Meaning in Fairy Tales

Elmore Leonard famously said about his writing, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

Fairy tales do that, of course. They leave out all the boring parts. Because they started as oral tales, they are almost pure plot. That’s one reason they are so much fun to read, although when we read them, there are also things we miss: character development, descriptions of setting. For those, we go to other kinds of stories.

I was thinking about this today as I was walking to the grocery store. I thought, what does it really mean to live life as though it were a fairy tale? Do you try to leave out all the boring parts? Well, of course in life we can’t do that. There are always going to be boring parts. And in fact, those boring parts are represented in fairy tales as well: Cinderella has to spend a long time cleaning the kitchen. Fairy tales can mention those parts briefly, but the fairy tale characters, if we imagine them to be real, have to live through sweeping the hearth, and being a goose girl, and climbing the glass mountain. They have to deal with wearing a catskin day after day.

But what fairy tale characters get, in compensation, is meaning. All those things have a greater meaning that will become clear by the end of the tale. They are the ordeals the fairy tale characters have to go through to prove that they are worthy of the happy ending.

So I thought, perhaps living life as though it were a fairy tale doesn’t mean never being bored. Perhaps it means finding meaning even in things that seem meaningless.

Now that I’ve returned from the grocery store, and I’m sitting here eating soup and consolidating my thoughts, this is what I’ve come up with. If you want to live a fairy tale life, you need to start with the following.

1. Minimize the boring parts as much as you can: either get rid of them or, if you can’t, try to make them more interesting. I find doing dishes boring, and I can’t not do dishes, because I wouldn’t have anything to eat on. But I’ve bought myself very pretty dishes, so I like to see them emerging all clean from the soapy water. That turns doing dishes into a kind of sensual pleasure. And finding dishes that go together, usually at Goodwill, is an adventure — each dish has its own story.

2. Fill the remaining boring parts with meaning. Find the meaning in them. I’m very lucky to be doing work I love, but there are certainly boring parts, as there are in every job. I remind myself that my work supports my writing, and that I’m climbing the glass hill because on the other side is the ogre’s castle, and I need to get to the castle to find and free what I love. (This is an elaborate metaphor of some sort, although I’m not entirely sure how it’s working. What is the ogre? The publishing industry? Have I mentioned that it’s Friday and I’m very tired?)

That’s what fairy tales offer us: meaning. And if we want to have fairy tale lives, we have to find or create the meaning of them.

These, by the way, are some of my dishes:

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2 thoughts on “Meaning in Fairy Tales

  1. Lovely dish. I do mosaics – I want to break it into little pieces and glue it to something. But it’s also lovely as a dish. I have done much work with fairytales and myths and folktales over the years. I’m loving your blog…and your take on getting to the ogre and freeing what you love. I really really love that.

    • Don’t break this pattern unless you find it broken, since it’s not being made anymore. :) But there’s one like it that’s still being manufactured called something like Rose Chintz that I’m sure would make lovely mosaics. Glad you like the blog!

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