It’s March! Springtime and new growth, and beginnings. I was originally going to focus on folk and fairy tales with that theme, but it started me thinking about something more personal.
I’ve had a lifelong fondness for fairy tales and myths. I think it’s got a lot to do with the fact that these are some of the first stories we encounter as children. Almost any American three year old can identify Cinderella, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny. From day one, children are showered in stories that, later in life, they won’t even be able to remember where they first heard it. Disney, Little Golden Books, basic readers, stories told by family members and babysitters and teachers, all are sources for slightly different variations on traditional tales. Each one is unique, but everyone still recognizes Cinderella and her magic shoes, whether it’s Disney’s glass slipper, the fur slippers in Perrault’s original version of the tale, or Ashputtel’s golden shoes.
Even when the story changes further, and the heroine drops a ring, or gloves, or some other token entirely, we still recognize the source. The bare bones of the tale become part of our culture, and we now speak of a “Cinderella story” when some former unknown achieves the fame and fortune that justly belongs to them. Because we are steeped in fairy tales from our beginnings, we know that the hero will win, though the path may not be easy. We know that goodness of heart will take you far, that justice will prevail, and that virtue will be rewarded. We know that evil can be conquered, though it isn’t a job for the faint of heart, and that failing to follow instructions can have dire consequences.
It is only because of this deep-seated, almost subconscious, awareness of the “rules” of fairy tales that certain contemporary creations can even exist. One doesn’t have to have a deep scholarly knowledge to know and appreciate the creatures and storylines of the TV show “Grimm” for instance, or to feel betrayed or excited when certain things that we “know” to be true prove to be inaccurate. Without this cultural heritage, Neil Gaiman’s poem “Instructions” would be almost complete nonsense. So much of what the poem is about plays on our understandings, and the background necessary to understand it is built and nurtured in our childhood.
It has to be, because that is where stories live, in modern society. These stories, once the domain of everybody, have been relegated almost entirely to the nursery. Once we go to school, many are discouraged from indulging in such stories because they are “not real,” “foolish,” “a waste of time.” Busy schedules force us to focus on work, on family, on things that we “have” to do, and stories fall by the wayside, far too often. They sneak in, though. Through the back doors of our childhood memories, we are presented with familiar stories in shiny new packaging, and though we may not notice that the shiny new blockbuster is a much-disguised fairy tale, but somewhere, our subconscious recognizes the story, and we are comforted.
I am lucky. I love my stories, I feel no shame in searching eagerly for every newly repackaged fairy tale on the bookstore shelves, and I revel in recognizing the bare bones of beloved tales under new trappings. Lined up on my bookshelves are 3 separate volumes of the Brothers Grimm, 5 of Greek myths, several volumes of Irish folktales, scholarly analyses of folklore, folktales from the Middle East, Native Americans, Russia, novelizations of multiple folktales, collections of fairytale retellings, the list goes on. But the books that I treasure the most? There are a few, carefully selected children’s books, set in a place of honor on my shelves. I read the original copies to death when I was a child, wore them out through reading and playing until they just fell apart. As an adult, I hunted down the volumes that still reverberate with me, the ones whose lush illustrations draw me back to childhood and remind me of the beginning, when I was too young to read the books myself, but the illustrations told it all to me.