I am a lifelong lover of faerie tales. They are a compass that I use to guide me through life. There have been times when I've received criticism for my love of these ancient stories (most notably from old white men who taught creative writing classes at my university) and the gods know that the faerie tale canon has received plenty of criticism of its own throughout the years.
But the truth is that these stories are so much bigger than the Disney movies of our upbringing. (Though I won't lie, I love me a good Disney flick.) Many of the most popular faerie tales have origins that stretch all the way back into prehistory. Variations of the same tales and archetypes exist in every human culture - there are over 3,000 known versions of Cinderella alone - and their appeal has only grown, not weakened, with the passage of time. Faerie tales are a rich part of our heritage as human beings, and they've endured for so long because - contrary to what some might say - they have so much to teach us about navigating the world, as well as our complex inner landscapes.
In the year 2020, when we are all faced with so much heartache and global uncertainty, fearie tales have a wealth of wisdom to share with us. So as your Friendly Neighborhood Witch & Unrepentent Bookworm, here are Twenty Lessons from Faerie Tales for 2020.
1) The Underdog Has More Power Than You Think
The heros and sheroes and badass non-binary trailblazers of our favorite faerie tales are frequently disadvantaged folks who are down on their luck. Through a powerful combination of strong character, quick thinking, perseverence in the face of fear and hardship, and an unwavering belief that things can change for the better - along with a dose of magic - they are able to take small twists in fortunes (good or bad) and change the course of their lives.
One of my favorite examples of this is the German folktale of the Bremen Town Musicians. A donkey, a dog, a cat, and a rooster are, for various reasons, written off as "worthless" and set to be disposed of by their respective owners. They take matters into their own hands (paws?) and come together to start a band, and through the magic of found family and music are able to oust some sneaky robbers and make a home for themselves in the world. We see this same kind of magic play out in "real" life when marginalized folks come together to take up space, challenge the status quo, and create their own communities based on love and justice - and through the power of creating art and chosen family.
2) Look For Help in Unexpected Places
Help often comes from unexpected and unconventional places in faerie tales. Think Cinderella's mice and bird friends, or the good faerie who changes the spindle-sleep curse so that Briar Rose sleeps for 100 years instead of dying. The severed head of Falada the horse gives the Goose Girl comfort and counsel to escape her desperate predicament. In one of the oldest written verisons of Little Red Riding Hood, Red escapes the wolf by tricking him into letting her go outside to use the bathroom and promptly runs off into the woods. When the wolf realizes he's been given the slip, he erupts into rage and gives chase. Red ends up coming to a river bank where a group of peasant women are washing clothes and linens. They help her cross the water by holding the washing up to make a bridge. When the wolf arrives, they let the linens go so that he falls in the river and drowns. (No need for a woodsman, thank you.)
There are tons of other examples of help coming from unexpected places in the faerie tale canon, and lots of layers to unpack in each. But to me, they all seem to revolve around a theme of choosing your friends wisely - sometimes a relationship or partnership or alliance you think will be great goes nowhere, and sometimes the one you almost pass by turns out to be the most fruitful and rewarding of all. Faerie tales also remind us that everyone, no matter how big, small, young, old or "significant," has something special to contribute.
3) Greed & Vanity Often Prove Their Own Undoing
One of the most common themes in faerie tales is that greed, vanity, and selfishness pave the road to ruin, even though they often result in short-term gain. Snow White's evil stepmother is forced to dance in hot iron shoes until she falls down dead. Cinderella's stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by birds. Rumplestiltskin tears himself in half when he realizes that he's been beaten at his own game by a mother who will stop at nothing to protect her child. And those are only some of the more well known examples!
You might be thinking, "Hmm, okay Nori, but how do you explain all the selfish greedy people in power who exploit and oppress others for their own gain, who never get their comeuppence?" Well, the truth is that in real life, sometimes the villians do win - but do they really, in the grand scheme of things? Empires rise and fall. Totalitarian regimes crumble. Human rights abuses that were once commonplace are now unthinkable in most societies. Wherever an injustice exists in the world, you will always find people pushing back against it. It's hard work, and dangerous, and not everyone gets to see the fruits of their labor. But despite how we've been conditioned to see ourselves, humans are a deeply social and generous species, thriving on a kind of connection with one another that requires empathy, vulnerability, and responsibility for ourselves and our communities. We can always choose to indulge in this better part of our nature. And I would even venture to say that most of the time we do, no matter what you may hear on the news; if we didn't, our kind would have perished long ago. Faerie tales teach us that doing the right thing, even when it's hard or unpopular, can cause the seemingly impossible to happen - especially when we do it together.
4) Look Past Appearances to See Things as They Really Are
Many people look down on faerie tales due to the idea that they're escapist, or that they give people misguided ideas about reality. (When I was growing up, my mother had a book on toxic relationships called Cinderella Was a Liar.) I find this critique ironic, since faerie tales are constantly urging us to look past appearances to pierce through illusions and see the truth of our circumstances. In the Cajun folktale "The Talking Eggs," plain everday chicken eggs produce wonderful treasures when cracked, whereas beautiful bejeweled eggs conceal toads, snakes, wasps and wolves. In Cristina Rossetti's narrative poem The Goblin Market, faerie fruit that looks and tastes delicious is in truth fake and devoid of substance, causing humans who eat it to pine and waste away with longing for something with no real nourishment. The witch's gingerbread house seems warm and inviting to Hansel and Gretel, but contains a terrible secret within. Beautiful queens and handsome princes can have hearts of ice
Conversely, Cinderella is a beautiful, kind, and brave person underneath her tattered soot-stained clothes. The ugly exterior of the Beast holds the soul of a human being inside. Elderly or disabled or poor folks you meet on the path can be faeries in disguise. Faerie tales teach us to never take anything at face-value: make sure you get all the facts before making a decision, trust you intuition, and remember to treat others with respect and dignity. In an age of rampant fake and distorted news and unhinged Internet conspiracy theories, this lesson is more relevant now than ever.
5) The Right Choice Isn't Always the Obvious One
One thing that makes living in a human body so complicated is that very few situations we encounter in life are black and white. More often than not, things fall into the grey area. Sometimes when we are faced with a decision, it's difficult to know with certainty which choice is the right one. Since our brains don't like uncertainty, half the time we end up getting stuck and avoid making any choice at all. This is natural - it's how our ancestors managed to avoid being gobbled up by Big Bad Saber-Tooth Cats - but it also holds us back from individual and collective growth. In many of our favorite faerie tales, we can find a blueprint for navigating difficult circumstances, and a reminder that the right choice is not always the obvious or comfortable one.
Prometheus breaks divine law to bring the gift of fire to humankind even though he knows that he'll get the business end of Zeus' wrath. The Little Mermaid makes one bad decision after another until she's finally given a chance to reclaim her voice and return to the sea if she'll murder her incredibly fickle land-locked prince and his new wife. She knows that she could never live with herself for making such a selfish choice, and opts to enter into oblivion as sea foam instead - and for making the right-yet-very-painful-choice, she is transformed into a sylph as a reward.
This moment of history that we are currently writing (yes, we're writing it - human beings are not passive creatures) is calling on us to examine our motives for the choices we make with brutal honesty, and to remember our deepest values when faced with weighted decisions. Faerie tales invite us to turn back to their timeless rhythms for guidance as we try to make sense of this time we're upon.
6) We Have a Responsibility to Help Each Other Out of the Woods
The symbolism of forests in faerie tales - to say nothing of the magic of their real-world counterparts - warrants an entire discussion of its own. But in a nutshell, the woods are the embodiment of the unkown, a complete departure from the familiar and mundane where danger and enchantment can be found lurking behind every leaf. In the woods, our favorite faerie tale characters are forced to confront their fears, call up their grit, and put their skills to the test if they hope to find their way home. (Ever hear that expression "out of the woods?") We all get lost in the woods now and again and need a hand to find our way back to the path, and if 2020 has shown us anything, it's that the whole world is reeeaaallly topsy-turvy-turned-around in the woods right now. The good news is that since we're all scared shitless stumbling around in the undergrowth, we also have ample opportunity to help each other find the way back home.
Remember Hansel and Gretel? Two children left alone to die in the woods by their abusive stepmother and cowardly father. The odds are completely stacked against them, but they have one superpower that everyone underestimates: each other. Though they face some (very) significant setbacks on their journey, their love and devotion to one another keeps them strong even in the face of death, and ultimately leads them safely home.
If we are to find our own way home to a fairer, kinder, more just world, we must also practice love and devotion for one another and our planet. We can make it out of the woods if we work together and do our best to not only see, but cultivate the humanity in one another. We are, in the end, each other's keepers.
7) Love CAN Conquer All...But Only When It's Put Into Practice
The way that love is portrayed (and interpreted) in faerie tales is a loaded topic worthy of an entire thesis. While I don't have the time or space to delve into the pitfalls and mertis of fearie tale love here, I do believe that faerie tales can teach us one of the most important lessons about the nature of love: love can conquer all, but only if it is put into active, intentional practice. I don't mean bypassing and "love-n-light-ing" away all the scary things we don't want to look at; I mean choosing to live a daily life guided by love for the world around us even when it's hard or uncomfortable, and choosing to embrace love over fear. This extends far beyond romantic love (though that's certainly a part of it) to include love for ourselves, our families, friends, communities, and the planet.
There are many traditional instances of this in the faerie tale canon, but one of my favorite contemporary examples is the Frozen series. Despite being ignored and overlooked for most of her life, Anna makes the choice to keep her heart open and guided by love for her sister and the people of Arendelle. The choice to be vulnerable sometimes gets her into trouble, but it also makes her strong enough to overcome every obstacle she encounters. Elsa is also driven by love for her sister, but allows fear and self-loathing to cloud her judgement and drive her to isolate herself from the world. Once she allows herself to crack open and feel the things she's pushed down deep for so long, she's finally able to give and receive love from the people around her, and learns to love and trust herself - and BOOM! She's finally able to reign in the chaos and use her power to create and heal rather than destroy.
To overcome our pain - individually and collectively - we must invite love into our daily lives. This means having hard conversations and practicing vulnerability. It means taking an honest look at how you perpetuate systems of oppression, and doing the deep inner work to heal yourself so you can show up to do your part to heal the world. It means using your gifts to bring joy and pleasure to yourself and others. It means summoning the courage to choose an open heart in the face of fear.
8) Play the Long Game
In faerie tales as in life, success doesn't happen overnight, and shortcuts rarely turn out the way you hope they will. Need I remind you which of the three little pigs was able to outsmart the Big Bad Wolf?
9) Name Your Fears
In Harry Potter and Chamber of Secrets, Hermoine cautions her friends not to be afraid of mentioning Voldemort by name, because "fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself." While her words are absolutely true, they are not unique to the Potterverse. It is an ancient and common trope in folklore that to know the true name of something is to have power over it. Perhaps the most famous example is the story of Rumplestiltskin. A greedy king tells a young woman that she must spin an entire room full of straw into gold by morning - or die. Desperate and with no other option, she promises her first born child to a mysterious little man in exchange for his gold-spinning ability. Years later, he returns to claim what is his, but offers her an out if she can guess his true name. Driven by love for her son, she goes to incredible lengths to discover the mysterious man's name. Once she speaks it out loud, the power he holds over her is broken.
The only way to move past your fears is to name them, to lay them out on the floor in front of you and look them squarely in the eye. None of us like to look at the things that make us afraid, but it's how we make progress. It's the only way that we can push past the barriers holding us back from going after our dreams, and creating the kind of world we want to live in.
10) Have Faith In Your Gifts
Throughout our lives, we are fed so many messages to doubt ourselves. That we aren't capable of making our dreams come true. That we don't deserve things that bring us pleasure and joy. But the truth is that we are all born with fire. We can fan our flame, or allow others to smother it out for us.
In the Russian folktale Vasilisa the Beautiful (a variant of the Cinderella story), Vasilisa is physically abused by her stepmother and stepsister and treated as a household servant. The only comfort that she has in the world is an old doll that once belonged to her mother. One cold winter's night, her cruel stepfamily forces her to go into the woods to look for firewood. She takes the doll and wanders through the cold, dark birch forest until she stumbles upon the famed chicken-legged house of the one and only Baba Yaga. The witch agrees to help Vasilisa if she can perform a series of grueling chores, vowing to cook and eat her if she fails. With help and encouragment from the magical doll, who speaks in the voice of her deceased mother, Vasilisa finds faith in herself and completes the impossible tasks. Baba Yaga gives her a human skull and instructs her to return to her stepfamily. When she steps inside the house, fire shoots out from the eye sockets of the skull and incinerates her stepmother and stepsister. Vasilisa then becomes mistress of the house and eventually marries the son of the tsar.
When faced with a life or death situation, Vasilisa was able to call upon the strength inherent within herself to complete the impossible. After the death of her stepfamily, she assumes the adult responsibilities of managing her father's estate, and eventually goes on to become tsarina of Russia. Similarily, we can learn to have faith in our capabilities and our ability to rise and meet challenges. After all, we have all been faced with a situation that we felt was impossible at one point or another, yet we managed to come out on the other side. There is so much within each of us that longs to be expressed, and we are all better off when we let our flames burn bright.
11) No Monster is Infalliable
All monsters, no matter how grotesque, have a weakness. Dragons sleep on gold to cover their soft bellies. Ogres and trolls are easily outwitted, and vengeful monarchs and swindlers can be done in by their own vices. Even a cursory glance at a history book reveals the same truth play out in the real world, though wins are rarely made without great sacrifice. Dictators collapse under their own weight. Diseases that once killed thousands are controlled with vaccines and medications today. Although the fight for racial justice, gender equality, workers' rights and disability justice is ongoing, we owe a debt that can never be repaid to the brave activists who sacrificed their safety, freedom, and lives to pave the way for the rights and privileges that we enjoy today, though there is still much work to be done to create a truly free and just society for all. Faerie tales remind us that the mind is the first field for all our battles - we cannot show up to a fight and hope to win if we've already convinced ourselves that there is no hope. As prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba says, "hope is a discipline."
12) Be Kind to the Vulnerable
In the faerie tale Toads and Diamonds (yet another Cinderella variant), a faerie disguised as an old beggar woman grants a kind young woman the gift of flowers and precious stones that fall from her mouth each time she speaks. Later on, the same faerie disgused as a beautiful Lady curses the woman's proud and selfish stepsister with toads and snakes that slip from her mouth for every word she speaks. In Hans Christian Andersen's much-loved Thumbelina, a young faerie girl tends to a wounded robin when they are both trapped underground for the winter. When she is almost forced to marry an old mole, the robin returns to rescue her. He takes her to an enchanted garden, where she meets and marries the prince of the flowers.
We never know when or how acts of kindness may be repaid. Even when we don't receive blessings when we show kindness to someone more vulnerable than we are (or cursed for failing to do so), by making kindness an intentional practice we work to build a strong social fabric that we all benefit from. I can't think of anything more magical than that.
13) Make the Best of What You Have
Cinderella made friends with the birds and mice in her attic. Jack took a leap of faith and planted some magic beans. Three weary soldiers convinced a bunch of unwilling townspeople to come together and create a communal meal by boiling stones they found in the road for soup. The smallest things often have the strongest potential to transform.
14) Set Boundaries and Stick With Them
Cinderella must be home by midnight. The Beast's curse will be broken if he can find someone to love him as he is. Briar Rose will wake from her sleep after 100 years (or a true love's kiss, whichever comes first). Magic is powerful, but it has boundaries. So should we, if we want to live full lives rooted firmly in our power.
15) Look for Magic in the Mundane
Glass slippers. Enchanted roses. Magic mirrors. Talking dolls. Poisoned apples. These are some of the most iconic items in folklore, but each of us have special objects and traditions that come together to weave a story of who we are and lend enchantment to our daily lives.
That heirloom necklace passed down from your great grandmother. Your beloved stuffed teddy bear from childhood. The recipe for buttermilk pie that's been in your family for generations. The friendship bracelet your best friend wove for you when you were both in the eigthth grade. They each act as our personal charms for love, connection, memory, safety, success, belonging. You know what they say: those who don't believe in magic will never find it.
16) Give More Than You Take
Reciprocity is a central theme in many faerie tales. People who don't leave offerings for the faeries or house spirits face misfortune and ruin. In addition to being an incredibly rude and destructive houseguest, Goldilocks offers nothing in return to the Bear family for their (unwitting) hospitality. (She didn't even apologize for totaling all of Baby Bear's stuff. Rude.) The lesson here is pretty obvious: return the favor to those who help you along your journey however you can. Protect the Earth. Sing to your ancestors. Show up for your friends. Give back a little more than you take from the world around you.
17) Be Careful Who You Trust
Little Red made a mistake in telling a strange wolf where she was going. Bluebeard's bride unknowingly married a homicidal monster. Hansel and Gretel are lured by the cannibalistic witch, and la belle dame sans merci has a long body count of love-struck knights trailing behind her.
These may be extreme examples of misplaced trust, but they still carry weight for us mere mortals. Your time, energy, and resources are precious. Don't waste them on folks who don't respect you, or who won't or can't support you in turn.
18) When You Need Support, Look to Nature
For all the comforts and conveniences of modern industrialized society, our collective mental and emotional health are not robust. Mental illness is an incredibly complex topic - as someone who lives with bipolar disorder, I would know - and there are many biological and cultural factors that influence it. But it's not a stretch to say that our profound disconnect from nature doesn't help matters. Most people in the industrialized world spend the majority of their lives in front of a computer screen. (Yours truly included.) Our entire lives have gone digital, and while that's not an inherently bad thing, we've become profoundly disconnected from the beauty and magic of the natural world. We've become disenchanted by the stressors and existential crises of modern life, and we are all suffering for it. After all, why bother if life has no magic or beauty or meaning, right?
Faerie tales help us fall back in love with the world again. When we read our favorite stories, we're reminded that trees are ancient and wise and have much to teach us about the world and ourselves. Water holds memory and song and story and prophecy. Birds carry messages in their patterns of flight. When you feel lost, the stars can guide you home. We're reminded that nature is the most wild and magical thing of all, and has always been there to comfort and guide us. In turn, we will also be more likely to take action to protect it.
19) Remember That No One Else Owns Your Story
Fearie tales have endured for so long because of their ability to shape shift and adapt through time. Each person who tells these stories changes something about them, usually influenced by the time and place they're upon, right up to this very moment. When you tell a story, you add your own unique spin to it that no one else ever could. And that includes the greatest story you'll ever tell: the story of your life.
We don't get to control the things that happen to us. Some of us face terrible forms of systemic oppression that try to keep us down and disenfranchised. Almost all of us have surivived trauma or abuse in some form or another, and we all face daily challenges and stressors in our own way. But we are not puppets with no agency of our own. We each make small choices every day that create the narrative structure of our lives. And that narrative is yours and yours alone. No one can take it from you, however hard they try.
20) Don't Give Up on Happily Ever After
Briar Rose slept for 100 years. The Beast waited patiently for his love to find him. Cinderella never gave up on her dreams, even in the face of grief and abuse. Rapunzel raised two children alone in the desert while her blind prince searched the world for her. Red emerged from the belly of the wolf, the Little Mermaid found her home in the air, and Gerta traveled to the ends of the Earth and broke through the Snow Queen's castle to bring her beloved Kay home. (Play the long game, remember?)
True, not all stories get a happy ending. But the only hope any of us can have for one is to never give up on it, even when all seems lost. As author and activist Adrienne Maree Brown says: "...all organizing is science fiction - that we are shaping the future we long for and have not yet experienced."
Remember, we write [hi]story. The story is ours. Together, we choose where it leads. And you, my friend, deserve a happy ending all of your own. Don't give up on it. I won't.
There are no happy endings, because nothing ends. - The Last Unicorn