For the last year or so, I’ve been diving deep into the world of myth and fairy tale.
I love fairy tales, and always have. But these days, with such chaos, uncertainty, frustration, and confusion swirling around us, I find them extraordinarily grounding.
My claim that fairy tales are grounding might raise eyebrows, at first. Spending my day with my nose in books about princesses, kings, castles, wicked witches, trolls, and the rest of the imaginative characters that make up fairyland might seem as if I’m using them to escape from the real world, rather than becoming more grounded in it, and by extension, more valuable to it.
But before I argue for the grounding nature of fairy tales, let me begin by evaluating the more common stories prevalent in our culture, for it is they—not fairy tales—that I believe pave the escape routes that keep us complacent and disengaged.
First, let’s look at reality TV. We all know by now that these shows do not lift the curtain on real lives, but are instead contrived, edited situations designed for maximum drama and emotion.
Reality TV doesn’t depict human beings as whole human beings. Why would they, when with just a wave of a director’s wand, a human being can be transformed into a one-color, one-dimensional caricature—a bully, a sexist, a flirt, a comedian. Quite the opposite of highlighting reality so that we can develop empathy and compassion—a much-missing trait in today’s society; we see only what the producers’ fairy dust, known as the camera, allows us to see. Regarding the participants/characters, we love ‘em or we hate ‘em, but we can’t say that we know them. They have been stripped of everything that makes them complex. They have been dehumanized.
But, one might ask, what’s the harm in just a tiny bit of human exploitation, in the name of entertainment?
What’s wrong, really, with exaggerating a person’s negative or positive traits until they’re nothing but stereotypes?
What damage could be done to the consciousness of the collective with just a little contrived editing or staged sets, especially given that we know that they are largely controlled situations?
No one is really getting hurt.
Or are they?
I would argue that if it weren’t for the reality TV show “The Apprentice,” Donald Trump might never have been president. For the millions of people who tuned in, Trump really was the successful businessman he was portrayed as week after week, despite all evidence to the contrary.
In writing about Mark Burnett, the wizard of “The Apprentice,” this New Yorker article states:
“But [Burnett’s] chief legacy is to have cast a serially bankrupt carnival barker in the role of a man who might plausibly become the leader of the free world.”
Let’s move on, then, to the ubiquitous shows about heroes, superheroes, and anti-heroes.
The “hero” pervades in popular dramas. Think of “The Good Doctor,” “Designated Survivor,” or “Madam Secretary.” This archetype is common in comedies and rom-coms as well. In fact, no modern genre is likely immune from the influence of the hero myth, modeled after Joseph Campbell’s the hero’s journey, and used to great effect in movies such as “Star Wars” or “Lord of the Rings.”
The hero’s journey plot follows a hero, however initially reluctant, on an adventure where they will face unsurmountable odds, meet both villains and mentors, and eventually return home victorious.
The motifs of the hero’s journey have lodged deeply into our collective subconscious, where they help create our beliefs. For example, the cultural myth of the zero-sum game was likely birthed from the hero’s journey, because those who win, win it all, and those who lose, lose everything.
The idea of the world divided up into winners and losers—us versus them, good versus evil—did not originate from Donald Trump, but has been planted in our minds through stories that depict such simplistic worlds.
And, like with reality TV, dehumanization, a trap we all fall into when we call each other “trolls” or “monsters” or “aliens”—is one of the primary mechanisms upon which these stories work. When someone isn’t fully human, they become expendable. Their lives don’t matter. Their pain is a source of entertainment.
I don’t know if we’ve fully reckoned with just how much this model of the hero, who comes to save us, has penetrated into our psyches and rendered us as unconscious as Sleeping Beauty herself. Or how much this belief has knee-capped our courage and convictions, reducing us down to the size of a thimble having obediently eaten the food set in front of us.
Aren’t we done wishing on a star that someone—from Congress, let’s say—might step into their hero costume? Wouldn’t it be better for us to accept the truth that most people tend to put their self-interest ahead of public interest, and work from there? What is more grounded, really—believing in and hoping for a hero, or recognizing the innate selfishness present in human beings?
While human history certainly has its exceptions, most cultural change does not arise through the actions of a single human being anyway, but through a cultural shift attained when we, collectively, reach a tipping point and a new thought or idea moves from the fringes to the mainstream.
In other words, we change the world through collective action, each of us doing our own small part to energize a new thought form or belief until the collective consciousness has no choice but to make room for it.
Then, we have the genre of the superhero.
I think we can all agree these movies are not trying to point to reality, but are true escapism. But when these stories are repeated, again and again, we may as well have bitten into a poisoned apple, for they have poisoned our understanding of what true heroism might actually look like. Because these days, heroism looks more like a nurse or teacher going to work than a muscled man in a cape stopping a moving train.
Both hero and superhero stories teach us, through sheer repetition of the themes, that once a hero is victorious, “evil” will have a come-to-Jesus moment. They will apologize, and often, turn toward good. The villain is reformed. Reconciliation is perfect and complete. Wrongs are righted. Or, the villain disappears forever—annihilated, shamed, defeated. Either way, people are held accountable for their actions, whether that means a reward or a punishment.
How grounded in reality are these motifs? After all, we’re living in an era in which “Never apologize” may as well be a bumper sticker right next to, “Always let your conscience be your guide.”
As much as we might wish it to not be true, Trumpism is here to stay. Criminals, especially the white-collar ones, get away with crimes, as if invisible. The sexual assaulter gets promoted, not reprimanded, as if his behavior happened in a land far, far away. And these days, accountability is as rare of a sighting as the grinning Cheshire cat.
Finally, we have the anti-hero, which is an archetype grown popular in recent decades thanks to movies and television series such as “The Sopranos,” “House of Cards,” or “Breaking Bad” (all of which I loved, just to be clear).
In the anti-hero world, the protagonist is not a virtuous person. We’d never let them into our house, but somehow, we let them into our hearts. We root for them, despite ourselves. Admit it, didn’t we all want Walter White to still be alive, somehow, at the end of “Breaking Bad”?
The protagonists of these shows, if that’s the right word, shun norms, rules, and political correctness. They “tell it like it is.” Sound familiar?
Trump fits the definition of the anti-hero as easily as the glass slipper fit on Cinderella’s foot. As such, he was never held to standards that we would typically hold our heroes to. Could it be that the rise of the anti-hero in our homes and theaters built the pumpkin that eventually rode Trump to the steps of the White House?
Margorie Taylor Greene, the newly-elected, conspiracy-believing Congresswoman from Georgia, might, for those who support her, be viewed as an anti-hero. So they don’t care that she’s harassing David Hogg, one of the survivors of the Parkland shooting. They don’t care that she repeats the incantations of black magic, otherwise known as QAnon conspiracy theories. They only care that she doesn’t care. She’s their witch, after all. But they may as well have pricked their finger on an enchanted spinning wheel, for all the reality they’re living in.
Neither stories about heroes nor stories about anti-heroes have proven to be a prince’s life-giving kiss. Arguably, they have served more to bring us to this place of isolation, fear, and division we are in right now. Life imitates art, it is said, and it is hard to deny that if they don’t mirror each other right now, there is an uncanny resemblance. I think it’s safe to say that pop culture has its nose too close to the window of current events to be anything but a reflection of it.
Fairy tales, on the other hand, have a built-in “zoom out” feature that gives us a larger, truer picture. They are neither a response nor a reflection of current events unfolding around us. Therefore, they can provide insight into current events in a way the culture cannot.
Most fairy tales originated thousands of years ago, and have been passed down generation after generation. In her book Archetypal Patterns in Fairy Tales, Marie-Louis von Franz says that a fairy tale “is not simply the tale of a personal experience,” and that they endure because they “fit the psyche of the whole collective.”
In other words, if fairy tales didn’t point to some great truth in our collective, then they wouldn’t have survived to this day. In fact, as stories were passed down, if anyone tried to add their own flavor to them, say, after drinking a few too many pints in the pub, they were shouted down.
Sticking to the truth of the story matters, as anyone who’s read stories to children knows, and anything added for flair eventually falls away. Only what’s deeply true, across time, space, and culture, endures.
Fairy tales, unlike the one-dimensional caricatures we’ve grown used to seeing on our television sets, reveal the multi-dimensional, true, light-and-dark of human nature. They can be enjoyed strictly on a superficial level, but for those willing to go deeper, the more meaning you’ll find layered within. Metaphors and symbols in stories magically sneak past our ego, talk directly to our deeper selves, and reveal their wisdom. Like Dr. Seuss said, “Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of the telescope.”
So, one can view Beauty and the Beast as a silly story of a woman who meets an ugly beast and transforms him with the help of enchanted household items. Or, one can see it as a story of a woman meeting her “beastly” shadow (unconscious), and how, she, in a time of crisis, awakened other parts of herself she would need to engage her shadow—her inner voice, her sense of right and wrong. The happily-ever-after could be that a pretty girl married a prince, or it could be a story of a brave woman befriending her shadow, understanding it, transforming it, and ultimately dancing with it.
The Ugly Duckling is a beautiful reminder that our intuition knows who we are, even if we don’t remember. If it weren’t for that “duckling” following its intuition again and again back toward water, it might have lived with the chickens for the rest of its life, pecking purposelessly away at the ground. But he found his way home, despite the hardships and rejections of his young life. How is that not the inspiring tale we need right now?
There is a wonderful myth, told beautifully here by Sharon Blackie, about The Old Woman in the Cave, who is weaving the world cloth that makes the world go ‘round. But every now and then, she leaves her weaving, and the Trickster, which takes the form of a black crow or black dog depending on the telling, takes the opportunity to unravel all of her hard work.
When the old woman returns, she simply begins creating something new, weaving a cloth even more beautiful than the one before.
I realize upon reflecting on this story that there is value in my unfinished work. There is value in the practice and imperfection. And I realize that the Trickster, as the destroyer, is a part of the formula that keeps the world cycling through the stages of creation, preservation, and destruction. Because if the old woman were ever to complete the tapestry, the world would come to an end.
And yet, this is just a tiny dip from the well of wisdom available in this story. I could come back another day, and it will reveal something new to me. That’s the power of a fairy tale—they offer different layers of meaning for different times in our lives.
Reading and studying fairy tales and myths have provided me with a deeper reflection and a more inclusive look at all sides of our collective human condition. For example, evil witches don’t often get redeemed, and trolls never apologize. So true!
Sometimes, the only way we will truly transform from the ashes is to take a deep risk and reveal that yes, it was we who danced with the prince last night. Yes, exactly so!
And until we reclaim our voice and power back from the bargain we once made when we were too naïve and trusting, we cannot grow authentic trust and connection in our current relationships. Isn’t that the truth?
Rather than getting stuck in unreality, reading fairy tales has helped me grow into more and more of my own wholeness and capacity, as well as see others in greater complexity and with more empathy.
It sounds paradoxical, maybe, but I have drawn great courage and steadied my resolve in the here and now thanks to these tales of far, far away and long, long ago. I think this is why I resonate with the beginning that Clarissa Pinkola Estes uses in her rendition of The Handless Maiden in “Women Who Run With the Wolves”: “Once upon a time a few days ago…”
Seeing our world through the lens of myth and fairy tales has allowed me access to a clearer picture of where we sit in the cycle of human history, and there’s nothing more grounded and real than a clear-eyed, multidimensional view.
When we read fairy tales, we might get swept away from our individual lives to a fantasy land. But it’s not a fantasy land that exists for its own sake. It’s a fantasy land that holds the universal secrets, wisdom, and healing we need now.
So go ahead, open that book of fairy tales, and connect to the healing and understanding available in these ancient yet timeless stories.