Writing Inspiration: Fairy Tales

I have always been drawn to fairy tales.

Their simplicity and symmetry have an appeal that seems innate, like the shape and symbol of a circle. I love stories of all kinds, but the enjoyment of fairy and folk tales seems to reside on a different, deeper level of consciousness.

Of course, that's a very Jungian outlook. It's a very comforting idea that there could be a collective unconscious that we all have access to and through which certain, fundamental aspects of life and humanity--the archetypes--are expressed across cultures worldwide. That despite the intense alienation and loneliness one may feel in times of strife (and I suspect that at all times in history, the denizens of each time period have always felt that theirs is the worst, most contentious time), there is something unifying at the heart of the human experience. Your anger at that person who cut you off on the freeway; your disgust at the people whose demented, anxiety-driven priorities perpetuate a vapid and senseless consumerism that torpedoes any hope for honest, productive discourse about how to make life better for as many people as possible; your utter, hopelessly frustrated rage at the childish and greedy behavior of this country's and the world's "leaders" as they destroy the lives of countless people to secure their own power and wealth--perhaps you can, through the shared tradition of stories, folktales, and myth, find a bridge from these isolating feelings back to what may be worthwhile in humanity.

I'm currently reading Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version by Philip Pullman, the man who wrote the His Dark Materials Trilogy (the first book is The Golden Compass). Of the 211 tales included by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm through the seven editions of their collection, Children's and Household Tales, Pullman has chosen fifty of what he considers the "cream" and has retold them. I have read about half of them so far, and it seems that Pullman is showcasing the stories that highlight one of the major themes of fairy tales--the punishment of the wicked and the reward for the good. In so many stories, "Cinderella," "The Frog Prince," "The Three Little Men in the Woods," "Faithful Johannes," and "The Twelve Brothers," to name a few, those who scheme, lie, and hurt others are punished by either death or a life of unhappiness and those who are true to their word, selfless, and helpful are rewarded with riches and the proverbial "happily ever after." This common motif in fairy tales and folk tales across cultures not only makes them instructive and cathartic, it presupposes that these are common values that are desirable to us all.


In the Introduction, there is a section that I find very interesting, entitled, "This Is Not a Text." Pullman makes the point that unlike literary works, which are primarily texts that are required to be consistent among different editions, fairy tales and folk tales are instead transcriptions of words that have been spoken by one of many tellers of the tale throughout time. As such, they can be altered by the teller. Different tellers of the tales may recount it according to their personal style; one may have a comedic approach, while another highlights the suspense and drama.

This made me consider my own way of storytelling. What do I highlight? What are the important parts of a story for me? I think my main focus is the psychological motivations of my characters and the implications of those motivations for their connections with each other. But looking at my writing through this lens I also recognize that I often focus on descriptions of the characters' relationships with nature. Thinking about my storytelling this way gives me some insight into what I'm trying to accomplish with my stories, that is, explore the relationships people have with each other and their place in the world, which makes sense since that's something I think about in my own life all the time. But as for the way of telling my stories, that's something I'll have to look into further. That's the fun part of finding your voice as a writer; trying different styles and ways of telling the story to see what suits you best.

But no matter the way in which you tell your stories, it is fairy tales and folktales, myth and legend, that are the raw material of storytelling--they are the elements we, as writers, have to work with. That's especially true within the realm of speculative fiction--fantasy and sci-fi--which is the genre I most often read and write. They are the source of inspiration for storytelling of all kinds; there are myriad examples of these stories being retold, reworked, re-imagined in different configurations, settings, and time periods across all genre and all media. Even the tabloids that I can't help but glance at in line at the supermarket seem to contain the same archetypal characters and story lines as the fickle, selfish gods of Greek myth and the wicked princes and evil stepmothers of the tales of the brothers Grimm.

Another great book to read on this subject, which focuses on fairy tales' role in developmental child psychology, is The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairytales by Bruno Bettelheim.

You can find that book and many others on the topic of myth, legend, fairy tales and folktales on my Goodreads shelf for the subject.