Stories for children?

Yesterday I finally finished and submitted my application to the university’s illustration program, complete with a digitally colored portfolio piece, drawings of people in their underwear (they’re big on figure drawing, go figure), a filled sketchbook, and something called a “letter of intent.”

I found it absurdly difficult to write the letter of intent without using my ironic version of the formal voice.  I think my sass got loose and ate my non-ironic formal voice sometime in high school.


I didn’t do much yesterday, or most of the past week for that matter, besides work on that application and the occasional homework assignment.  So, no blog post on Friday.  But now I have a bit of time to think, even around the knot of tension at the base of my skull.

So let’s talk about fairy tales.

In one of my classes, I’m working on the dreaded Group Project, working on showing movement through a sequence of twelve images.  Above, you can see the first one I completed.  Mostly completed, anyway.  The sunlight could use some work.

Being art students, none of us could do that simply, so we decided to retell the story of the little mermaid.  The Hans Christian Anderson version, not the Disney one, so it actually resembles a traditional fairy tale–gore and all.

Though no one gets to draw her losing her tongue.

With that going on, the utter ridiculousness of traditional fairy tales has come to my attention.

Cutting people out of a wolf’s stomach.  Lifting someone up a tower using hair.  Trying to get an immortal soul.  A shard of glass that freezes the heart.  Ghost women who will dance a man to death.  Who looked at these and decided they were bedtime stories?  They’re bizarre and impossible and insanely creepy.

As a child, of course, those were all of my favorite things about fairy tales.  I was a weird kid.  Or maybe children in general are just weird.

The great thing about fairy tales, though, is the same thing that’s great about Star Wars, or any other expression of speculative fiction:  It is impossible, and a bit ridiculous, and often creepy, but it reflects life.  Through a distorted mirror, mind you, but mirror it it does.  And since it’s so distorted, it shows us things that we wouldn’t normally notice.

Back to the mermaid.  She wants the prince and an eternal soul.  She doesn’t get the prince, but she does get another chance at getting an eternal soul.  I personally would have asked for a name and an eternal soul, but that’s just me.

The mermaid’s mixed success is important–it reminds us that we don’t always get the things we want or need, even when we sacrifice for them, but that it’s possible to be happy anyway.

And perhaps it is the ridiculous qualities, the nightmarish aspects, of the story that makes it so memorable, so that it sticks in people’s minds and the message gets passed on.  The messages aren’t always about happy things.  All my favorite Irish fairy tales end with everyone dead.  Then again, this planet isn’t always a happy place.  Might as well reflect that bit accurately.

I think that’s why so many good modern stories use the old fairy tales.  They might alter the messages to suit the needs of the storyteller or the times, they might change the setting, but the core of the story is still a fairy tale.  Not because the writers couldn’t think of an original plot, not because fairy tales are popular these days, but because fairy tales are good.  They’re memorable.  They remind us of aspects of the world that we don’t always pay attention to.

At the very least, the fact that so many of the most retold fairy tales are dark helps me feel a bit less awkward about loving dark stories so much.


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