Illustration: Hannah Kamugisha

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Fairytales don’t shy away from unpleasant truths – and that’s why we need them

It’s not just you, fairytales tell us – the world is indeed mad, bad and dangerous to know, says Sarah Franklin. Discover their power with The Pool’s third annual short-story week, starting tonight at 10pm

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By Sarah Franklin on

Once upon a time, there was a…

We can all finish that sentence without blinking, can’t we? For each of us, the particulars of the story will be different, with our own memories attached, but we’ll all end up at roughly the same place.

Fairytales, folklore, fables – we’re drawn to them for the same reason that some of us feel calmer in the mountains, or the forest, or the ocean. They’re elemental. They predate us and they’ll outlive us. The author Maggie O’Farrell, talking about her memoir I Am, I Am, I Am, touches on our primal need for folk tales: “I think these tales appeal to our most visceral need for narrative, as a way to explain different things.”

Fairytales – and this is crucial – don’t shy away from unpleasant truths. Small children live in the world and they need bad stuff in their stories. There’s a reason Roald Dahl, with his famously awful grown-ups, is so enduringly popular. I think we forget that the scariest place for a child – for any of us, let’s face it – is inside our heads. The mountain is bleak, insurmountable, inhabited by giant beasts who will rise from snowdrifts to bear us away. The forest is dark and full of threat, of witches building huts to entice us. The sea has selkies, and mermaids, and other mystical creatures promising the otherworld at a fatal price. Every sunny glade has its monster, waiting to pounce – even the happiest child will tell you this, hardwired as we are for narrative.

Folklore, fables, fairytales – half their power lies in their communality. Often allegorical in origin, fairytales have the power to take the most humiliating, scariest things we can barely admit to ourselves and put them into a tempo as regular and imperative as our own pulse. More often than not, especially as women, these taboos have been imposed upon us, our shame bestowed upon us. This is where folklore, and the weight these tales carry through generations of retelling, has the power to restore us.

Often allegorical in origin, fairytales have the power to take the most humiliating, scariest things we can barely admit to ourselves and put them into a tempo as regular and imperative as our own pulse

It’s not just you, the fairytale says, the edges of terror worn smooth by the chute down which the narrative travels. It’s not just you. You’re not wrong. The world is mad, bad and dangerous to know. Here, let’s make it a fable,  tell it again, tell it another way, tell it so that it’s funny or cruel or shocks us and makes it sit up. Let’s tell it from the rooftops and tell it on the streets and let’s tell it because it is the truth and it’s our truth and saying it out loud will make the monsters slink out from under the bed. Let’s tell it so that perhaps, just perhaps, tomorrow won’t look so bad because our story, this thing that makes us ashamed, has been articulated and shown to the world and made beloved.

Right now, God knows, the world is full of big bad wolves – of old-fashioned pantomime villains that make us want to stand up and shriek, “He’s behind you!” And, as ever, so many of the victims in our stories are women. No wonder, then, that women in particular are drawn to these stories, both as readers and as writers, to take back agency, to rewrite familiar narratives until they fit who we know we are, not who others – through years of cultural conditioning – believe us to be.

Some of the fairytales in our Short Story Week were written very recently; others have, as with their traditional predecessors, lasted for a generation or more already. Here, we see five smart, funny, shocking women showing us a new version of a world, new possibilities – well, isn’t that what we’re all craving right now? The comfort of a familiar story and the promise that, with the inventiveness of women, we might – just might – live happily ever after.

@SarahEFranklin

The Pool’s Bedtime Bookclub fairytale short-story week begins tonight at 10pm, with Angela Carter’s Ashputtle Or The Mother’s Ghost

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Illustration: Hannah Kamugisha
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