“And they all lived happily ever after.”
How do you react to these magical words from fairy tale? Is it delight over this dream from the land of wonder? Or is the gap between such beauty and your own lived experience too painful? And just what does “happily ever after” even mean?
How about this phrase? “He slew the dragon and all was well again”? Or this one: “She was as good as she was beautiful”? Do the fairy tales you know seem to give an impossible and therefore dangerous image of female beauty? Do the damsels in distress seem hopelessly helpless in contrast to their knightly male saviours?
Are these stories indeed sexist, giving females the wrong idea about life (i.e. you should be considered beautiful and remain passive) and males an impossible standard to live up to (“amazing you” can save the girl against all odds)? Perhaps you loved the world of make-believe as a child but shed this fascination along with other outdated childish things as you increasingly came to grapple with the real world? Do the fairy tales leave you cold, even at times angry?
But what if we’ve misunderstood many fairy tales? What if these tales from the land of make-believe are actually about our lives? What if they tell us about things we need to know as we journey along through mishap, strife, broken dreams, weakness, and outright terror? Could it be that the old fairy tales have survived for this very reason, because they are true—more true than the often-stated bare bones description of the human condition: “death and taxes”? So—and it’s a big “So”—if the fairy tales, or the best ones are true (more true than not) how might they inspire, instruct, guide?
Since I was a little girl, first listening to these tales in my mother’s arms, later reading them with my own children, and to this day when I teach fairy tales to my university literature students, these stories fascinate and nurture me. In my experience they point to hope, courage, joy. Rather than finding them disconnected from actual life in some vain never-never-land, the tales speak to me of hard things that happen to us—and how we must persist with courage if we are to overcome. In a world where we all face disappointment, ugliness, and cruelty, these tales show hope, beauty, and victory. Beauty is real. Dragons can be beaten. Hope can become reality.
I’ve written about these things in my newly released fiction book Letters to Annie: A Grandmother’s Dreams of Fairy Tale Princesses, Princes, & Happily Ever After. This book is a love letter from a grandmother, Omi, written to her granddaughter, Annie, for the first 25 years of her life. It’s the coming-of-age story of Annie in which her grandmother chronicles their journey together. It’s also the coming-of-age story for Omi as she ponders life in her senior years, forging a close relationship with her granddaughter, one that helps both generations in personal growth. The two find courage and hope when life seems bleakest. They learn to exercise greater courage, clearer vision, and stronger love.
My hope for readers is this: When your dreams fail, look at your life and the lives of family and friends through the moral and spiritual wisdom of the best fairy tales, Narnian and other fantasy stories that we love. There is surprising wealth there yet to be discovered. I hope that you will enjoy Letters to Annie! I hope that you will find in it just what you might be looking for!
To learn more about fairy tales, how we share them, their impact, and more, remember to pick up your copy of Letters to Annie.
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Watch for my September blog: “Omi’s Coming-of-Age Story.”