As a writer of stories for children I’m well aware of the irony in that title, however I’m not saying that fairy tales aren’t for children at all, but rather there’s plenty us adults can (and should) get out of them as well. They’re not simply well-structured narratives, with relatable characters and universal themes – although they certainly tick those boxes – they also present a uniquely playful, some might say cynical, worldview.
Fairy tales have morals, but it tends to be a dark morality that infuses them. And more often than not their endings are far from joyous. There are lessons there to be learned, but that doesn’t mean that by learning them you’ll live happily ever after. Chances are you’ll have to live with the consequences of your actions (but you’ll be a more rounded character for doing so). Original versions of the most well-known tales are rife with delightfully unsavoury twists and barbaric vengeance. The Brothers Grimm version of Snow White ends with the evil queen showing up at the happy couples’ wedding and being forced to step into burning hot iron shoes and dance until she expires, while Hansel and Gretel is essentially a tale of child abduction and cannibalism, and Little Red Riding Hood has the wolf chopping up the grandmother and storing her blood in a wine bottle. This is just about as far from child-friendly as you can get, but marvellously imaginative nonetheless.
While nowhere near as extreme, my book, Archie’s Mirror, includes its own take on a fairy tale – The Bottomless Pool. This story of a brave adventurer and an evil mermaid who tries to lure him to his death, has its provenance in numerous sources, not least an old legend that originated close to where I grew up in Staffordshire in the UK…
Now I know that mermaids have experienced something of a renaissance in popular culture recently – my own niece wasn’t particularly happy with the idea of an ‘evil’ mermaid in my book – but I’ve always found these creatures incredibly unnerving (and the following will probably go some way to explain why)!
… back to the Staffordshire legend. From a young age I remember being told the story of a beautiful young woman who rejected the amorous advances of a local man. Driven into a fit of rage by the rejection he sought vengeance by accusing the woman of witchcraft and, along with the local townsfolk, drowned her in Black Mere Pond in the Peak District. As she struggled for her final breath, she was said to have cursed the man, whose bloody corpse was found beside the pool three days later, raked with claw marks. From that day, her spirit was said to haunt the pool in the form of a demon mermaid.
Perhaps it’s time to go back and look again at the tales you were told throughout your childhood and explore some new angles on stories that feature little pigs, imprisoned princesses and mischievous goblins. Personally, I’m a fan of horror and I’m a fan of fantasy, and for me fairy tales bridge that gap perfectly.