the peace and pain of fairy tales

I lay awake listening to a dark, damp wind dragging stories through the night. They bashed against walls and my heart. They sounded beautiful, wild, captive, and something in me longed painfully for their freedom, even while something else wanted to reach for a pen and write down their voices, their tears, the break of their bodies in the storm.

It hurt, it really did. My love for them, and my sorrow for them - that glorious hurt which makes us writers write, because we can not bear the pain, we have to press words to it, trying to heal it ... and yet never really wanting it to go away.

(Although I know some writers who don't feel that way; they approach writing as if it's play. I envy them - sometimes.)

There was no peace for me in the wind-wracked night. I was overcome with fairy tales and magic. But then, those wild old stories never promise peace, do they? Oh sure, they have happy endings. But any woman who has had her clothes stolen in the dark forest, or been poisoned by her stepmother, or escaped a robber bridegroom, knows that peace is a deeper, grittier thing than happiness.

When we are children, we accept the happiness. When we are grown, we know we have to continue the stories for ourselves, past the ending, drawing on our wisdom and experience to find a true resolution - the prince's bride learns to walk comfortably in those precious shoes; the wife must come to grips with the fact her husband killed their children for the sake of a servant; the wakened woman must build a real relationship with her prince.

Happiness is just right for children. It offers hope for the future. But the older reader understands that we must make our own hope. And so the stories hurt. Because they're so desperately beautiful - and so desperately unfinished. They get told over and over through the ages, under all different titles, in battered books, lovely films, storming nights, only ever finding rest, resolution, when we know peace for ourselves, and for the world, within our own souls.

Art by the amazingly talented Kelly Louise Judd.


  1. I love this, and I will forever think of fairytales differently. xoxo Su

  2. oh, yes. whenever i am beside myself with fear or sadness, i read fairy tales again. there's something in them that is medicine for that. they are...spacious? not facile. there's a place in them for battered souls to curl up and re-grow their wings.

    1. Beautifully expressed. Spacious is the perfect word.

  3. This is beautiful, Sarah, and it's certainly how I see fairy tales. Gertrude Mueller Nelson, who comes from a Jungian perspective, once wrote that fairy tales are about "anguish and darkness," not sparkly magic and wish-fulfillment -- and there's truth in her description. They plunge heroines and heroes into the dark wood, into danger, despair, enchantment and deception, and only then offer them the tools to save themselves -- tools that must be used wisely and well. (Used foolishly, or ruthlessly, they turn back on the wielder.)

  4. I loved this post--beautiful thoughts! I especially like this line: "...peace is a deeper, grittier thing than happiness." Oh, yes, that is the truth.

    Of course, I am one of the writers who approaches her craft as play, but that doesn't mean that it isn't difficult and emotional, that it isn't work. It just means that I enter into it with the same sense of abandon and joy as a child. But, then, I suppose I have a different view of children than most. I believe that children experience the pain and sadness of fairy tales (and of life) as deeply as adults. I remember my childhood very vividly; in my deepest self, in my soul, I have not changed. The fairy stories I learned as a child anchor me to my true essence--to noble thoughts and deeds, to using my wits, and to having courage and being kind in the midst of the dark wood, in the face of adversity and at the hearth of evil.

    Do you have a favorite fairy tale, Sarah?

    1. You are one of the writers who opened my mind to all the different ways a person can approach the craft of writing. (You are also one of my favourite writers, as you know.) I agree with you about childhood.

      I do have a favourite fairy tale, but I can't tell you its name or even if it is a real tale. Its one I read a very, very long time ago, even before school I think, about a princess who is cursed to live in darkness lest she feel the touch of the sun and be transformed into a deer. She is content enough but her father can not bear it and lets some light in so he can see her. And she is transformed. I don't remember how she was rescued and restored - or even if this summary is correct about what I read - it really was a long time ago. But something about it lingers deep in my heart. The feeling of darkness. The weight of the candles which lit her existence. The dreaming of what world existed beyond her chambers. The awfulness when she got out there, transformed and powerless. The relief of her rescue.

      But I also love Cinderella because I had a record of it, a charming and gorgeous retelling - and I would play it over and again until I had it memorised. Although in all honesty I always wished Buttons would marry Cinderella, he was such a good friend to her :-)I grew up wishing not for a handsome prince but for a Buttons :-) Alas, I think princes are more common. (Ever After, a Cinderella retelling, is my favourite movie, first equal with Ladyhawke.)

      And I love The Goose Girl, although its complexities always confused me as a child, and only as an adult did I come to understand that it is a story about shame and worse. Now I love it even more.

      Do you have a favourite also?

    2. Thank you, Sarah! I so enjoyed reading about your favorite fairy tales. I don't think I've ever read the one about the princess who lived in darkness lest she become a deer. I looked it up, and I wonder if it is "The White Doe" from Andrew Lang's Orange Fairy Book:

      My favorite fairy tale is "Snow White and Rose Red". I also love "Thumbelina", and "Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady". I had a beautiful and beloved pop-up book of Sleeping Beauty that was a childhood treasure. Oh, and Elizabeth Enright's Tatsinda--loved that one. As far as movies go, I adore the latest Cinderella movie (directed by Kenneth Branagh).

    3. I have read The White Doe and although it contains similar elements, its not the same as my memory, so I can only conclude that I was read an abbreviated version, or that my father perhaps invented the story himself from his own dim memory of the original.

      I love Snow White and Rose Red too, although when I was little I had a touch of bitterness about it, for Rose Red was my favourite (roses, you know) and I regretted she was not so much the heroine as Snow White, at least in my perception. Silly of me. :-) Sleeping Beauty is another favourite, especially as I acted the role in primary school, but not quite as favourite as the ones mentioned above. I haven't yet seen the Branagh film. Thank you for your lovely reply :-)