In 2019, ‘Frozen II’, the sequel to the much-loved Disney retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale ‘The Snow Queen’, became the highest-grossing animated movie of all time, followed closely by the first instalment in the franchise. While many fans praised the studio’s ingenious spin on the classic fairy tale, its catchy tunes, and its award-winning animation, some remained perplexed: why would millions of people pay to see such a well-known story? The answer is rather complex.

Our longing for stories emerges at a young age when we are first exposed to fairy tales. For this reason, most of us grow with the peculiar sensation that we have always known these tales, as though their metaphors, characters, and plots flow through our veins. That is the case for Michael Morpurgo, author of a new version of ‘Hansel and Gretel’. He explains: ‘I was about six years old. I knew the story already. I think my mother must have read us the Brothers Grimm version’.

Literary fairy tale originated in oral folk tales which had been passed down for thousands of years. Since most people were illiterate up until the beginning of the nineteenth century, these tales were shared from generation to generation by people of all social backgrounds, hence the inclusive term ‘folk tales’. In the seventeenth century, they served as fashionable games in the Parisian salons where men and women were invited to rework old, familiar folk tales; these conversational parlour games were later written and published by Charles-Joseph Mayer in ‘Le Cabinet des Fées’. Like Charles-Joseph Mayer, other writers collected these tales, including Charles Perrault, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Joseph Jacobs, Andrew Lang, and Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy – who coined the term ‘contes des fées’ (or ‘fairy tale’ in English).

Drawing on these collections, many authors have written their own versions of the tales. In the second half of the twentieth century, postmodernist writers Angela Carter, Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and Margaret Atwood were interested in their endless potential for re-mythologization, spinning – and undoing – these age-old narratives. Nowadays, fairy tales continue to serve as inspiration for books, TV shows, films, and voice games.

Yet, the question remains: why do we still read this genre? In his book ‘Why Fairy Tales Stick’, Jack Zipes explores this topic at length. By taking up multiple strands of theory, including memetics, social Darwinism, evolutionary psychology and linguistics, he argues that the same way humans have evolved as a species, so have literary fairy tales transformed to help us adapt to our environment. Both folk tales and fairy tales, Zipes explains, ‘enunciated, articulated, and communicated feelings in efficient metaphorical terms that enabled listeners and readers to envision possible solutions to their problems’.

Another theory is that they serve as important moral lessons for children. Austrian-born psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim popularised the idea that the extreme violence of fairy tales was meant to deflect a child’s darker impulses or desires. He explained that the imagery of fairy tales would help them achieve ‘a more mature consciousness to civilise the chaotic pressures of their unconscious’.

However, Phillip Pullman, author of ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy, begs to disagree. ‘There is no psychology in a fairy tale,’ he writes. ‘The characters have little interior life; their motives are clear and obvious. If people are good, they are good, and if bad, they’re bad.’

Whether fairy tales can be admired for their complexity – or lack thereof – remains a topic of debate. Yet, it is perhaps their unique ability to engage with our imagination which has kept people hooked for so long.


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