Fairy tales (especially princesses and Santa Claus) get a lot of crap. From comments such as, “princesses teach girls that the only way to attain happiness is to find a man” or “telling your kids a fat man in a red suit delivers presents to them is lying” to “these stories don’t present strong, realistic role models,” fairy tales are really getting a bad rap these days. It’s no wonder companies like Disney are shying away from typical romance and fairy tales and presenting alternative types of female characters and storylines (such as Brave and Frozen). On the surface, these observations are true – each traditional princess finds a prince to take her away from her sorrow to happiness; there is no physical, living man who flies around the world via reindeer sled delivering presents on Christmas Eve, and all of these stories are rather fantastical (I mean seriously, glass slippers cannot be comfortable). But beneath the surface, fairy tales can show us so much more.
The great and wonderful G. K. Chesterton said, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” There is evil in this world and there are obstacles to goodness, joy, and happiness. That is a cold, hard fact. Fairy tales open our minds to heroes, to powers and forces beyond our own that can defeat any obstacle and any evil. Fairy tales are a primer to the power, wonder, and majesty of God. God who threw Satan into hell, Christ who defeated death, the King of Kings and Prince of Peace who lifts us out of our sin and sorrow into eternal happiness, these realities of God do not seem so fantastical and hard to swallow when we’ve been primed on stories of knights who slay dragons, princes who rescue condemned maidens, and even a fat man in a red suit who delivers presents to children.
Santa Claus actually has a leg up from most fairy tales in that his mythology is derived from the life of a real, living, breathing, flesh and blood person named St. Nicholas. At least the myth of Santa Claus can be anchored into a true story. Other fairy tales do not have the same grounding, yet they are just as important for expanding our imaginations and hearts to the infinite glory and love of God.
Now, the original versions of most fairy tales we are accustomed to are rather gruesome, but they were written in a time and for an audience that dealt with a gruesome daily existence. If the gory details of the originals are too much for you or your children, nothing of the lessons and virtues taught through fairy tales will be lost by reading or viewing (most) of the modern, cleaned-up versions.
With that said, here are some specific examples, just in care you are still skeptical. Cinderella was a hard and cheerful worker despite her forced servitude, and neither did she wait for the prince to come to her – she found a way to get to the ball and got the prince herself! Snow White was chased out of her home by the jealous queen but never once condemned her, nor said a wicked thing about her. Rapunzel (as portrayed in Disney’s Tangled) was courageous enough to go out into a world that she was raised to fear to fulfill her dream and, consequently, find her true identity.
Of course, fairy tales are not the only paces to find strong role models and virtuous examples. The stories of The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings trilogy are superb examples of virtuous fantasy, and The Little House on the Prairie series offers examples of real men and women. As Catholics, we also have a wealth of examples in the stories of the saints (many of which are bound up with myths and facts) and, almost needless to say, the best stories come from the Bible. This still, though, does not render fairy tales needless.
If we allow them, fairy tales can expand our minds beyond the here and now and open us to virtue and the wonders of heaven. Tools like fairy tales remind us that life is not boring or full of strife but rather, full of adventure and glory despite hardships. Put on a new pair of lenses and give fairy tales another shot. At the very least, you’ll have fun experiencing fairy tales from a new perspective.