Wednesday, March 6, 2013


I love fairy tales.

These stories, retold for generations, were written to express our deepest fears, recount our grandest adventures, and reassure us of our highest hopes. 

They also remind us that magic is real and always possible.

We learn from fairy tales—along with folk tales and other traditional lore –they contain the world’s wisdom and have much to teach us if we immerse ourselves in their truth. 

Bruno Bettelheim believes when a story corresponds to how we feel deep down-as no realistic narrative is likely to do- it attains an emotional quality of ‘truth’ for us. Click here  to read the article in which  Bettelheim elaborates on this thought. 

He also believes that each fairy tale is a magic mirror which reflects some aspect of our inner world, of the steps required for our evolution from immaturity to maturity (Bettelheim, 1976, p.  309) .

Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman was released at the end 2012, 200 years after the first publication of the original tales.  His bare and direct, no frills retellings, yield a rich reading experience, reminding us of a tale's entrance into our lives, or introducing us to a tale we missed. The reading is enhanced by his personal commentary about history and other versions of each story.

Illustration by Ruth Heller
 The Egyptian Cinderella by Shirley Climo
My favorite --and seemingly, the world’s favorite-- tale is Cinderella.  I collect Cinderella stories.  Almost every culture has its own version, resulting in at least 1500 documented variations.

Originating in the East, this tale was first written down in the 9th century China as the story of Yehshen. This story,  however, was first told much earlier in the first century in Egypt as the story of Rhodipis.

Deceptively simple, it deals with sibling rivalry, wishes coming true, the humble being exalted, true merit being recognized even when hidden, virtue  being rewarded, and evil being disclosed and punished.  

When we delve deeper into this particular fairy tale, however, we find  much spiritual truth embedded its very fabric.  Although this is true of all versions of Cinderella, it is particularly true of  typical African and Native American versions.  I have led spiritual retreats for women on how God’s Biblical truth threads throughout Cinderella tales (and Red Riding Hood, as well).

Instead of fancy balls, fairy godmothers, pumpkins and glass slippers,  which were added later by the French, the Eastern versions illustrate the power and rewards associated with humbleness, kindness to all, recognition of the beauty of nature and ultimately seeing God in all things.

In the African tale, The Great King appears disguised as a snake, a hungry boy, and an old woman.   At the end, his true identity is revealed to the one who had been kind to and meets the needs of all three. 

In the Native American versions, the one seeking a wife is The Invisible Being.  He would marry only the one who could see him and identify the materialsof his power, the material with which his bow is made. The bow  is made of the rainbow and strung with white fire -the Milky Way or the Spirit Road of Souls.  His sister is the only one who has ever seen him before. The rough-faced or soot-faced girl can see and marries him. 

And they lived happily ever after...

I also love poems, novels, and other texts based on fairy tales, alluding to them, or twisting them into new creations. 

Laura Whipple’s marvelous If the Shoe Fits: Voices from Cinderella is such a book.  Each character, and even some of the familiar objects in the tale, get a poetic say, creating tension, speculation, and reflection as we rethink and reimagine this familiar tale.

Click to read Cinderella—Then and Now, one of the many "twistings" I have written, as I continue to play with this tale.

Grumbles from the Forest: Fairy Tale Voices with a Twist by Jane Yolen and Rebecca Kai Dotlich, brand new this week, allows us peek into the minds of fairy tale friends  and foes and the objects connected with them---what were they thinking? Some of their  thinking-- humorous, repentent, speculative, confident--definitely surprises and delights us.

For adults who realize the unavoidable,  invisible, and universal pull of fairy tales on our lives, Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Anne Sexton  reenacts, parodies and retells 17 Grimm fairy tales in haunting poems she calls Transformations. 

Click her to read her  Cinderella "transformation".

What is your favorite fairy tale?


Bettelheim, B.(1976) The Uses of Enchantment: the Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales,  New York, NY: Random House

Today’s Deeper Writing Possibilities
What is your favorite fairy tale? You may want to reread several versions of this tale.

What did this tale mean to you as a child?

What does it mean to you as an adult?

How does your life imitate or borrow from  this tale?

Rewrite your favorite tale as a contemporary story, poem, dialogue or other writing form.

What twisting or transforming  of your tale will help tell your own story?

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