Friday, December 14, 2012

The Virtue of Fairy Tales

   From the earliest fables and folk tales passed down through succeeding generations to today's cinematic versions of popular fairy tales, these stories have reflected the changing moral values in society and culture.

   Fables are narrations in which animals speak and act like human beings, intended to inculcate a useful truth or enforce a lesson. Folk tales and folklore refer to any tales circulated by word of mouth among the common folk. Popular fairy tales are fanciful stories or explanations of legendary deeds and creatures, today usually intended for children. What we think of as traditional fairy tales do not necessarily involve fairies but do involve fantasy and some form of wonder or special powers; forces of good and evil dueling over the fate of the hero or heroine. 1

   In the same way that every culture in the world has its own myths and legends, every culture also has its own fairy tales.  In the US, many fairy tales were originally borrowed from the writings of the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and others and adapted for an American audience.   Reading or watching fairy tales can provide a person with a great deal of insight into a foreign culture. 

    For example, the fairy tales of Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) and stories about a very popular character known as “Ivan the Fool” are still extremely popular in many Russian speaking countries.  These are not simply children’s stories as they are in the US and many other Western countries.  There are many plays performed based upon Slavic fairy tales and the animated versions of these tales are often watched on television by both children and adults.

    Fairy tales exercise and cultivate the imagination. Now the imagination is a most powerful auxiliary in the development of the mind and will. In the next place fairy tales stimulate the idealizing tendency. Faith itself cannot abide unless supported by a vivid idealism. The value of the fairy tales is that they stimulate the imagination, reflect the unbroken communion of human life with the lived universal and incidentally, but all the more powerfully on that account, they quicken the moral sentiments. 2 

    The Tale of Tsar Saltan” written in 1831 by Alexander Pushkin is one such fairy tale.   The basic premise of the story is quite simple: The story is of three sisters, of whom the youngest is chosen by Tsar Saltan to be his wife, while he makes the other two his royal cook and royal weaver. They are jealous of course, and when the tsarina gives birth to a son, Prince Gvidon, they arrange to have her and her child ordered to be enclosed in a barrel and thrown into the sea. The sea itself takes pity on them, and they are cast upon the shore of a remote island, Buyan. The son, having quickly grown while in the barrel, goes hunting. However, he ends up saving an enchanted swan from a kite. The swan creates a city for Prince Gvidon to rule, but he is homesick, and the swan turns him into a mosquito. In this guise he visits Tsar Saltan's court, where he stings his aunt's eye and escapes.

    Back in his distant realm, the swan gives Gvidon a magical squirrel. However, he continues to pine for home, so the swan transforms him into a fly, and in the Tsar's court he stings the eye of his other aunt. In a third round he becomes a wasp (or bee) and stings the nose of his grandmother. In the end, he expresses a desire for a bride instead of his old home, at which time the swan is revealed to be a beautiful princess, whom he marries. He is visited by the Tsar, who is overjoyed to find his wife and newly-married son.4

     The tsarina’s sister is convinced that since she is not happy, no one should be happy.  There is a well known American idiom which states, “Misery loves company” (“Беда не приходит одна”) and one of the points made in this fairy tale is that this idiom transcends culture.  Human nature does not change based upon culture, but the way that these truths are conveyed vary depending upon the particular audience.

     It has been said that everything connected to the universe and nature can be found in the poetry of Alexander Pushkin.  For example, in his poem “The Fish and the Fisherman” the fisherman’s wife shows us that happiness cannot be found in having many things and disturbing the natural order.  In fact, there is sufficient evidence from nature that if we attempt to disrupt the natural order or acquire too many things from nature we end up having to deal with hurricanes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters. 

    In the fairy tale, The Tale of the Golden Cockerel,5 the golden rooster represents the forces of nature, just as the swan does in The Tale of Tsar Saltan and the magic fish in The Fish and the Fisherman. This theme can also been seen in Pushkin’s other fairy tales.

    Like myths and legends, fairy tales also convey the truth.  They are present in every culture and can help us to understand the world on a metaphorical, if not literal, level.  Just because an event did not happen in the exact same way that the story about the event describes it does not mean that either the event or the story is untrue.  In some cases it is important to look beyond the ‘facts’ of a story in order to see the greater message contained within. 

    Formed by the science of the twentieth century, fairy tales have been broken down into four basic schools: mythological, comparative (migration), the British "anthropological" structuralist school.  Analyzing stories of different ages and from different nations, scientists discovered their common plot schemes, "anthropologists" - one domestic, psychological basis of their origin, and the structuralists - a uniform structure in which there are constant and stable elements or functions.
   In spite the lack of a clear definition and classification, researchers still highlights a number of features in common: an epic-narrative framework and reliance on folk "genre memory" psychology in the interpretation of the characters.  Researchers point to the literary fairy tales of the twentieth century as having multifunctional ties with folk and world culture, flexibility in the orientation of the mythology, folk demonology, legends, and multi-genre, as well as conventional and metaphorical allegory.
   Nikolai Leskov (1831-1895), a well-known Russian author, once said, "My dear sirs, Russian people are at peace with their old fairy tales! Woe to the one who will not be in his or her old age."

                                                          End Notes

1)    Popular Fairy Tales Reflect Moral Values in Society and Culture

2)    The Value of Fairy Tales

4)    “Russian Fairy Tales”

No comments: