Defeatism and the Fairy Tale Ending

Art by ~beti123

Art by ~beti123

I have been fascinated by myths, myth-cycles, and fairy tales for a while.  They all have an almost universal touch, they become tropes and memes and filter across humanity, percolating over the ages.  They morph and change with the times. They become the backing track of storytelling, repeating and reincarnating.  Melinda Snodgrass talks about the power of myth, fairy tale endings and reader expectations over at A Dribble of Ink and gets at some important points.

In todays post-post-modern world it is almost cliche when a story falls into senseless tragedy. It is an easy, defeatist way to force shock onto a shock-proof audience. The best of story tells us something about humanity. It can look internally at who we are as living beings, it can look into our souls. And it can look around ones self, tracing and exploring the links between us all, flittering over the complex web of interconnected souls. And it can look outward, it can look at how we deal with the universe around us in its awe and power and at the loss of control a human has when one extends beyond the immediacy of the self.

In asking, “is a fairy tale ending really all that bad?” Melinda says,

After all, David does defeat Goliath, and Odysseus gets to come home to his wife and son, Cinderella does go to the ball, Elisa spins nettles into shirts and saves her brothers and her marriage. We know the Little Tailor will outwit the giants and the king and win the princess. Things don’t always turn out badly, and people tend to remember the good things that happened to them rather than the bad. So why not celebrate that?

We know what to expect from these stories because the ending has been promised by the beginning, and if you don’t pay off that promise you are going to upset your listener/reader/viewer/player. Perhaps we all know the parameters of the promises because humans have been telling each other stories across numerous forms of entertainment for thousands of years. The tales have “grown in the telling”, as Tolkien said — from blind poets around fire pits in ancient Greece to stone hearths in castles where the tales were sung by bards, to a Dickens novel serialized in magazines, to movie palaces and finally on televisions and game consoles.

She believes there is nothing wrong with the “happy ending,” and I agree. There is a reason these stories have lasted so long. They speak to something about human existence. If our lives are defined only by tragedy then there is little reason to explore life itself. Instead humanity has thrived through its constant hope. It has advanced by reminding itself through story that life has joy, that the burdens of the everyday are often blinders to the life around us.

These stories, void of the senseless tragedy and a defeatist view of humanity, are a communal chant across the ages. They are the story tropes and memes and myths and fairy tales that have stood the test of time. They are not the exclusive bastian of the literary elite, but by all humanity, across culture and language, education and wealth. They are universals, and they often speak to hope and ethics and morality and justice and yes, sometimes they ends with “and they all lived happily ever after.”

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6 Responses to Defeatism and the Fairy Tale Ending

  1. Sam Gafford says:

    Nice post and a good defense of the “fairy-tale ending”. Several writers, Neil Gaiman primarily, write in this type of vein for more modern day fairy tales. But I have to wonder, is this tendency to revile a “fairy-tale ending” not more indicative of our modern society in which, as desperately as we may want one, few if any people ever actually have one?

  2. Ronnie says:

    As it ever has been. The fairy tale ending has always been a myth. It’s not actually tangible. But I think it has some value through story telling. Perhaps at its least, it is an outlet for the dredge of life. But at its best, it can tell us that there is a reason to be careful in the wild forest and avoid the red apples. It is a secular way (even with it often religious sourcing) for us to continue on, to strive for a better world, as seen through the happy ending.

    One of the challenges of the enlightenment was to believe there was no purpose, no moral compass in life. This removal of faith (fear based religious morality too often) and replacement by amorality led to desperate, Dickensian times. To counter this, we see the birth of humanism, but to replace the more hopeful and spiritual, without going to religion, we have stories of a better place and a better time. It provides a hand hold onto the future, one that is not predicated on faith, science, or rationality, but instead on a constant human striving for the unachievable.

    Today seems a similar time. We can address and speak to our times through humanism and realism and through fictions that speak deeply to our individual problems. When times get particularly bad it seems little surprise that people would turn to fairy tales, as seen in the explosion in movies, television and fiction. It is that very desperation that the fairy tale ending was a lie that makes us explore it all the more. We continually grab onto it, for without that we are left with religion and the brutal realities of daily life to guide us.

    And sometimes we all need to dream. We need, as humans, to want the impossible. To strive for everything that is out of our reach. It is what makes us great and terrible. But without these dreams, the world seems so mundane and dominated by its own sad minutia. We need to escape those chains, dream a better day.

  3. common sense not so common says:

    I like your article!

    It would seem, to me, that the “Fairy Tale Ending” many times perpetuates the status quo. It lends hope to the hopeless. Instead of fighting for change it helps those living in their miserable existence to accept that life as there will surely be a “Knight in Shining Armor” or a “Eternal After Life of Pure Happiness” that will come to give them their “Happy Ending”. There is rarely ever is a “Fairy Tale Ending”. Even in those rare instances when one of the miserable decides that they are THE ONE and does raise the standard of the Knight in Shining Armor I believe that Fairy Tales do not give the reader, in most cases, the reality of consequences. To achieve the change that these Fairy Tales promise someone must fight for them and all to often someone or many someones must be hurt along the road to that change.

    I believe fairy tales with, well maybe not senseless tragedy, but some realism are necessary to show that all actions have consequences and that we should be prepared to weigh those consequences against the benefits received and be ready to pay for the consequence resulting from those actions.

  4. I heard somewhere (I forgot where) that original fairy tales in European language were not like this which we read. I also heard that there were violence and sexual content in those tales. Can anyone give me some info about that?
    Thanks and a great post.

    • dreygeaux says:

      Old fairy tales are indeed scary things to read. Just looking through an unabridged copy of Grimm’s fairy tales will change your mind about exactly what a “fairy tale” ending is. While I haven’t personally read anything of an overtly sexual nature, some of the violence was fairly astonishing. The one example I can recall off the top of my head involved a protagonist’s head being cut off. It was put back on later and the victim woke up, but it was also put on backwards, which can significantly damage one’s social prospects. (It would take me some time to locate it and do my research here, but if memory serves the story was “The White Snake.”)

  5. Pingback: Fairy Tales are Sexist | HodgePodge

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