I find it fascinating how fairy tales are intertwined with our cultures and traditions. Whether it’s the little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, The Frog Prince, or Hansel and Gretel, fairy tales seem to show us good from evil. But then, I wonder, should we see this good vs. evil in comparison to what’s happening with the planet today?
Let’s take Little Red-cap, or most commonly known as Little Red Riding Hood as an example, which was written by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and published in their Selected Folktales in 1815. The story, if you aren’t familiar with it, follows a little girl (red riding hood) and a very big bad wolf with whom she crosses paths, while she’s on her way to see her grandmother. The endings vary from either the wolf eating the grandma but red riding hood being able to escape, or hunters killing the wolf and saving both granddaughter and grandma.
Regardless, many have debated that this particular fairy tale describes the endless fight between good and evil, greed and hope, responsibility and second chances. Sound familiar to most of today’s debates in political, social, and environmental conversations? I would say yes.
Max Lüthi, a Swiss born in 1909 who represented the nature of European folktale, describes five key elements to European fairy tales and what makes a fairy tale be a fairy tale:
1. One Dimensionality.
This is the idea of how when supernatural things occur, they are not out of the ordinary – they’re even almost expected. Let me explain. In The Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf speaks to red riding hood, without her questioning the linguistic ability of an animal, or even act surprised by it. Red riding hood’s indifference to the wolf’s speaking abilities is written in a certain way in the story that doesn’t make the reader surprised that wolf is speaking either – it’s normal. There’s no difference between the hero and the supernatural being. In a way, we’re all the same, and it’s normal to think that a wolf can just walk up to you and ask you to pick flowers while he goes check on your grandma to eat her.
Or also known as surface-ness, which is the idea of how characters seem to lack depth – they don’t have relations to a past or a future; characters are figures without substance or inner life.
In this way, characters lack psychological depth, so they do not have any inner conflicts, wants, desires, or dreams, and they also lack chronological depth, meaning they have no past to speak of.
I’ll keep the example of red riding hood to make this clearer. Red riding hood has no past other than when she is introduced into the story; she is a granddaughter on her way to visit her grandmother on a given day. Red riding hood has no fear, denial, or nervousness when she meets the wolf or when it seems that her grandmother has been literally swallowed whole by this talking wolf.
This very clearly shows her lack of psychological depth to this entire issue. Who wouldn’t be traumatized by all this? It’s also read as normal that this old grandma is living by herself, in woods, where talking human-eating wolves are a thing.
So, because of this, characters are simply defined by their actions rather than their past or psychological state. They also don’t suffer harm. For example, red and her grandma are actually swallowed by the wolf and they just walk away like nothing happened when rescued by the hunter.
3. Abstract style.
This explores the perspective that descriptions are simple, to the point, and sharply delineated. There is no need for further details to explain the fairy tale – the events matter more than their description. In Little Red Riding Hood, descriptions are to the point, like when red riding hood is wondering about the big ears, the big eyes, the big hands, and most importantly, the big mouth the wolf has. They are simply “big” and have simple functions, such as the ears are big to hear red riding hood better.
This abstract style of descriptions makes the reader not focus on descriptive details that may take away the attention of the actual tale.
Also, colours are stark and distinctive, which is a key component of this tale for the colour red. In the tale, the word red is probably the most repeated word, but it also symbolizes that actual girl who wears the hood – her name is literally based upon her size (little), a colour (red), and a clothing article (riding hood). She is barely considered a person worthy of a real name.
Stories are to the point and have a highly sharp description of what is going on without meaningless dialogue between the characters or any need to explain in further detail what just happened.
4. Isolation and Universal Interconnection
This is kind of self-explanatory. It’s the disconnection of the characters – the lack of surprise when face to face with villains, and the lack of curiosity, longing, and fear during these encounters.
This is often described as the decisive identifying trait of a folktale, as characters show no strong bonds with families or homes, and certain occurrences have no logical explanations (like opening the wolf’s stomach in his sleep with scissors to free the grandmother and red riding hood without him waking up – as if cutting up your stomach wasn’t enough to disturb you from a good nap).
This isolation between the characters makes the fairy tale even more unrealistic and supernatural.
5. Sublimation and All-inclusiveness
This just shows the importance of how all kinds of motifs (e.g. magical, mythic, spiritual, ritual) can be mixed together in a fairy tale. But in this mix, all kinds of historical and social contexts are drained from the motifs, as they exist in the tale for their own purpose. These motifs reflect relationships between two people, between a person and an animal, or between a person and their environment. Everything is included equally.
Alright, so this is what makes up a fairy tale. But why and how does all this relate to today?
Climate change, mass extinctions, ocean acidification, pollution, environmental degradation, and many other problems today are not coming out of the blue. We knew they were coming – it was expected. One-dimensionality. Scientists have been flapping their arms all over the place, warning everyone and researching on global climate trends, as well as human development trends that showed exactly what’s happening today. Increased temperatures due to fossil fuel burning, increased CO2 emissions, land desertification… they progressed slowly but arrived quickly, hitting us in the face with reality.
I think for lacking depth, some of us could agree that a few political leaders today definitely fit in this category. Whether it’s scientific knowledge or just moral ethics, many of our leaders today are taking advantage of their position to prioritize their personal economical goals. But I have felt a change recently. People all over the world are being more conscious of their actions and finally seeing how powerful they can be if we unite as one. Whether it’s Greta Thunberg, Vandana Shiva, Paul Watson, or even John Muir, a mountaineer who advocated for the protection and preservation of wilderness since the 19th century – change is finally really here.
Communicating to the masses, as many researchers, activists, and political figures will know, needs to be abstract. Get to the point and make your statement clear. Understand the next steps of action and how to make them possible. Review the results and change your plan accordingly. This is something that’s basically drilled in the minds of scholars, researchers, and anyone determined to go out there and do something that will make an impact, no matter how big or small. Today, with all the information that is being thrown around, being to the point and realistic is the best way to create environmental change and actions that are most efficient.
We’ve isolated ourselves, as a species, to the point that we’ve lost the connections we had to nature, our origins, and even connections to ourselves. You don’t have be a full-on tree hugger to respect the environment. Just understand what’s happening and take part in the conversations around you. By focusing on increasing our sales, our GDP’s, our GNP’s, we forget to increase our respect, our love, and our knowledge on this blue planet we call home.
Maybe the most important message you can take home is on all-inclusiveness. Not only do we need to include ourselves in the environment, but we also need to understand our role and how everything is related to everything else. Realistically, not everyone will care about the environment, and that’s ok, as long as you know you’re welcome to share your opinions and thoughts.
Let’s finish with a fairy tale of our own:
“Once upon a time, in a milky way not so far away, two major meteors crashed into each other and became one. The remainder ash became a ‘moon’ that would turn poets into romantics, or people into wolves. This land of ash, over billions of sunrises and sunsets, turned into a plentiful land. An ape one day decided to stand on her two legs rather than have to dirty her hands on the ground. 3.2 million years later, her two-legged, but less hairy descendants – humans – came to their full development. Although things seemed dark sometimes and they’d shed their own blood when arguing about something that would cause millions of deaths, they also turned on their own Planet. The Planet wasn’t happy about this, and retaliated by increasing temperatures, causing hurricanes, floods, drier seasons. But the two-legged animal continued to ignore the Planet’s frustrations, which only made things worse. When it all became too much, a few two-leggers stood among the crowds and made their voices be heard: “Stop! We need to change, we can’t continue like this!” And through trial and error, slowly over the years, the two-leggers have been able to slowly move things around, and efforts are pushing forward day by day. If these movements keep growing, maybe this Planet of blue and green will smile once again.”