There are few words that grab my attention as surely now as they did when I was a child as that timeless story opener. Those words make me metaphorically snuggle down, pin back my ears and await, with suspended disbelief, the tale the teller promises to unfold. And it would seem I’m not alone. I know you’re not supposed to believe everything you read on Wikipedia, but that doesn’t stop me looking, and what I found when I googled ‘Once upon a time …’ both astonished and thrilled me. A huge long list of variants of the same phrase from every language I could think of, and several more besides. It would seem I am not alone in being captivated by the start of a good story that takes me by the hand into some un-named time where I can share in the light and dark, injustice and heartaches, victories and defeats of persons who live forever in imagination. I wouldn’t pretend to have an academic understanding on the psyche and impact of the world of stories, myth, folklore, legend. Fairy tale. All I know about is what they have meant in my life.
The first time I saw fairies, I was about four years old. And yes, I was playing at the bottom of the garden at the time. By myself, oddly enough, so no one else can verify my account. Actually, it was the only time I’ve ever seen fairies. But once was enough to get me hooked, not actually on fairies (though I know many people are, and their charms are not lost on me) but on hearing about them. Anyone who would take even a few seconds to tell me snatches of stories about them had my eternal devotion. I began asking for fairytale books for Christmas and birthday presents, some of which I’m lucky enough to still have in my possession today. Now the funny thing about fairy tales, is that fairies don’t even have to put in the briefest of appearances for a story to count as a tale that belongs to them. And yet, fairy tales they are; stories without fairies; stories that often lack even a hint of magic; stories where bad things happen to good people; stories that can terrify; stories where sometimes it seems as though the good people never seem to get any rewards in this life. Of course, there are the some ‘lived happily ever after’ endings that, let’s face it, we’d all choose if we could have them. But, in reality, life can be hard. Unfair. Unjust. Unlovely. Unhappy. So why would we ever want to hear or read tales that underline those truths? I guess because they can help us try to make some sense out of some of the hard things that happen. As G.K. Chesterton claimed: “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” And, as Jack Zipes explains: “Fairy tales since the beginning of recorded time, and perhaps earlier, have been a means to conquer the terrors of mankind through metaphor.” Perhaps these people know a thing or two about these tales?
On my author facebook page recently, I quoted Albert Einstein: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” That comment got quite a lot of ‘likes’. Einstein is also recorded as saying: “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking.” Quite an astonishing conclusion for someone who achieved so much (not that I claim to understand his mathematical discoveries). I’m not sure what Albert’s favourite fairy tale was, but I asked people to share theirs, and I shared mine: Hans Christian Anderson’s version of The Little Mermaid. Here, the eponymous heroine is willing to risk everything she has ever known for the chance to experience the love she longs for, even though the Sea Witch promises her: “But it will hurt. It will be like a sharp sword slicing through you. Everyone who sees you will say you are the loveliest girl they have ever seen …every step you take will be like treading on a sharp knife, a blade that cuts to the bone.”
I’m not going to tell the whole of the little mermaid’s story here, but I guess, from first hearing it as a child, and what I have taken from it into adulthood, is that sometimes, hoping something might happen just isn’t enough. Sometimes we have to risk ourselves, even if it means much pain, to even stand a chance of touching what we hope for. For me, at this stage in my life, that has been to take the step of publishing my writing. The result, ‘Strong as Death’ as an eBook in the first instance with plans for a paperback version to be available in the next couple of months, followed by a second novel, ‘Selkie’ later in the year. I’ve had to push my head above the parapet and wave my hands about, saying to people who don’t know me, and to several who do: “Look! I’ve done this thing; I’ve written a book and now I’d like you to read it.” And now, as I wait to see whether anyone will listen, whether anyone will read, I know how that little mermaid felt. Only it’s not my feet that hurt as I wait. Nevertheless, from the highs of soaring optimism to the depths of the deepest self doubt, I know that, one way or another, risks where your heart and soul are exposed, where your dreams are laid bare to be trampled or cherished, are worth the taking. The Little Mermaid may not have ended up marrying the prince, but she did something she’d never done before: “And the little mermaid raised her translucent arms to the sun, and for the first time she shed a tear.”
We all have different dreams, different ambitions, different hopes. Some will come true in the fairy tale way that ends with ‘they lived happily ever after’. Some will have different endings. What is really magical are the stories we walk along the way.
Could the clip below be one example of a modern fairy tale? Love this particular story, or hate it, it still moves me when I watch.