What Fairy Tales Don’t Teach Us

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Neil Gaiman once wrote “fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”

I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot over the past month. More than that, I’ve been thinking a lot about the types of stories we tell. Stories of good and evil. Stories of tyrannous villains rising to power only to be overthrown by an unlikely hero. Harry Potter vs Voldemort. Katniss Everdeen vs President Snow.

These stories are inspirational, sure. We all want to believe that good inevitably defeats evil, and they teach us that even ordinary people like us can make a difference if we try hard enough. We too can defeat our dragons.

People around the world are facing their own dragons and President Snows right now. And it is in times like these that so many of us turn to fiction for comfort, for reassurance that good can and will defeat evil. But the stories always end when the villain is defeated. The evil tyrant falls and the world presumably lives happily ever after.

The problem is villains are easy to destroy. They are flesh and blood; they bleed and die. The real work is in the epilogue, in the decades after the final chapter that must be spent dismantling everything the villain built. It is not the villains that haunt us, but their ideas–the hateful scars they leave in their wake that continue to fester long after the hand that held the knife goes limp.

Words of hate and fear continue to echo long after the voice that gave them life falls silent. Hitler was defeated in 1945, but we have yet to extinguish the antisemitism that fueled him. The south lost the Civil War and American slavery was abolished in 1865, but the racist ideas that were used to justify it remain alive and well. Killing a man is one thing. Destroying an idea is something else entirely. They have a life of their own and burn like wildfire if given the chance.

Those fires are beginning around the world, and I fear we are already trying to catch smoke in attempting to rein them in. Yes, we will fight them. We will continue to turn to our fictional heroes and do our best to defeat our own villains just as they defeated theirs, but I fear for what comes after. Because fairy tales may tell us that dragons can be defeated, but they do not teach us how to put out dragonfire. And I fear that we are already seeing the beginning of fires that will continue to burn for decades after the today’s dragons are slain.

XOXO

 

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  • Kay

    This is beautifully written. I feel like this election has opened my eyes to so much. I had no idea that such terrifying and hateful ways of thinking still existed on such a large scale, or that so many people could just be impassive about the whole thing. But I refuse to give up hope. I won’t stop fighting against it in all the ways that I can.

    • Katie Conigliaro

      Thank you (:

      I know what you mean. I knew the world was still ignorant and hateful, but I naively believed it wouldn’t be enough to take the election. I really thought common sense, intelligence, and basic human dignity would win out. I realize that this election only brought these people back to the surface, but I’m terrified of a world where they feel validated. And even if the white house changes hands in 4 years, that damage has been done.

    • Katie Conigliaro

      Thank you (:

      I know what you mean. I knew the world was still ignorant and hateful, but I naively believed it wouldn’t be enough to take the election. I really thought common sense, intelligence, and basic human dignity would win out. I realize that this election only brought these people back to the surface, but I’m terrified of a world where they feel validated. And even if the white house changes hands in 4 years, that damage has been done.

      • Kay

        True, but I do believe that the damage won’t be permanent. I am reassured by looking at the statistics of who voted…this isn’t the future. As morbid as it sounds (though I am actually thankful for it) the generation that won Trump the election is dying off. People 30 and under voted overwhelmingly for Hillary. So while things now are awful, and lots of damage more than likely will occur, I know it isn’t forever. I know we can survive it, and be here when it’s gone. And that keeps me going.

  • I’ve often wondered how much of the Western good/evil stories are influenced by religion. Reading international (non-Western/without the influence of centuries of Christianity) literature was really interesting at first because the good/evil and moral dilemmas weren’t as present or were just done in a different way. Granted, I haven’t read a huge amount of foreign lit yet AND I left religion behind me a long time ago. But that Christian idea of evil, that it’s something else tempting you and therefore not really [you], that it can be battled and defeated, really pops up all the time in our stories. We’ll have that good guy who was brainwashed by evil (by magic or a mentor) but recovers, but not as much of the guy who just…lives and learns better. The fault is always deferred, because it’s never [us].

    And now people are telling us that dragons can be defeated, but only if you don’t tell them they’re dragons and that their fire can burn and kill people, because that’s mean. Seriously, if I read one more article about coddling racists…

  • This is sadly true. Thanks for writing. I am one of those who uses fiction to escape our reality.
    The ideas of villain prevail for decades. I hope our country doesn’t take two steps back now from everything that is happening.

  • I really agree with this! You’re a really good writer too I’d love to see more posts like this with! X

  • This is such a great article and rings so true! You have summed up everything I have been trying to say this year and I love your ideas, love how you tied it in with fiction and escapism 😀 I am relieved also that I am not the only one that feels like this, there must be so many of us! Can’t wait to read more of your writing! xx

    elizabeth ♡ ”Ice Cream” whispers Clara
    (lets follow each other on bloglovin or instagram)