From a discussion with Joanne Harris (author of Chocolat, etc.) in the current issue of The Write Place at The Write Time:
"Traditionally, the role of fairy stories has been to articulate concepts too emotionally difficult or socially subversive to be treated in a more explicit way. Originally part of a matriarchal oral tradition, they became legitimized as a more patriarchal literary convention -- much in the same way that traditional magic (feminine) was later absorbed by the (primarily male) science of alchemy before shedding its magical elements altogether and becoming the science of chemistry.
"Elemental fears, subconscious desires, sexual taboos are all at the heart of the fairytale; initially intended for an adult, rather than a juvenile audience, enabling folk with bleak and often unhappy lives to come to terms with their monsters, both literal and metaphorical, as well as offering them the hope that sometimes those monsters could be overcome. Since then, much has been made of the deepening division between the literal and figurative view of fairytale (in the same way that the division between science and magic has now become definitive), but in my view, the basic need for these stories is as great as it ever was.
"Like our concept of the divine, which has expanded over 2000 years to fit an expanding world picture, our acceptance of the supernatural has changed -- at least, to a point -- although I would argue that even three hundred years ago, fairy tales were not intended to be taken entirely literally. Every age has its monsters, be they werewolves, vampires, terrorists, AIDS, crazed gunmen or pedophiles, and every age needs to believe in the ability of human beings to defeat monsters, change their lives and ultimately be saved by love.
"I would argue, furthermore, that every age has its magic, too -- although our concept of magic has adapted to fit a more rational world. We now have a need to rationalize our need to believe in magic, as our world picture and our understanding of possibility continues to expand. But as the science-pendulum begins to swing back -- with particle physics seemingly bringing us back ever closer to what once was called 'magic,' I think that the literal-figurative debate will become increasingly less relevant, as will the division between 'conventional literature' and the oral tradition. These stories speak to the irrational mind, and therein lies their power."
(I recommend reading the whole interview here.)
From a discussion with me in the same web journal a few years back:
"As with myths and folk tales, a good fantasy novel is literally spell-binding, using language to conjure up whole new worlds, or to invest our own with magic. The particular power of the fantasy novel comes from its link with the world's most ancient stories – and from the author's careful manipulation of mythic archetypes, story patterns, and symbols. A skillful writer of fantasy knows he or she must tell two stories at once: the surface tale, and a deeper story encoded within the tale's symbolic language. Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone (for example) is, on one level, simply an English boarding school novel with a bit of magic thrown in; but below that surface is a classic narrative of the Orphaned Hero archetype. This second, metaphorical story is the one that makes the novel's appeal so universal, speaking to all children (orphaned or not) who navigate the treacherous passage that lies between childhood and adulthood. I don't mean that children's fantasy should be didactic, with a subtext intended to inculcate moral lessons – heaven forbid! But the magical tropes of fantasy, rooted as they are in world mythology, come freighted with meaning on a metaphoric level. A responsible writer works with these symbols consciously and pays attention to both aspects of the story.
"Jane Yolen once wrote, 'Just as a child is born with a literal hole in his head, where the bones slowly close underneath the fragile shield of skin, so the child is born with a figurative hole in his heart. What slips in before it anneals shapes the man or woman into which that child will grow. Story is one of the most serious intruders into the heart.' I believe that those of us who write stories for children or young adults should remember how powerful stories can be -- and take responsibility for the moral tenor of whatever dreams or nightmares we're letting loose into the world. This is particularly true in fantasy, where the tools of our trade include the language, symbolism and archetypal energies of myth. These are ancient, subtle, potent things, and they work in mysterious ways."
And from Ursula K. Le Guin's classic essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” (1973):
"[Fantasy] is not anti-rational, but para-rational; not realistic but surrealistic, superrealistic, a heightening of reality. In Freud’s terminology, it employs primary not secondary process thinking. It employs archetypes which, as Jung warned us, are dangerous things. Dragons are more dangerous, and a good deal commoner, than bears. Fantasy is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity that naturalistic fiction is. And it is a real wilderness, and those who go there should not feel too safe. And their guides, the writers of fantasy, should take their responsibilities seriously."
The sculptures here, of course, are by the UK artist Su Blackwell -- for no look at paper art this week would be complete without re-visiting her splendid work. From top to bottom: "The Raven," "The Frog Prince," "Sleeping Beauty," "The Woman in the Wood," "Cinderella," "The Wild Swans," and "Out of Narnia." Jane's quote above comes from Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood.