Columns | Tales for Willful Readers

We Have Always Lived in the Woods: On Fairy Tales and the Monsters You Know

On the thin line between fairy tales and real-life horror stories, and how we survive.

This is Tales for Willful Readers, a monthly column by Cate Fricke on the lasting power of folk and fairy tales, how they have influenced us individually and collectively, and the lessons they offer for modern life.

The woodcutter sighed and said to his wife, ‘‘What’s to become of us? How can we feed our poor children when we don’t even have enough for ourselves?”

“I’ll tell you what,” answered his wife. “Early tomorrow morning we’ll take the children out into the forest where it’s most dense. We’ll build a fire and give them each a piece of bread. Then we’ll go about our work and leave them alone. They won’t find their way back home, and we’ll be rid of them.”
—“Hansel and Gretel”

A little brother took his little sister by the hand and said, “Since our mother died, we’ve had not one moment of happiness. Our stepmother beats us every day, and when we come near her, she kicks us away with her foot. We get nothing but hard crusts of bread, just leftovers for food, and the dog under the table is better off. At least he gets a good chunk of meat to eat every now and then. Lord have mercy on us, if our mother only knew! Come, let’s go off together into the wide world.”

The parents would buy food for themselves but prohibit the children from having any, with the exception of the 2-year-old, who was getting enough to eat. Sometimes, authorities said, the parents would buy apple or pumpkin pies, leave them on the counter and let them go uneaten, prohibiting the children from tasting them . . . Police also recovered two female Maltese-mix dogs, who appeared to be healthy, friendly and trained.

I believe in fairy tales, too, I definitely do.

Art and Picture Collection/The New York Public Library

Life isn’t always a happy story.

Grey Fairy Book,

From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers,

Art and Picture Collection/The New York Public Library

New Yorker

Washington Post

When home is the place you must escape, you have to be immensely strong and unfathomably brave to imagine another life and to run toward it full-tilt. Fairy tales reward those that thus strike out on their own to find refuge and help from strange lands and strange people. They offer us the assurance that while monstrosity can fester even in the most sacred of places, the strange new world outside may not be entirely filled with monsters.

Art and Picture Collection/The New York Public Library