More than true – how fairytales defined me

For Cinders Editor Méabh McDonnell, few things have been more influential in her life than her love of fairytales. Here, she looks at why the stories she heard as a child became lodestones for her as and adult, inspiring and empowering her along the way.

 

A boy and a girl, a glass slipper, and a poison apple, a witch and a king, a curse and a ‘happily ever after’. Everything it takes for the perfect story. But is it really that simple? Is a few well worn ingredients all that it takes to capture our hearts and take these simple stories from childhood to adulthood?

It would certainly seem so. From Disney to sci-fi, fairytales are the stories that follow us around from our earliest bedtimes to modern day adaptations. They are the stories we learn the magic words from: once upon a time… far, far away…and happily ever after.

Everyone has their own relationship with fairytales. For me, fairytales carved me out and spun me into life. They are the first stories that I ever fell in love with.

Fairytales were an ever-present constant throughout my childhood. From the books that my parents would read to me at bedtime, to the movies that I flocked to growing up.

What child of the 90s didn’t have an animated heroine that she secretly hoped to grow up to be?

Fairytales have permeated the soft core inside me, being the first stories that I read on my own. Fairytales represented independence, something I could do by myself. They also represented the kinds of stories I have always loved most, ones that are steeped in imagination. Give me a pumpkin carriage, a cursed spinning wheel and a pair of shoes that will never stop dancing  over gritty reality any day.

I didn’t know the difference between Hans Christen Andersen and Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm as a child but looking back on the stories, Hans Christen Andersen’s were the ones that appealed to me most. The Tinderbox, The Princess and the Pea and most of all, The Snow Queen, captured my imagination and took me by the hand into another world.

Gerda boldly setting off into the dark to save Kai has  always captivated my secretly adventurous heart. The knives that torture the poor little mermaid’s feet,  were images that stuck with me and followed me around. I can still hear the descriptions of the dogs with ‘eyes as big as saucers’ and the lock of hair the goose girl’s mother gave her before she left home. These are stories that stick like glue and don’t let go.

As I grew older, my interest in fairytales grew stronger. I was fascinated by the scope of the different stories, of their many variations present throughout multiple cultures. I love that you can find the core tales of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast throughout the world, with different beauties, different beasts and other princes, but all have the same core elements of the stories.

The hope and fear that permeates each one. The feelings of inadequacy, and of loneliness that so many of the heroes face throughout their journeys were so familiar to me. And the fact that they must fight it to get to the other side, well, that felt familiar too.

Every time I talk to a stranger, I answer a phone call I’m reluctant to, every time I voice what I’m thinking instead of keeping quiet,  every time that I can bring myself to ask for help, I feel like I’ve lifted my own sword and fought against my very own dragon. I don’t always win, but I try to fight.

And I truly believe that fairytales gave me some of that power.  These are stories that mean more to us than cautionary tales or stories to help children sleep. They have heartbeats throughout history and weave their way into our lives as adults.

Fairytales took me into the deep, dark wood, to the places where I was lonely and lost. But all the while, even though they realised my deepest fears: kidnapping, drowning, predators in the centre of the woods; in a fairytale, the heroine always makes it out the other end. She escapes the woods. She finds friends and she thrives. I never needed a guarantee of happily ever after, but I always wanted to know that, in the words of  fairytale professor, Theodora Goss, ‘this too will pass’. That the woods will reach an end and the moonlight would gather me out.

I was always a little braver entering my own woods because of that. Knowing that the fairytale heroine has to step off of the path to have her adventure always made it a little easier to take those steps myself.

I’d like to think that’s true for other people. Not just me. Fairytales are the best kind of magic.

Because they may not be real. But they are true.

 

 

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