SIEGEL: Life can be grim, so read Grimm

Greater exposure to fairy tales helps us learn to cope with fears

The story of “Hansel and Gretel” is a tale that most of us are familiar with, or at least we remember hearing about how the witch plans to eat the two children who unfortunately happened upon her doorstep. As one of the many Grimm fairy tales, “Hansel and Gretel” does not restrain its dark, brutal images from the eyes of the beholder. These tales revolve around children and families and their reactions to difficult conditions in their young lives, illustrating the haunting nature of reality through fantastical and imaginary means. Leo Braudy, author of a book exploring the natural and supernatural worlds, claims that “fear is the most contagious emotion,” an emotion that can consume us entirely if we do not combat it. An early exposure to more fairy tales can help children overpower fearful manifestations and better grapple with the consequences of reality.

While fear is a primal and very important response that can protect us from danger, at its worst, it can be paralyzing, clouding our judgment and eclipsing our common sense. The truth surrounding our encounters with moments of fear and terror is that we often have to forge ahead alone, for our thresholds are subjective and personal. We are cultivating a culture of fear in which we react to the apprehension of uncertainty and shift away from the knowable past with horror. This fear is infecting each one of is in a way that impedes our rational judgment and weakens our system of trust. Most recently, we have seen how President-elect Donald Trump has managed to invoke irrational fear in the American people, ultimately “summoning and validating it” in a way that has made us increasingly scared, angry individuals. So how do we tackle the debilitating portion of this emotion, one that stops us in our tracks and keeps us from freely living?

Marina Warner, author of “Once Upon a Time,” insists our association with fairy tales helps us to see the darker, more complex nature of the world written into the narrative of a child’s fable. Fairy tales allow us “to think through deep dilemmas and to keep alive registers of emotion and imagination otherwise being eroded.” Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim explored the emotional and symbolic meaning behind traditional tales that are considered all too dark and brooding, believing the very interpretation of such literature gives children the tools necessary to grapple with their fears. Bettelheim argued that the truth of the fairy tale is “the truth of our imagination, not that of normal causality.” Ultimately, fairy tales “give children the opportunity to understand inner conflicts which they experience in the phases of their spiritual and intellectual development, and to act these out and resolve them in their imagination.” In the pages of these fantastical works lie the defenses which we have the power to impose in the face of fear. In the case of Hansel and Gretel lost in the woods, if our fear manifests itself in the way of being kidnapped, we know after reading the fable that this fear can be abated by disposing the offender, even by way of a fiery oven. Children come to master their fears of the big, bad world when they are primed with possible metaphorical weapons first.

If we hear footsteps outside our bedroom door at 3 in the morning, it is natural and beneficial to be afraid — that fear will embolden us to act in a way that can keep us safe. Yet, all too often we find ourselves fearful of the seemingly uncontrollable obstacles that confront us. Whether it be the fear of ISIS or undocumented immigrants, it is a fear that beats us down instead of lifting us up. It is a fear that has a kind of hold over us, as if to say, “there is something more going on here.” When we heighten the sense of fear, we hold on to the familiar and shy away from taking risks. Let’s keep reading Grimm fairy tales to our children so they can learn to cope with their fears so as to avoid an all-consuming, paralyzing horror of the realities of life.

Lucy Siegel is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at

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