As winter draws in, I become more and more inclined to read fairy tales. Winter is a time for telling tales round the fire, snuggling up on the sofa with a favourite book, and revisiting all those old films, ballets and pantomimes. I've always been a huge fan of fairy tales. I'm not alone. Stories that have stood the test of time and can mean so many different things at different times of one's life will always have avid listeners and readers.
But sometimes I wonder if I'm reading the same tales as everyone else. There seem to be a lot of people out there (people I like and admire) who are always talking and writing about the darkness in fairy tales. People like to say that the earlier versions of familiar tales are "much darker". Short story writers are praised for "a wonderfully dark tale". Now, there's nothing wrong with that. I can admire a dark tale as well as the next reader. But it upsets me when all people seem to see is darkness or - especially - when the words "dark" and "grown-up" are put together in a way that implies that a dark vision of the world is mature and a light-filled vision is somehow childish and inferior. I've even had readers refer to my own fairy tale based novel, Silver Hands, as "dark", when that is not at all how I see the story, or its original, "The Handless Maiden".
The reason I read fairy tales in the winter - the reason I read fairy tales at all - is to bring light into the darkness. To quote from a lecture I heard this week: Beauty, Truth and Goodness. That's what I get out of fairy tales. That's what I get out of the arts in general, and I hope that's what I put into them. At the conclusion of the beautiful fairy romance Phantastes, George MacDonald writes: "Thus I, who set out to find my Ideal, came back rejoicing that I had lost my Shadow." * Fairy tales give me that same experience. In their glimmering, fantastical world, the dark things - the flesh-eating ogres and hand-chopping devils - are only foils to the strengthening power of light and goodness. I read of the struggle against them that I might lose the shadow within myself. They are foes to be defeated, not delights to be revelled in. That is reserved for the marble ladies, the palaces of gems, the flying horses and the enchanted harps. These things work on my soul with the power of Allegri's Miserere or Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. So this winter I will be reading fairy tales for their Beauty, Truth and Goodness.
And sticking the darkness where the sun doesn't shine.
*George MacDonald, Phantastes (1858) p. 211 (Ballantine Books, 1970 edition)