The Fairy-Tale Language

May 23, 2023

The older we get and the longer we spend reading, studying, and generally obsessing about fairy tales, the more we understand that fairy tales are a language for saying anything. Anything at all.

This might sound really counterintuitive, but we swear, it’s true.

Perhaps the biggest blocks against grasping this are the incredibly pervasive ideas that fairy tales are 1) for children and 2) more specifically, a way to instruct children and show how they should act, behave, and be. But this is a comparatively new idea – before the 1800s, fairy tales were widely understood to be a mode of entertainment primarily for adults.

And adults have used them for just about everything, for great good and great evil and everything in between. Revolution. Exclusion. Laughter. Nazi propaganda. LGBT+ inclusivity. Conservative AND liberal politics. You name it, fairy tales have done it. 

Just last week, Sara was talking with our friend Deborah about a poem that we had just written together, a retelling of “Sleeping Beauty.”

In most comparatively modern versions of “Sleeping Beauty,” the Princess is cursed to die when she pricks her finger on a spinning wheel, so her parents order all the spinning wheels in the kingdom to be burned. This idea has always struck us as a somewhat understandable but really rash decision. Burning all the spinning wheels?? How did anyone make cloth after that??

Our poem is about what happened to the women who lost their only means of survival when that happened – the women whose spinning wheels were stolen from their homes and burned. Spinning was one of the only ways single, widowed, and generally marginalized women could make an income at certain points in history (and certainly in pseudo-medieval ‘once upon a time’ land)… what were they supposed to do after that option was taken away?

Deborah said “[t]he perspective of those whose livelihood was taken with the destruction of the spinning wheels is something I have actually contemplated on more than one occasion. You state their position beautifully,” which we really appreciated (even though she’s biased as F about our poetry), but it also really got us thinking about all the things you can do with “Sleeping Beauty.”

Between the two of us, we’re probably written at least 20 different versions of “Sleeping Beauty.” We’ve written about wandering through dreams, about the necessity of rest, about the story’s connection to the Persephone myth, and about the aftermath of marrying someone from another century. We’ve written about kisses you don’t consent to, about the folktales that spring up around abandoned castles, and about finding others who have suffered the same curses you have. And honestly? That’s just scratching the surface of what you can do with this single tale.

(Well, this single family of tales!)

So many authors have offered so many other perspectives. In A Spindle, Splintered, Alix E Harrow gave us a hilarious, poignant meditation on the dying girl motif and disability via “Sleeping Beauty” by way of the multiverse. Catherynne M Valente took us to early 20th century Russia in Deathless and into Gothic body horror in “The Maiden Tree.” Jane Yolen uses “Sleeping Beauty” to speak about the unspeakable: the Holocaust. The tale of a girl spelled into an enchanted sleep can be about drug addiction, vampire hunting, sexual abuse, and true love. It can be the vessel for so many different messages, so many different ways of seeing the world. 

And it’s just one fairy tale out of hundreds, maybe thousands, depending on how we want to count. 

The fairy tale isn’t the only powerful tale-shape that can be used for storytelling, but we’d argue that it’s one of the most effective and flexible. And, well, it’s the shape that speaks to us. It’s the language that we want to speak, the language of roses and thorns, spindles and shattered mirrors, impossible wishes and shoes of glass and iron. It’s the language of enchantment, one that can be used for good and ill and everything in between. 

It’s the language we use to make sense of our own lives and to at least try to understand the world. It’s a language we know many of you speak too. 

Why are you drawn to fairy-tale language? What story have you returned to the most?

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