What Fairy Tales Don’t Teach Us


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.