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Fairy tales have deeper meaning than just stories

Diane Evans

When your 18-year-old wants to spend spring break in Disney World with Mom, well … fairy tales do come true.

The Magic Kingdom would not have been at the top of my list of vacation spots. But it’s hard to resist the chance to step back in time a bit with a child ready to go off to college.

Both my daughters are young women now. But when they were young children, we read the fairy tales.

Over and over. Especially “Cinderella.” “The Year of a Million Dreams” is the current theme at the Disney World parks, and Cinderella plays big into that, with the notion that a dream is a
wish your heart makes.

As an adult, I find fairy tales fascinating.

During summers at Chautauqua Institution, in southwestern New York, I often sit in on lectures that dissect the meanings of fairy tales. One of the first lessons: Fairy tales are big on symbolism.

One Chautauqua lecturer pointed out that a reference to the “whole kingdom” really means the whole human psyche. That’s because individual characters in a fantasy represent
different personality traits. A wicked old woman counting money might personify greed, for example, while a more good-hearted character may represent generosity.

Objects carry meanings as well. For instance, a key commonly signifies that you can let something in or keep something out.

In the introduction to the book “The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales,” Harvard scholar Maria Tatar writes, “The real magic of the fairy tale lies in its ability to extract pleasure from pain. In
bringing to life the dark figures of our imagination as ogres, witches, cannibals and giants, fairy tales may stir up dread, but in the end they always supply the pleasure of seeing it vanquished.’’

Some will invariably see the dread as a bad influence on kids. The dread, however, is part of life’s reality.

The late historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once wrote that the classical tales “tell children what they unconsciously know _ that human nature is not innately good, that conflict is real, that life is harsh before it is happy _ and thereby reassure them about their own fears and their own
sense of self.”

At Disney World last week, I didn’t give much thought to the witches and other dark figures. The message about following your dreams resonated most for me. That’s the message I hope both my daughters will carry with them through their lives.

The day after returning home, I attended a Delta Gamma Fraternity founders’ day luncheon with my older daughter. The theme for the day was hope _ once again the ideal embodied
by heroines such as Cinderella. Conveniently, Cinderella became my segue to share thoughts about hope with my 21-year-old.

We think of fairy tales as fantasy. Yet the illusion is that reality is wrapped in the fantasy. The trials of life, the hopes and fears – and ultimately the triumphs.

You know stories are meaningful when your adult children remember them well. All this is just to remind those of you with young children: Don’t forget the fairy tales.

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