Fairytales for Grown-Ups

This weekend, I saw “3000 Years of Longing,” which was a thoroughly enjoyable, modern, Arabian nights-style fable based on a short story by A.S. Byatt. The film alternates between scenes with the buttoned up academic Alithea (played by Tilda Swinton) and the djinn (the incredibly charismatic Idris Elba), and the flashback stories the djinn tells her of love and romance and wishes and tragedy. The scenes with just the two of them are prim, pristine, in a chic Istanbul hotel in the modern era. But the scenes in the past are candy-colored, lavish, even slightly gaudy, and they work brilliantly. All of this speaks to our human need for something that is out of the ordinary and mythic, something primal in our souls that needs to be fulfilled by a story that has magic to it.

Oscar Wilde’s short stories often have this “fairytales for grown-ups” quality to them. There are certain “stock characters”: a prince, a princess, animals that talk and guide us, evil beings. Those who dislike fairytales may say these characters (And fairytale characters in general) are two dimensional, flat, stereotyped. They are welcome to their opinion. I would argue these characters are there to serve the story, a greater message, rather than necessarily be something in and of themselves. There is a difference between archetypes and stereotypes.

Recent decades have shown the mania for fairytales as evidenced by the Harry Potter books. While certainly written for young people, countless adults have enjoyed the books as well as the films. We enjoy watching Harry develop magical powers, special effects, and watching good triumph over evil.

In literary fiction, a good deal of the work of Salman Rushdie has a fairytale-like quality to it. Think of Haroun and the Sea of Stories: even the title signals its connection to the Arabian nights and the Middle East/South Asia’s tradition of storytelling. While the novel is allegorical, it can be read on two levels: that of a child’s tale, and that of a critique of censorship.

There is of course the work of Angela Carter which draws directly on fairytales and (from what I have told, as I have not yet read her) Kelly Link. I find it refreshing that there are many authors (not listed here) who write on the edge of the fairytale/speculative fiction/magical realism and modern literary fiction; it is often a welcome change from the heavily realistic style we see so frequently, one that focuses on middle class, domestic issues, trauma, and relationships. The stories of indigenous cultures and ancient cultures, such as that of India, have never let go of the fairytale, as they are still seen as a relevant source of wisdom and entertainment.

Especially in a time like this, when we have been suffering with a pandemic for over 2 1/2 years, isn’t it nice to have something that transports us to a magical world, where princesses are beautiful, strong, and decisive, princes are handsome and brave, animals are our guides, palaces drip with opulence and jewels, and evil is something to be triumphed over?

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