(Original Review, 2005-11-30)
In Genesis there is suddenly this sentence/observation about giants walking the Earth in them days... I always see those elderly male Jews in Babylon, staring glumly at some campfire, thinking about the good old days and thinking up revengeful plans to smite the enemy. They tell the stories of their tribes but there is that one quite senile idiot always going on about 'them giants' - so in the end they say, "Okay, we WILL put them in. Now shut up already!" I can see myself being the Giant Guy (if more all over the place) and I'm not sure the good campfire folks here need the distraction... I don't know if it is only about 'folk tales' per se, but I am with most people on the campfire and howling wolves. For me the atmospherics are very, very important. Our culture no longer has much in the way of campfires and wolves so our writers have had to incorporate them, figuratively, into the fictions themselves. The rest is literary history.
I don't see fairytales simply as children's stories; that's a relatively recent- and, of late, receding- viewpoint. There is a vast quantity of material around beyond Grimm and Andersen and little of it aimed at children. Perrault or Marie Catherine d'Aulnoy were writing for the amusement of adults, and the Arabian Nights were not exactly suitable bedtime reading for under-5's, while Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen achieved almost occult-like effects in her wondrous tales, which float somewhere between Baghdad and Copenhagen.
Fairytales are most powerful when they access the taboo, the suppressed, or the deepest fears and desires within us. And they do so often. Your "children's rituals" and "simple messages" are really only the tip of the iceberg. For that matter, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” fulfills a similar role - a very wicked and challenging little tale full of deliciously gratuitous moments, the enjoyment of which made me at least think long and hard about my own morality.
I was raised on the standard stuff: Grimm and Andersen mostly. There is obviously darkness there - and taboos, yes. (It's interesting that in the stories where children are imperiled the original versions had 'mother' and the later versions 'stepmothers'.) The ones I and probably most children end(ed) up with are the simpler, safer ones though, don't you think? I love Angela Carter's “Bloody Chamber” but most kids will be more likely to see Disney as the centre of the fairytale universe - which truly is a disservice to fairytales, of course.
I am no longer that interested in stories where the characters are merely there to move things alone. Like standard puppets that can be used and reused for all kinds of similar types of stories. As I mentioned elsewhere, that goes for all kinds of stories, including movies. What I find fascinating about the early stories passed along (mutating on the way) is more that they give us some kinds of fleeting glimpse of the origin story of stories. Because most of the early part of that origins stories is/was in an oral form we can never really know how stories began and evolved. There are no helpful fossils - or not enough to have more than (slightly) informed theories.
Did stories start as parts of religious/ceremonial chants? Were they like cave paintings: meant to magically influence the outcome of the hunt? Where did fiction start to make an entrance, if the earliest stories were mostly a sort of remembering (the deeds and wisdom of) dead tribe members? All endlessly fascinating to me - and no more than useless musings in the end.
Back to fairytales for a moment. They may no longer really work for me as entertainment but the reason they don't is in a way part of their strength. That they are predictable is partly why they work so well as stories. They warn us about the evils of the world but they are also almost like a church service: a repeated ritual to explain the world. They bring order to what basically is a chaotic system. Which is of course also why they are so enduringly popular with children, who like rituals and the idea of safety-through-repetition. I like my stories, like “Grimms Märchen,” more complex but it is easy to see how stories that carve simple messages out of the complex narrative of the world will be as enduring as the world. In that way they are exactly like religion (for me at least). The Grimms, despite their initial attempt to be "invisible" curators of folklore, began increasingly to modify and colour the tales they transcribed. Italo Calvino discusses this phenomenon at length in the introduction to Italian Fables, his own attempt to replicate the Grimms' work in Italy.