What Makes a Good Fairy Tale?
Everyone’s taste is different, of course, but my favorite fairy tales are ones that are irreducibly strange. When I was drafting my new novel, The Glass Casket, I kept thinking back to the fairy tales that appealed to me as a child. They were often lesser-known Grimm tales, the ones that had not been sanitized—their strangeness muted by a series of cheerful bowdlerizations.
Here are three fairy tales, all of them strange, that I strongly recommend for their unvarnished peculiarity:
This was my absolute favorite fairy tale when I was a child because it involves a little girl rescuing seven mostly-grown men. A girl is born the youngest of eight children. One day, when the brothers go out to fetch water, they’re turned into seven ravens. Eventually, the girl goes off to rescue her brothers, and has a great adventure. At one point the moon wants to eat her! She ends up rescuing her brothers, and as a youngest child, this greatly appealed to me. I wanted to be a hero, and I loved that this little girl was positioned as such.
By Brothers Grimm
This story is so odd that sometimes I get the feeling that part of it is missing. It’s about sisters who love each other very much, and who live in a cozy little cottage with their mother. They end up having an adventure with a benevolent bear who is actually a prince, and a thieving dwarf who has enchanted the bear. They take care of the bear, and help to defeat the dwarf, and then they just go back to their cottage, and one marries the prince who was formerly a bear, and that prince supplies a cousin for the other sister to marry, and ta-da! That’s it. It always seemed to me that some essential part of the story had been left out. And even though the Snow White in this tale, and the Snow White from the better-known tale are two completely different characters, when I was little, I used to wish that they were the same girl. I was certain that poor Snow White with the terrible stepmother had just wandered off from this tale one day, and had ended up out in the woods with awful people wanting to carve out her organs. I always wanted to rescue her, and bring her back to the cottage where she could live happily with her sister, her mother, and those weird bears because it’s categorically safer there.
By Brothers Grimm
I love horror, and this tale is nothing if not a horror story. It involves a stepmother beheading her stepson, then reattaching his head and tricking her own daughter into thinking she’s accidentally killed her brother. She comforts the grieving, guilt-ridden child, but convinces her they must lie to the father about what happened to his son. To hide her crime, she cooks the boy’s flesh into a stew, feeds it to the father, and then buries the bones beneath the juniper tree under which the boy’s mother was buried years earlier. Ultimately, there is a happy ending, but what a horrifying beginning! Another interesting thing about this tale is that the boy’s mother, much like Snow White’s doomed mother, wishes for a “a child as red as blood and as white as snow,” and is granted her wish before dying.
Fairy tales can serve many purposes. They can entertain; they can awe; they can teach; they can communicate things about the world that are often difficult to voice. And sometimes it is through their unceasing celebration of the odd that these tales open themselves up, creating a space for the reader’s subconscious to step into the story and make it her own. Once inside, the journey is hers, all paths are open, and it is up to her alone to parse what it means to be alive in this deep dark forest of a world.
McCormick Templeman has a BA in English Literature from Reed College and an MFA in Writing and Poetics from Naropa University. She is also the author of The Little Woods. McCormick lives and writes in California. Learn more about her and her books at McCormickTempleman.com.
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While on the topic of “what makes a good fairy tale,” you may be interested in a previously published conversation about one author’s study of fairy tales, and great love of children’s literature: Kate Bernheimer: Celebrating Fairy Tales.