For the child—and the adult who knows there is still a child in all of us—fairy tales reveal truths about ourselves and the world. As psychologist Bruno Bettelheim stated in his extraordinary study, The Uses of Enchantment (1976), “the fantastical, sometimes cruel, but always deeply significant narrative strands of the classic fairy tales can aid in the greatest human task, that of finding meaning for one’s life.”
Children who are familiar with fairy tales understand that these stories speak to them in the language of symbols—not the reality of everyday life. Children know that the fairy stories are not “real,” yet the real events in their lives become important through the symbolic meaning that is attached to them. They know that the events described in these stories happened “once upon a time,” in a “world far from here.” The old castles, the magical fairies, and the enchanted forests existed in a unique fairy-tale time—a time described in the opening lines of the Brothers Grimm’s “The Frog King” as a time that was long, long ago, “when wishing still helped.”
Yet these stories are still important. In fact, they are probably more important than ever as we try to find meaning in our increasingly chaotic lives, and as increasing numbers of children are no longer raised within a community in which Church provides a source of meaning.
Fairy tales speak directly to the child at a time when the child’s major challenge is to bring some order to the inner chaos of his or her mind. These stories help children understand themselves better—a necessary condition for achieving some congruence between their perceptions and the external world. Confirming their inner experiences and thoughts, fairy tales help children feel validated. In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton wrote: “My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learned in the nursery…. The things I believed most in then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales.” Chesterton is speaking of the morality of fairy tales:
There is the chivalrous lesson of “Jack the Giant Killer,” that giants should be killed because they are gigantic. It is a manly mutiny against pride…. There is the lesson of “Cinderella,” which is the same as that of the Magnificat—exaltivit humiles (he lifted up the humble). There is the great lesson of “Beauty and the Beast,” that a thing must be loved before it is loveable…I am concerned with a certain way of looking at life, which was created in me by fairy tales.
When Chesterton says that fairy tales are “entirely reasonable things,” Bettleheim said he “is speaking of them as experiences, as mirrors of inner experience, not of reality; and it is as such that the child understands them.”
While they are moral tales, fairy tales are more than “fables.” Fables tell us what we ought to do and although they can be entertaining, they make real demands on us. They are a call to action. In contrast, the message of the fairy tale operates in the unconscious—offering children solutions to problems they cannot even acknowledge to themselves. The best ones—including classic ones by the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson—address the existential predicament. In The Uses of Enchantment, “the fairy tale reassures, gives hope for the future, and holds out the promise of a happy ending…. That is why Lewis Carroll called the fairy tale a ‘love gift.’”
(Caution: some spoilers ahead)
To decide whether a story is a fairy tale or something entirely different, it is helpful to ask, as Lewis Carroll does, whether it could rightly be called a love-gift to a child. Disney’s newest release, Maleficent, has many wonderful, whimsical fairy-tale qualities—including the enchanted forest, the beautiful maiden, the fanciful fairies, and the evil queen. Angelina Jolie is beautiful and terrifying, with fantastic magical powers that include issuing curses and turning a raven into a man, and, later, turning him into a dragon. All of this should qualify Maleficent as a “love-gift,” and in some ways it is. But Disney’s insistence on inserting political propaganda into even as classic a fairy tale as “Sleeping Beauty” distracts and disappoints by replacing magic with message.
The film begins with the “once upon a time” reassurance that we are entering a far-away land of fairies who share and cooperate in an enchanted forest. We see sparkling streams with fanciful flowers and butterflies, and are told that in fairyland, everyone loves one another. But viewers are then introduced to the humans who are living in an adjacent dark forest. We immediately get the message that humans are evil, as those who lived in the dark woods spend their days living lives of “greed and ambition.” In the film’s earliest moments, we learn that as a child, despite her strangely malevolent name, the innocent and kind Maleficent has a chance meeting with young man named Stefan who has become hopelessly lost in the forest of the fairies. They become good friends throughout their childhood, playing in the enchanted forest. But as they grow older, Stefan’s manly lust for power—his ambition—corrupts the relationship. In time, in his bid to become king of the dark human land of the ambitious, Stefan betrays Maleficent, hurting her deeply.
Vowing revenge, Maleficent descends upon King Stefan’s palace, interrupting what had been the joyful christening party of his first-born child, Aurora. Issuing the iconic curse on the child, Maleficent dominates a scene that is breathtaking in its fairy tale qualities. But the dramatic christening scene also signals the disenchantment that is to come. Maleficent, the very evil antagonist, soon becomes the story’s protagonist. It is at this point that the film Maleficent stops being a fairy tale. The magic is gone. It is no longer a fairy tale because asking children to understand that evil people such as Maleficent are really good can never be a “love-gift.” The chaos that is already in the child’s mind just became more chaotic, as there cannot be shades of gray in a truly evil figure like Maleficent. The creators of Disney’s original Sleeping Beauty film named her “Maleficent” for a reason.
Once the fairy tale becomes a feminist morality play, the message suppresses any magic that might have been left. With the exception of the child Aurora, humans—especially human males—remain hopelessly flawed creatures throughout the film. They are never redeemed. No “true love’s kiss” can redeem the dreaded human males in this film, who are by turns portrayed as evil or powerless. King Stefan declines throughout the film—becoming a mere shadow of a man issuing weak and ineffectual orders to his soldiers in a terrible Scottish accent. Even Prince Philip, the handsome young prince from the original Sleeping Beauty movie, cannot escape this cinematic fate. After becoming infatuated with Aurora when they happen to meet in the fairy’s forest, Philip is recruited to try and break Maleficent’s spell with a kiss for young princess. In the original story, Philip’s kiss breaks the spell, defeating the evil Maleficent (with the help of the good fairies), as he awakens the princess from her deep slumber. In the original story, Prince Philip and Aurora live happily ever after. But in this revisionist feminist film, Prince Philip is powerless—just like all of the recent princes in Disney’s disenchanted world. In last year’s Frozen, we are introduced to Hans, an evil and greedy man who pretends to love Princess Anna in order to steal the crown. Like Philip in Maleficent, Hans is enlisted to provide “true love’s kiss.” But, as with Philip, the kiss from Frozen’s prince does nothing to break the evil spell; it is the “real love” between sisters that breaks the spell in Frozen.
The powerlessness and duplicity of males has been a constant theme in Disney’s fairy tales for nearly a decade. In 2010, Tangled introduced us to the greedy, arrogant, and self-centered Flynn Rider, Rapunzel’s love interest. Flynn is a thief who, like the humans in Maleficent, is ambitious and selfish. But at least in Tangled, there was still some magic allowed as Flynn falls in love with the beautiful and good Rapunzel, transforming the former thief into a more compassionate and loving person.
But most of the magic is gone in Maleficent, as Disney’s disenchantment of our world is complete. Bettleheim suggested that the classic fairy tale gave the child an intuitive, subconscious understanding of his own nature and of what his future may hold if he develops his positive potentials. The child senses from fairy tales that to be a human being in this world of ours means having to accept difficult challenges, but also encountering wondrous adventures, and triumphing over adversity. Chesterton suggests that children already know there are dragons (and evil) in this world—the task of the fairy tale is to help children realize that the dragons can be conquered.