This past week I had the pleasure of introducing my three year old grandson to stories that begin with the phrase Once upon a time. There is something thrilling about the phrase, Once upon a time. When we hear Once upon a time, we are immediately transported to another land – an imaginary land of giants and trolls, talking animals and elves, wicked witches and wolves, magical spells and enchanted beans. When we hear Once upon a time our imagination takes flight. We know that we are at the beginning of a fantastical journey; we are going to hear a fairy tale.
Fairy tales, folktales and fables, of course, have been with us for a long time, both in oral and printed form, and appear in all literate cultures. Some of the oldest tales come from Aesop, 6th century Greece (The Tortoise and the Hare, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, and The Ant and the Grasshopper). We are all familiar with the tales published by Charles Perrault in seventeenth century France (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood), by the Brothers Grimm (Snow White, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin) in Germany in 1812, and by Hans Christian Andersen in Denmark in 1835 (The Ugly Duckling, The Emperor’s New Clothes).
Fairy tales have been told and retold, published again and again, illustrated by innumerable artists, and adapted into dozens of plays and movies. What is the enduring appeal of these stories? Why should we, you might wonder, continue to read these old and, after all, often frightening tales (children lost in woods and found by a witch who fattens them up to eat them in Hansel and Gretel, or wolves chopped open by hunters so that grandma can escape in Little Red Riding Hood) to our little ones?
First of all, fairy tales are great fun, both for the storyteller and the listener. You can huff and puff and blow the house down, you can climb up and down the giant beanstalk, you can trip, trap across the ogre’s bridge, you can spin hair into gold, and slip your foot into a glass slipper. Bring all of your theatrical talents to the story. There’s no such thing as too much drama in the telling of a fairy tale.
Fairy tales are a way for children to experience danger in a safe and satisfying way. The violence within the fairy tale is always contained, the evil is always overcome and the hero always vanquishes the villain. The child relishes the danger knowing that it will be reversed by the end of the story. The child can identify with the small, the weak or the downtrodden (Cinderella, sweeping the hearth, for example) who, in a gratifying reversal, is able to overcome the odds and triumph, to marry the prince.
Fairy tales teach children right from wrong, not directly, but by implication. In the story of The Three Little Pigs, for example, children learn the two lazy pigs, who have built their houses of straw and sticks, must turn to their hard-working brother who built his house of bricks, for safety from the big, bad wolf. There is always a moral to the tale.
Fairy tales use repetition in the telling with phrases the child will quickly acquire “Not by the hair on my chinny, chin, chin” or “Who’s that trip trapping across my bridge?” Such repetition is comforting to the child. He can anticipate the story and alleviate his fears.
If you haven’t read a fairy tale to a child recently, you’re missing a wonderful experience. The Children’s Room has a large collection of beautifully illustrated fairy tales. Browse the collection and find the one that’s just right for your telling.