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Why all the fairy tales?

Roth Films/Universal Pictures
Fairy tales have been with us for centuries. Most of us have read the children’s versions or seen Disney’s classics and more modern fare. But recently, there’s been a surge in the genre’s popularity — and a movement back toward its more grownup and darker origins. Grimm and Once Upon a Time have modernized the settings on the small screen. Two Snow White films — Mirror, Mirror and the much darker Snow White and the Huntsman — have been released on the big screen within months of each other, and there are more tales in the Hollywood pipeline, including versions of Jack and the Beanstalk, Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, and Beauty and the Beast.

So, what’s with all the fairy tales?

In “On Fairy Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien suggests the ancientness of the tales themselves appeals to us. No matter how we change them, there is something about the elements and the form that resonates. C.S. Lewis points out that, according to Carl Jung, the fairy tale “liberates archetypes which dwell in the collective unconscious, and when we read a good fairy tale we are obeying the old precept, ‘Know thyself.’ ” While their enchanting worlds may be fantastic and magical, the stuff of fairy tales is very human. They tell us something about ourselves.

Fairy tales speak to deeper truths. Tolkien says fairy tales have an “inner consistency of reality.” The best of them, says Tolkien, deal with simple but fundamental things, “made all the more luminous by their setting.” Lewis famously writes of this power of the fairy tale as communicating profound truths by “stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations” so that “one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency.”

But the most profound reason fairy tales are so popular today may be due to what Tolkien calls the “consolation of the happy ending.” Tolkien wrote his essay in the first half of the 20th century. The world was in upheaval; industry encroached, and two wars raked the world. Tolkien recognized the power of fairy tales to make sense of that. Fairy tales don’t deny the existence of sorrow and failure, he says — in fact, “the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and … [gives] a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” Fairy tales, says Tolkien, give us a taste of the deepest truth: the gospel itself, a story with the happiest of endings.


Series like Once Upon a Time and films like Snow White and the Huntsman illustrate all this. Even as the tellers play with elements of the classic tales, the key elements remain. Selfish choices end in evil curses. Love breaks a curse and brings the dead back to life. As these timeless plots play out, the power of love and the destructiveness of selfishness become more luminous and potent. How can we not taste in that the Story where the power of truest Love overcomes a curse and death itself?

Like Tolkien’s, our world is shaking. When I ask others what appeals to them about fairy tales, the responses echo Lewis and Tolkien: enchanting worlds, a sense that the characters and stories resonate on a deeper level, a longing for something more than this world, the consolation of good defeating evil. Ultimately, maybe fairy tales are so popular today because, as Tolkien and Lewis suggest, they really are the best stories of all.