I’ve spent some time recently ruminating about my love of dark fairytales, and why I’ve returned to them in my adult life, and it occurs to me that perhaps I didn’t get enough ‘darkness’ as a child.
Yes, you read that correctly.
It’s possible I didn’t get enough ‘darkness.’
Now, wait, before you decide I’ve lost it, and run off to helicopter parent little Johnny and Susie, and protect them from what I’m about to say, hear me out. It’s possible that those horrifying fairytales, about getting eaten by wolves, or abandoned in a forest, serve a real purpose.
Allow me to set the scene and give you a glimpse of my own childhood: I grew up on a farm, with two loving parents, a sister, and a set of grandparents who lived just down the gravel road. I spent my days traipsing through woodlands with my beagle, pretending I was a fairy or a wood nymph or a tree spirit. I made wishes on dandelion fluff and danced in meadows. My forest was a place of wonder and magic and I wore rose-colored glasses.
Nothing bad happened, at least not anything life shattering.
It was an idyllic childhood, yes, and I wouldn’t trade a moment of it. But it didn’t prepare me for the fact that bad things do happen, that change is inevitable—and that I was not immune to it.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that my life took an abrupt turn. I lost my husband to cancer at a young age and became a single mom. This was nothing I had ever envisioned in my picturesque life and it took me a long time to recover and accept that things would never be as they were before.
That I would never be the same again.
Indeed, this was me. I’d been naïve and I was left floundering, forced to search deep inside myself for skills I’d never had before. Skills I’d never needed until that moment. There is something wholly unnerving about being tossed into the shadows when you’ve only ever been in the light.
Ironically, my own children are forced to live with a darkness that I spend every day wishing I could take away, a childhood very different than my own. A thing I had no power to protect them from.
But what I learned is this: There is power in fairytales, power to bring us through the darkness to the other side. Fairytales can be therapeutic, a place where the mind can wander into a fictional forest and encounter danger through a lens, rather than firsthand. Perhaps it’s not a bad thing to let little Johnny and Susie read a dark fairytale, particularly in a safe zone, a place where they can venture into the deep, dark woods and learn how to cope.
Maybe it’s not a bad thing for adults to read them either.
As for me, there is something healing for me in retelling fairytales, something akin to recovery. It has brought me full circle, back from the darkness and into the forest I once knew, the forest of awe and delight. I only hope my children find their way back there always, when the hard times fall and especially if I’m not around to hold their hands.
Perhaps this is why fairytales endure. They are infinitely malleable, able to change and modify to suit our needs, both personally, and as a society. Perhaps their staying power lies in the fact that they are a guide in life and we can draw from them what we need, when we need it.
We will all experience the good, and none of us are exempt from the bad.
But we can all find strength in the dark, just like our fairytale heroes. A dark fairytale is perhaps a warning, but also a reassurance—we may all have to venture into that dark woodland at some point.
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