Our Lives in Fairy Tales

by Mary Grace Ketner

Between “Once upon a time” and “happily ever after,” each fairy tale presents a brilliant metaphor for one stage of life.

In the course of a fairy tale, the protagonist leaves a state of innocence to navigate a path through territory dense with risks and challenges. With courage, integrity, and persistence, s/he prevails to reach the goal. People forge such paths in each stage of their lives, too, and they complete the stage successfully only if they display the same qualities. Psychologist Erik Erikson describes the Stages of Psychosocial Development as: Infant, Toddler, Preschool, School Age, Adolescent, Young Adult, Middle Adult, and Mature Adult.

Fairy tales speak most strongly to persons in the same stage of life as the protagonist. When they don’t seem to “work,” it is often because they are being told to the wrong age or stage of listener. Writer Libby Copeland recently complained in Slate magazine, “I hate reading [fairy tales] to my young daughter. The classic versions are too violent; the Disney versions have bad values.” Aladdin, Snow White, Cinderella? Too violent for her 2 1/2-year-old? Of course, they are! Those classics are for teens and young adults, not toddlers! And the Disney version holds the younger crowd not because the story enchants them but because the production dazzles them.

However, the Disney versions fail with teens. In contrast, teens are awed to discover, for example, Grimm’s original Rapunzel: an abused teenager who finds herself pregnant, an unwed mother who searches for years for her beloved, the father of her twins, only to find he also had suffered as a result of their lust and love. Like Rapunzel, teens feel captive in a prison of their parents’ design; they, too, are dealing with issues of sexuality, love and loneliness. They long for a deep, passionate relationship. “Rapunzel” affirms that such a love can happen, that fulfillment can take a long time, and that love and lust are closely tied–just as teens suspected!

So, how can we determine which fairy tales speak to which audience? The best clue is the protagonist’s age. Listeners in the same life stage will find comfort and hope in that story. Is it about a beautiful princess? Tell it in middle and high schools, where beautiful princesses abound. “Hansel and Gretel”? Tell it to elementary children, sheathed in their nuclear families. Does it begin, “Once there was a King…”? Tell it to middle adults. To craft your tale for its appropriate audience, explore the elements of the story which resonate with that stage in life. Consider the protagonist in light of the conflicts, questions, and virtues Erikson describes for his/her stage in life.

And, what about that “happily ever after”? More than just “The End,” it means the protagonist has accomplished the task for his/her stage in life and is ready for whatever comes next. Isn’t that what happiness is?

While we cannot deeply understand fairy tales set in stages of life we’ve not yet journeyed into, we can certainly enjoy tales from the stages we’ve survived. At my stage, I can appreciate all of them!

About Mary Grace

Mary Grace was hooked on storytelling when she learned you get more hugs for telling stories than for talking on the radio or writing a book. A Texas Commission on the Arts Touring Roster performer, she tells fairy tales and other stories at schools, festivals, and events in San Antonio and south Texas. Her book Ganzy Remembers was a Banks Street College selection, and her CD “Ghostly Gals and Spirited Women” received a Storytelling World Gold Award. Mary Grace and Megan Hicks serve as Principal Simpletons at the Fairy Tale Lobby, an NSN Discussion Group and communal blog.

Contact Mary Grace

Website:  www.talesandlegends.net
Blog: http://fairytalelobby.wordpress.com

24 thoughts on “Our Lives in Fairy Tales”

  1. The age-appropriate consideration is something I’ve always sort of known, but with my brain, that sort of intuitive knowledge suddenly becomes an available tool whenever someone expresses it so clearly and simply. As the simpler Simpleton co-blogger, I continue to marvel at the way you lay ideas out so clearly.

    1. (teehee) I think there is much wisdom around fairy-tale-telling that we just haven’t quite gotten around to articulating yet, but we’re working on it! I feel so classy knowing that you are doing that, too, especially in your own radiant telling and in your ground hog fracturing of the classics.
      I’m really looking forward to hosting the Fairy Tale Lobby storyswap with you at the NSN Conference this summer!

    1. Lynn, I’m so glad you agree about that lifelong attraction, which can be both healing and empowering, don’t you think? Thanks for keeping Fairy Tales (as well as myths, historical and personal stories…) vivid in Virginia!

  2. Thank you, mary Grace. An ‘enchanting’ read. Fairy tales make such sense, especially when you’ve given the clues. Every bookstore should have a copy of this as suggested reading for their patrons!

    1. Hmmm….Terrific idea! It is readers and listeners to read-aloud fairy tales who benefit as well as tellers and audiences! And there are more of them! Thanks!

  3. I wonder if you’ve ever studied the Rudolph Steiner method of teaching children through story? There is a very strict order of stories to be introduced to the young. We looked at it briefly when I was studying Storytelling at Emerson College in the UK and remember it was fascinating…

    1. I just looked up Steiner–yes! the Waldorf School founder! I’d love to see that whole list. Sounds a little stiff, but I bet there’s some sound logic to it.

  4. Mary Grace,
    What a powerful reminder on the importance of fairytales. I also really enjoy your advice on how to detect if the listener is ready for the fairy tales. I have been working on reviewing, revisiting, the Appalachian story of “Jack” which from many accounst is the story of every man/woman. It is reassuring to hear your account of how important that story is to our lives. I will be teaching a class next spring called “Uncovering fairy and folktales with a touch of ghost stories” and we will use these stories to find our own journey (college class) The question is are we ready to find out our journey from multiple tales. I believe one tale serves as a guide but it is world that the many tales offer that helps us decide the journey. with much appreciation, Kevin

    1. Kevin, I would be very interested in following your explorations of Jack tales! They begin with Jack living at home with his Mama (and sometimes two older brothers) and end with him marrying, which is Erikson’s Stage 5. I think that Jack’s story is the story of “everyman” going through that stage of life, which makes his tales the perfect way for your university students to “get it” about the how and why of fairy tales. The multitude of Jack tales–from Appalachian Jack to Aladdin to Juan Bobo to ‘Ti Jean to Ivan–present an array of metaphorical variations on navigating that stage of life.

  5. Dear Mary Grace,
    I am so happy I finally found the time to read your NSN guest blog. I wanted to read it when I knew I could enjoy it, and enjoy it I did! You have written a thoughtful and wonderfully crafted statement about tapping the power of a fairy tale at the right time for the right group. When we consider a story in this way, we are able to better appreciate how and why it continues to resonate today. Thank you!
    Best wishes, Glenda

  6. An excellent piece. Lots of food for thought in selecting which tales to tell to meet the needs of your audience. I need to relook at the folk and fairy tales I share with different age groups to make better connections with audiences. Thanks for your bits of wisdom.

    1. I recently did that, too, Harvey. Also, if I moved a tale up or down a stage, I thought in these terms to find a better tale to fill in. I’m still testing them out, so wish me luck!

  7. Norris Spencer

    Thanks for being so clear and right on. I have wondered why I’m not drawn to tell certain fairy tales to my second graders – thinking they wouldn’t be interested or it just wasn’t .. I don’t know – I just wasn’t pulled to tell them.
    Thanks for the thinking help.

  8. I think you make an interesting point about age and how people relate to certain stories and their protagonists. Situation may have a little to do with it, too. I , myself, am a storyteller but also in my late 20s and a grad student. The fairy tale protagonist I often find myself drawn to is the returning soldier (“Bearskin”, “How Six Men got Far in the World”, “Twelve Dancing Princesses”, “The Soldier and Death”). A character who is likely young but not too young. Has had some experience in the world. Yet, having just got home from war, hasn’t really established a life for himself yet. I can relate.

    1. Adam, I love the way you isolated this character or character type then observed “him” across several enduring fairy tales. I’ve pondered him in “Twelve Dancing Princesses” as well, but less as protagonist than as a supporting actor type character. Seems to me that is an example of a story in which one might identify with any of several protagonists, and all at different stages in life. The king begins and ends the story and is the one who comes to a clearer view of his teenage daughters is one, but most of the action is between the princesses themselves and the soldier, and that story can almost stand alone. I plan to have some fun thinking about the returning soldier now. Thanks!

  9. Deliciuos food for thought. Wonderful post Mary Grace.
    Thank you such much. Simpleton?…me thinks not. Many thanks for the contributions you and Megan and makig with the Fair Tale Lobby. I’m looking forward to the Fairy Tale Lobby Swap at the NSN conference. Countin’ the days…

    1. It has been grand to find that there actually is an audience for fairy tales these days–and an enthusiastic one! People’s responses to the Fairy Tale Question of the month (fairytalelobby.wordpress.com) have given Megan and me lots of insight, not to mention lots of fun in building new stories around them each week!

  10. You are right about telling a fairy tale at the right age and time, except when it comes to adults. I think we can tell to adult of any age at any time as long as we are addressing the child within them. That child is not far beneath the surface.

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