I’ve talked before about the coded messages in fairy tales. (Originally, most of these tales were written for adults—and were gradually adapted for children.)

            One of the most common of these messages is: “No matter who you are or what you face, you can win as a human being.” Again and again in these stories, we see some version of the following pattern:

“You can win as a human being if, in the face of any problem or difficulty, you do three things: (1) Open up instead of close down, (2) Overcome rather than be overcome, and (3) Persist until you break through to joy.”

 Let’s use Hansel and Gretel as an example.

  1. Open up instead of close down.

            In the face of serious problems, human beings have a tendency to hunker down like a toad on mowing day or hide, hoping the problem will go away. But problems ignored usually get worse. So the fairy tales say, you must first accept your situation, face it, engage it.

            When Hansel and Gretel discover their parents’ plan to abandon them in the woods, instead of cowering in fear, they face the situation and try to leave a trail that will allow them to come back home again. They take responsibility for their own survival.

  1. Overcome rather than be overcome.

            Big problems can weigh us down and feel overwhelming—and we can forget that we have inner resources of courage. So the fairy tales remind the reader (who identifies with the protagonist) that they can overcome any hurt, any failure or difficulty. Persons are bigger than problems.

            When Hansel and Gretel discover that their own family is not going to come to their rescue, they end up lost in the woods and hungry. Then, to make things worse, they end up trapped by the witch—with Hansel in a cage, being fattened up for eating. The situation seems dire, even overwhelming. But Gretel keeps her wits about her. Showing great awareness and courage, she tricks the witch, pushes her into the oven, and sets her brother free.

  1. Persist and breakthrough to joy.

            In the rest of the story, Hansel and Gretel support each other and are finally able to return home. But this time, they do not return home as dependent children; they have grown and are able to provide for the family with the treasure they’ve found.

            And so, Hansel and Gretel—these small, mistreated, vulnerable children—come home and “live happily ever after,” which is fairy tale code again: it signals that there has been a breakthrough to greater maturity and joy. The idea implied is: yes, there is trouble in the world, but if these kids made it, so can you. It’s a realistic, yet hopeful view.

            And the fact that this theme is repeated in story after story reminds the reader that even if one has failed this test again and again, it’s never too late. Every day, there’s a new chance to open up, overcome, and win as a human being.