In his book, Myth As Fairy Tale, Jack Zipes discusses why classical fairy tales have endured. He says: “The classical fairy tale makes it appear that we are all part of a shared community with shared values and norms, that we are all striving for the same happiness.”
I think he’s right. As everyone knows, fairy tales often end with the words: “They lived happily ever after”—which is fairy-tale-speak to say that the hero has finally achieved the goal: a joyful, flourishing life.
But not without problems! In story after story, we see the same pattern; to achieve a joyful life, the hero, must do three things whenever he or she encounters difficulties:
- Open Up—instead of closing down, or giving up. This means the hero has to summon her courage and embrace the situation.
- Overcome—instead of being overcome. This means the hero has to keep her wits about her and take decisive action.
- Break Through to joy. The hero returns, but now is a new person.
Consider Hansel and Gretel. They’ve been abandoned by their parents in the woods and the birds have eaten the crumbs that could have guided them home. Now they are on their own out in the woods (which represents the world). No one is coming to their rescue! So how will they respond?
They could “close down” saying, “If only we had had better parents.” Or, “If only there wasn’t this famine.” Or, “If only this or that happened…we wouldn’t be here.”
But instead they Open Up. They embrace their situation, encourage each other, and begin looking for a way home, following a white bird.
They come upon a ginger bread house covered with candy—and at first, this looks very promising! But they are in for a severe disappointment. (In fairy tales, as in life, the quick, easy way, the too-go0d-to-be-true option, is usually disappointing.)
A wicked witch captures them and puts Hansel in a cage to fatten him up to be eaten. But Gretel keeps her wits and courage and Overcomes—by taking decisive action.
The witch tells Gretel to look into the oven and see if it’s hot enough (thinking to shove Gretel in), but Gretel senses what’s going on and pretends not to understand. So when the witch shows Gretel what to do, Gretel shoves her in the oven and frees Hansel.
Hansel and Gretel find the witch’s treasure and find their way home for a joyful reunion with their father who regretted abandoning them (the step-mother has died).
With money to survive the famine, they “live happily ever after.” In other words, they Break through to joy and a flourishing life.
Again and again, it’s the same story. Open up. Overcome. Break through to joy.
And though it would spoil the story for a child to try to explain this to them, when kids hear the story they absorb this world view, at a sub-conscious level. Fairy tales tell children: “We’re all in the same game in this world and the point of the game is joy. And in spite of all difficulties, it’s a game you can face and overcome and win!”