Take a story, turn it into something larger than life, add a touch of magic, let it simmer for a few centuries, and presto! You have a fairy tale. With their high coefficients of weirdness, these stories — less about fairies than about monsters and wild things — haunt our collective cultural imagination. At their core, fairy tales are deceptively simple: transparent on the level of plot, but also sophisticated, complex, and full of mystery when it comes to their deeper meaning.
In pre-literate cultures, fairy tales were vehicles for processing trauma, transmitting ancestral wisdom, and debating cultural beliefs, values, and norms. Some of these stories ended not with “happily ever after” but with questions: “Which of these three brothers deserves the princess? The one who rescued her from the woods? The one who breathed life back into her? Or the one who transported her back home?” Or, they challenged listeners to think about ruses and stealth, traps and snares: “How did Jack manage to steal the Giant’s hen that lays golden eggs, his harp that sings, and all those sacks of gold?” Taking up paradoxes and staging contests of brute strength against wits, these dilemma tales and trickster narratives provided food for thought while stirring the soup, repairing tools, or spinning yarn.