. It is interested in justice and quickly works to right wrongs and deliver freedom wherever it has been withheld. Most of all, this magic is dedicated to and for life. So it is that we know our fairy tale heroes live happily ever after because they live with full on vitality and verve. As can we.
A few months ago, I came across an article in a peer reviewed scientific journal about a discovery made by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope: according to the team’s observations, massive lobes of energy tower tens of thousands of light-years over the center of the Milky Way galaxy. These lobes have been named Fermi bubbles, and no one yet knows how they have formed. The bubbles could be formed by jets of energy streaming from the center of the galaxy; or they could be evidence of violent events in our galaxy. But the mathematical model describing Fermi bubbles resembles a spindle with thread wrapped around a distaff. I was enchanted at the idea and immediately thought of all of the creators and fundamental powers throughout time who have been described as Weavers of one kind or another. I was surprised by the latest scientific discovery, but I suspect that Sleeping Beauty and her witch would not be.
And that is the greatest lesson I have learned from fairy tales. It is the knowing that the Otherworld is not a made up story but rather the seedbed that inspired and informed all stories, all journeys, all discoveries. Modern science can describe with precision that Otherworld; religion might teach you different ways to worship it; and psychology will remind you it lives within you as well as outside of you. But stories – the stories are what take us there.