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Fairy Tales

Fairy tales — as J. R. R. Tolkien, one of the leading modern exponents of the genre, has remarked — are not mainly about fairies. Indeed many fairy tales have no fairies in them. Fairy tales are rather about a human protagonist in the Land of Faerie, a strange, enchanted, and often dangerous place.

The reader or listener is the protagonist in every fairy tale, and the Land of Faerie is the inner world that each of us must eventually explore. Fairy tales are guidebooks to the experiences we have when we investigate the powers latent within us. As such they are only superficially children’s stories. The fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, the best known such collection in the world (in which fairies are rare), were called in German Kinder- und Hausmärchen, which might be translated as “Stories for Children and the Family,” that is, for everyone. Helena P. BLAVATSKY (IU II:406) addressed the question of the audience, purpose, and interpretation of fairy tales:

Fairy tales do not exclusively belong to nurseries; all mankind — except those few who in all ages have comprehended their hidden meaning and tried to open the eyes of the superstitious — have listened to such tales in one shape or the other and, after transforming them into sacred symbols, called the product RELIGION!

In that sentence, Blavatsky identifies three audiences for fairy tales, each of whom finds a different purpose and meaning in the tales.

The first audience is children (“the nursery”), though in fact this audience is defined not so much by their chronological age as by their sense of wonder and delight in the story; they are children in heart, of howsoever many years. The young at heart find in fairy tales, as Tolkien points out, four uses. First, fairy tales provide an escape from the humdrum limitations of ordinary life into the magical world of unlimited possibilities in “fairylands forlorn.” Second, they let us recover the sense of newness and freshness with which we viewed the world when we were in fact little children — a time when all the world was the Land of Faerie, and we were just setting out upon a quest to find that which was lost. Third, they give us the consolation of a happy ending, the promise that we, as protagonists, and all good people will live happily ever after. Fairy tales provide a sort of temporal, if temporary, devachan in the midst of life. Fourth, they offer the possibility of fantasy — that is, the opportunity to create a world that never was and never will be, but that might be. If a purpose of evolution is, as Theosophy proposes, to let us grow into DHYĀNI-CHOHANS, the creators of worlds, fairy tales give us a bit of advance practice in creating. For a fairy tale is created not just by its writer or teller, but also by every reader and hearer, who is also a co-creator of the tale. The story is different every time it is read or heard, for each act of reading or hearing is a uniquely new event that brings new meanings to the plot.

The second audience consists of priests. They are not merely priests in churches, and they do not include all churchly priests — but they are rather anyone who pontificates. They are those who interpret the stories as history, as literal accounts, as support for whatever dogmas they wish to advance, whether those dogmas are religious, scientific, economic, or philosophical.

To be sure, many such are the priests of religions who think that the star over Bethlehem must have been an astronomical fact or that the Buddha’s mother must have been made pregnant by a white elephant. But in addition there are high priests of science and of other systems, who have their own fairy tales.

The third audience are the few real seekers in any generation of humanity — those who recognize that fairy tales have an inner meaning, a meaning about what goes on inside us, within our minds and psyches. They know that every real fairy tale is a story we experience in the depths of our own being.

Fairy tales have many stories but two major plot patterns. One of those is a quest, and the other is a marriage. The fairy tale quest is illustrated by such traditional stories as “Jack and the Beanstalk” or “Hansel and Gretel.” Modern examples include Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and Ursula LeGuin’s Wizard of Earthsea. The subtitle of The Hobbit summarizes the plot of the quest: “There and Back Again.” The protagonist sets out on a quest to discover a treasure or to accomplish a mission. When the treasure has been discovered or the mission accomplished, the protagonist returns home, having been transformed by the adventure. The quest symbolizes the impulse that inspires and drives us in life.

The fairy tale marriage is a hieros gamos, a sacred wedding of the human and divine. Traditional examples include “Snow White,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Cinderella,” and “Beauty and the Beast.” Some stories combine quest and marriage, for example, “Psyche and Eros.” The sacred marriage is that of our incarnate personality to our incarnating individuality, the wedding of which gives immortality to those aspects of the personality that are tried and found worthy of incorporation into the abiding and timeless self within us.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Blavatsky, Helena P. Isis Unveiled: A Master-Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology. 2 vols. 1877; Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1994. Tolkien, J. R. R. On Fairy Stories. (Originally in Essays presented to Charles Williams, Oxford University Press, 1947; reprinted in Tree and Leaf, Unwin Books, 1964, 1966).