Do Fairy Tales have or need a moral?

   Fairy tales really have no morals before later compilers assigned morals to them. The stories were told as a means to pass the time, to convey small tidbits of wisdom but perhaps most of all they were told to fuel the imagination with a sense of something more just beyond the edge of the wood, which is really a way of saying there is more beyond our daily lives, a new perception of the world that can be dangerous and cruel but always liberating. Humphrey Carpenter suggests Fairy Tales “occupy a moral no mans land”. To which I would add only that this moral no mans land exists because morals, which are different from morality are already woven into the fabric of our lives and as such need no coded story by which to travel. Samuel Johnson once said that “People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.” So it is that Fairy Tales remind us what we already know, not by instructing us in a moral but in making us look inward to what we already know to be true.

   Red Riding hood does not warn children about wolves. The child would learn that lesson well enough when the wolf raided the family chicken coup. Nor, as some modern interpretations have suggested is it an exploration of sexuality. The girls for whom this story was new and original were already well aware of their sexual roles. They could learn that lesson from their mothers and older sisters and other girls in the village. There is some truth that these fairy tales are myths retold but only in the sense that myths are themselves stories about mans interaction with greater and larger things, but as to a moral we learn nothing from Pandora and her box that could not be learned by a thousand lessons around us every day and what can Prometheus teach us that we could not discover from the fire of a hearth on a cold winters night. Simply put, fairy tales told our ancestors exactly what they were saying, that somewhere, some time there was this or that or maybe not and that a hero succeeded or failed according to the strength of his conviction, the sharpness of his intellect and no small bit of blind dumb luck carried in the same bag with a healthy does of pluck.

   Why was this important? The answer only becomes apparent when we really put ourselves in the shoes of our peasant ancestors and consider impossibly long days or impossibly hard work for the smallest possible reward. When we look around and see our family, knowing full well that most of them will not live very long and that even the slightest illness can herald the coming of a village smiting disease. These people were hardened by their world in ways we can barely imagine and yet for all this there were stories of grace and beauty and depth of creativity. It is difficult to understand how such stories could have emerged from that world. The fairy tales are a testament to the power of imagination as a vehicle for altering perceptions and of reminding us of what we already know. To them, if only for a moment the poorest laborer could become a prince and the lowliest maid could wear a crown.

   To better understand this we might look at the old custom of the Wassail. Far from a time of caroling as we know it the Wassail was a period of social subversion when the low rose above the high and when the tenant could rightly demand service from the master. This custom is closely associated with other similar customs from around the world, the boy bishop tradition of the continent and the ancient mummers play among them. Each show how deeply ingrained the idea of social order was and how much everyone accepted their respective roles but more importantly these illustrate how people from all social strata imagined themselves to be something more, even if it was only for a brief time. After all, if a child could preside over the holy sacraments and the serf could drink wine served by the master why not hold on to this social subversion through stories during the rest of the year. Was it not after all just this subversion of the right ordering of society which led to the enlightenment and democracy and the rule of the private citizen? The people already knew instinctively that beneath the surface there was no difference between the great and the small, it was only the world around them and the perceptions which that world fostered which suggested otherwise. Fairytale’s, just like the wassail custom, or the tradition of the boy bishop provided an intellectual and emotional means to alter that perception by reminding them of what was already known.

   So no, Fairy tales have no moral, nor do they need one

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One Response to Do Fairy Tales have or need a moral?

  1. Matt Kik says:

    No, Little Red-Cap (Red Riding Hood) doesn’t warn children about wolves but don’t you think perhaps that a fairy obvious moral in the story would be “don’t talk to strangers”? In the version of the tale collected by the Grimms, there is even an epilogue in which a similar thing happens to Red-Cap but this time she has learned her lesson and goes straight to her grandmother’s house.

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