Essays & Articles

Why Do I Write Fairy Tales If They’re So Bloody?

Why fairy tales? Fairy tales have endured because they speak to the deepest hopes, fears, and needs of children. Fairy tales speak of wolves, and children see their fears personified. Fairy tales speak of step-mothers, and children see the dark sides of their parents. Fairy tales speak of heroes, and children see everything that they want to become.


These days we have a new raft of fairy tales created by artists like J. K. Rowling and George Lucas. These artists know that children twine around a story like wisteria twines around a trellis, and that, like wisteria, children take their mature shape from the form they’ve grown around. Children today cleave to Star Wars the way they once cleaved to Hansel and Gretel.


So we have new fairy tales. Why return to the old ones?


Because the old ones are so rich, so complex, so perfectly speak to children’s deepest needs. I have chosen Hansel and Gretel, and Faithful Johannes, and Brother and Sister, and all the others, to adapt and weave into a novel because these stories all are about children coping with the terrible realization that parents are not all their children want them to be, need them to be. Children love their parents desperately, but they will be disappointed by them. They must be—it is part of the separating process. Hansel and Gretel separate from their parents in the fairy tale and in my novel so that they may grow up. Once they have grown up, they can return on their own terms.


Fairy tales—the original ones—are violent. Is this okay for today’s child?


I think it is. I’d go further: I think it’s good. Physical pain is something that children understand and can cope with. They have felt it and survived it. They know it will pass. Other kinds of pain—a parent’s abandonment, emotional abuse—are much more difficult for the child to bear, or even to imagine. What fairy tales do is put physical pain in the place of emotional pain, blood in the place of tears. Children on some level know this, and yet feel that, because it is physical, the pain can be overcome. Also, children are intensely physical creatures (why else do they love The Three Stooges?). A story about an awkward conversation between a man and his son may address the emotional needs of an adult; but it will not address a child’s. The child will much better understand the complexity of the relationship if, in the story, the father cuts off the child’s head and then puts it back on.


I’ve woven humor into the traditional fairy tales. Why?


This is the aspect of the book that is the least like Grimm, and the most like me. It grew out of my experience telling these stories to children. Humor is my conductor’s baton. I use it to relieve the tension of a frightening scene or to lower my reader’s defenses. It allows me to reach out of the book, to take the child by the hand, and to guide her through the world I have created. If the child knows there is a funny, sympathetic narrator there to lead the way, she can relax and give herself over to the story, to the ideas, and, as I say in the prologue, to finding out the meanings of things.

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