The Truth behind Fairy Tales

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Question: Jack Zipes, author of Breaking the Magic Spell (1979) takes the approach that fairy tales are far from innocuous childrens stories; rather, they inculcate the unsuspecting with the value systems of the dominant. In the book, the author explicitly addresses the assumption that fairy tales are not morally or politically neutral but, rather, imply a distinct set of values.

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For centuries, fairy tales have been part of popular culture all over the world particularly to children who not only enjoy the stories but look up to the characters as role models. Their popularity is seen by the number of fairy tales that exist across different cultures. Although few modern fairy tales exist, the most popular ones were first conjured up decades and millennia ago. Their timeless nature has enabled fairy tales to survive among cultures for centuries. In the wake of globalization, these stories have been translated into different languages and retold all over the world exponentially increasing their number. Most of these stories incorporate imaginary beings and often the protagonist overcomes the antagonist through some sort of good-willed actions or trickery. However, questions have started to emerge as to the usefulness of these stories, which have for so long captivated children and adults alike. Contemporary thinkers argue that traditional fairy tales have some subtle cues promoting the dominant culture and have hence outlived their usefulness in a world that is fast embracing change and diversity ("Jack Zipes Are Fairy Tales Still Useful to Children? | The Art of Storytelling Show"). On the other hand, opponents to these theories argue that fairy tales are simply entertainment tools for children that are used to enhance reading or comprehension skills. The essay discusses why, as opposed to popular belief, fairy tales are not harmless stories but rather tools used to indoctrinate the readers about various values and opinions.


Jack Zipes, a leading fairy tale translator, notes that most fairy tales are designed to articulate the human struggle of trying to maintain a civilized society (Zipes 144). As such, the antagonists are usually painted to be people who are against the society by being against the "princes "or "kings". This sought of mental picture subtly inculcates the notion that rebellion against authority for any reason is considered a bad thing in children. Further, numerous other fairy tales offer different messages that when analyzed in depth only serve to popularize some stereotypes about the dominant culture. For example, most fairy tales popularize the notion of beauty being superior to all other qualities while those who lack it in the stories are painted as jealous antagonists seeking revenge on the beautiful protagonists. However, it is not always distinct because the conflict is masked with some other agenda. Nevertheless, the fact that beauty is almost always synonymous with royalty (kings, prince, princesses) while the lack of beauty is characteristic of witches or the jealous women (in the case of Cinderella) clearly alludes to the fact that fairy tales pass on value systems of the dominant culture. Many more subtle cues are found in fairy tales, and although some can be considered as good values, majorities of these values have no ethical bearing or purpose other than to enhance particular agendas crucial to dominant groups.

Another supporting fact pointing to how fairy tales are used to inculcate certain values is the fact that they are purely fictional pieces of literature. Although some may argue that some are based on real events or people, their high exaggeration and use of fictional characters prove otherwise. Unlike stories that narrate factual events, which do not necessarily need to have a purpose, fictional literature always has to serve a purpose. The purpose can be entertaining, teaching a lesson, or simply demonstrating a phenomenon. Based on these purposes, fairy tales have no definitive purpose, and when they do, they have a very weak argument or concluding lesson as opposed to stories that are specifically designed to serve these purposes. For instance, when a fairy tale that is supposed to bear the moral lesson of humility is compared to fables with the same meaning, often the latter displays very clear indications of the moral lesson (Seifert 15). On the other hand, the fairy tale has to be analyzed to get the story. Similarly, when fairy tales are compared to other literature, they come up short of their intended purpose. As such, this points out to the fact that fairy tales serve some hidden purpose that creators try to cover up by alluding to an obvious lesson in the story which are often only evident in a short part of the story. Based on this theory, then fairy tales do indeed serve to inculcate unsuspecting readers with hidden values and lessons.


Despite these theories, proponents point out to some obvious faults these arguments. A good counter-argument is the fact that fairy tales are designed for children who often do not have high mental capabilities let alone the ability to comprehend the said values from the text. For example, a child is unlikely to associate beauty with authority but rather associate it with love and compassion. Further, young readers often take the fairy tales at face value which is evident when they over grow their prince and princess fairy tales phase and characters without a lot of emotional repercussions (Nikolajeva 171-187). Proponents also argue that if even factual stories are analyzed, one can be convinced of a hidden meaning when there is none based on the fact one wants to find meaning in the story. As such, the argument that fairy tales inculcate the unsuspecting with the value systems of the dominant culture is unfounded.

Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly clear that fairy tales do indeed have messages that serve to popularize the value systems of the dominant culture. Although proponents argue that children take everything at face value and that they are unlikely to notice these values of the dominant culture, research has shown that human minds can be manipulated subconsciously through visual or auditory cues. As such it is not unfounded to think that our minds can be subconsciously manipulated to accept certain values through our favourite characters in fairy tales (Zipes 256). On the contrary, it is for this reason that fairy tales are especially effective in inculcating the unsuspecting readers with the desired ideologies because they target young readers who are less resistant and aware.


Although fairy tales have been part of the popular culture since time immemorial, it is crucial that their usefulness is re-evaluated lest they continue to indoctrinate, subtly, young readers with ideologies benefiting the popular culture. In summary Jack Zipes notion that fairy tales inculcate the unsuspecting with the value systems of the dominant culture is accurate.

Works Cited

"Jack Zipes Are Fairy Tales Still Useful To Children? | The Art Of Storytelling Show". N.p., 2016. Web. 25 Oct. 2016.

Nikolajeva, Maria. "Fairy Tales In Society's Service". Marvels & Tales 16.2 (2002): 171-187. Web.

Seifert,. "Introduction: Queer(Ing) Fairy Tales". Marvels & Tales 29.1 (2015): 15. Web.

Zipes, Jack. Breaking The Magic Spell. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002. Print.

Zipes, Jack. Fairy Tales And The Art Of Subversion. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2012. Print.

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