I am a firm believer in the Fairy Tale.
As an art form, I mean. That fairy tales are global and universal should probably tell us something about how essential they are to the human condition, but it is easy to overlook in a modern society where there is increasing pressure upon children (and adults!) to focus on “the real world.” There is also a very modern conceit that our ancestors were foolish because they believed in such stories, but this is a leftover of bad Victorian era scholarship. The truth is, pre-modern people told fairy tales for the same reasons we should; not because they believed them to be literally true, but because they knew them to be fundamentally true. To paraphrase G. K. Chesterson, the value of these stories was not in that they told people that dragons existed, but rather than dragons could be beaten.
Under “Fairy Tale” I would argue it is possible to lump the modern genres of horror, fantasy, and even comic book adventure so long as these conform to certain parameters. I would argue, for example, that Doctor Who, Dracula, and The Lord of the Rings are fairy tales while Battlestar Galactica, The Call of Cthulhu, and Howard’s Conan stories are not. Because it isn’t that fairy stories are aimed mainly at children—Draculacertainly was not—but because they all promise that no matter how dark, how horrible, and how terrifying the places they will take us into are, we will come back out into the light. You simply know, in a fairy story, that the dragon doesn’t get to win.
The dragon can’t win, because the fairy story is relentlessly humanist. The good guys beat the bad because this is how it should be, because it reaffirms our inate sense of justice. It doesn’t necessarily have to be easy, nor is it usually free. Stoker’s band of vampire hunters suffer horrific losses before defeating Count Dracula, and Frodo endures all manner of hardship in his quest to destroy the Ring. But there is never any doubt that Dracula will be dusted and the Ring melted down, and the reason people read such stories again and again and again is that they reinforce that most ludicrous and human of qualities…hope. When a child asks breathlessly to hear the same story again, it isn’t because he or she doesn’t know the fable word for word and line by line, but because taking the journey once more makes the world seem less random and impossible. It gives them hope.
As an intellectual I can extol the virtues of H. P. Lovecraft, because his horror fiction portrays an image of the world as it is. Not that nameless gods and unspeakable alien horrors surround us, but because Lovecraft understands that the universe is vast, mankind is impossibly small, and that the former doesn’t particular notice or care that the latter even exists. But as a magician I can never be satisfied by Lovecraft in the same way I can by Stoker, because Stoker is reaffirming the value of my humanity. This may well be an illusion, but it is an illusion we all need to get out of bed every day.
Mind you, not every fairy tale needs a happily ever after, so long as it affirms human standards and values. In the earliest versions of Red Riding Hood, the girl ends up eaten. But she was eaten because she willfully violated those two most sacred rules—keep to the path and don’t talk to strangers—and the message is still positive because it illustrates to the listener why these rules must be followed. Had Lil’ Red kept to the path, ignored the wolf, and been eaten anyway, it wouldn’t be a Fairy Tale…it would be a tragedy the likes of which fill the media everyday.
Perhaps because I am a cynic and a realist, I find fairy tales far preferable to the alternative. There was no doubt that the Bride would get her just revenge in Kill Bill, that Harry would eventually defeat Voldemort, or that the Doctor will defeat the Daleks every time. Joining them as they accomplish these things is both cathartic and healing, and I daresay even vital. Because if human beings did not—like Alice—dare to believe impossible things, we would all still be living in caves.