In this day and age, nothing is simple. The Internet simply provides too much space for deliberation, obsession and opinion, especially when it collides with the academic world. Fairy tales are the latest example, with the recent insurgence of films about Snow White it has been stated that they are enjoying a comeback. It all felt important enough to intellectualise, and this article sums it all up quite neatly. But it was writer Adam Kirsch’s closing point that had me pondering:
‘To read fairy tales in their original forms, on the other hand, is to realise that what they are really about is the primitive wish-fulfillment that storytelling makes possible. Literature is born when this kind of storytelling begins to acknowledge that the world never does grant our wishes, and that the stubbornness of things is ultimately more satisfying to hear about than their mutability.’
Adam’s cheery outlook got me thinking. Why do we read? Or as all questions are actually asked: Why do I read? Is it really just to feel reassured by life's shared hardness?
As he mentions in the piece - way back when, it used to be that fiction was an intrinsic part of social interaction, when face-to-face story telling reigned supreme and orators were the main entertainment source. Now, the art of story telling is entirely different. Like everything else, it’s simply more transient. I can’t think of anything worse than somebody trying to explain the plot of their favourite novel to me. I’d rather just get the name and have a look at the front cover. I read because the writer had something to say, and I’m curious as to how they say it. Reading for me is for pleasure, but nowadays it’s also partly so I can learn an author’s tricks and tropes.
Overall there's no need to mourn the loss of the storyteller entirely. We still read, and while we rarely get to personally interact with an author, we’re still hearing nothing but their unique narrative as we take in their work. The fact we’re not sat wide-eyed around a campfire doesn’t change that. But, according to Mr Kirsch’s closing statement, the kind of thing we want to hear has changed. We don’t want the ‘Disney’ version, where lives are changeable thanks to magic intervention. We want to hear the struggle, get to grips with the strife and feel reassured by how tough life is for everyone else too. The hopefulness is no longer relevant. Literature is about grimier stuff.
Do I disagree? Yes and no. The truth is, when I’m not looking for those literary tricks to learn from, I’m still doing what readers have done since the advent of the printing press: escaping. And a large part of human entertainment is, sadly, gobbling up the tales of others’ misery so yes, we do like the ‘stubbornness.’ Or, at least I like the ‘stubbornness.’ Maybe I'm a jerk.
I disgaree with Kirsch because in terms of why else we read, I don’t think the stories we want to hear have changed at all. We put the old fairy tales in new formats, like Kirsch says, that’s the gift of the fairy tale – it’s mutable. Proving our moral didactic hasn’t changed all that much, we can still extract relevance from Snow White in 2012. But we’ll also always be creating new ones that match the contexts the Grimm Brothers could never have seen coming. I doubt they’d have been on board with K-Stew, for a start, or thought that a future in which children murder each other for public entertainment was feasible. But, reality TV happened and we made a hybrid out of spectacle and real life.
When I think about recent literary heavyweights, or at least the ones that have become powerhouse franchises - Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games, I reckon they qualify as our modern fairy tales. In which case, we’re not simply re-telling old stories, we still bothering to think up new plots. What we want from literature isn’t just a recognition ‘that the world never does grant our wishes’ but rather our very relatable, modern problems dealt with in an unworldly setting. We want our wishes of inclusion, bravery and excuse the cheese, ‘inner-beauty’ granted. We want, as humans have always wanted, to simultaneously depart from reality while still dealing with very real issues.
What Twilight offers a reader is really no different than what the Grimm brothers proposed: There’s always a chance for triumph. I love Harry Potter because a bunch of nerdy kids overthrow a pure piece of evil, often without quite knowing how or what they’re doing – it’s badass courage and puke-cute friendship that gets them to the finish line. To quote Ron, it’s ‘brilliant’ and it makes me feel good, if not a little sad that I’m just a muggle.
Monologue ending, I’m not being academic in the slightest. Couldn’t if I tried. I’m basically just saying that I believe in the fairy tale, and letting you all know, once again, how much I like Harry Potter. Especially Ron.