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Can old stories help us navigate the future?

Sketchnotes for "The Great Cauldron of St...

Sketchnotes for “The Great Cauldron of Story” with Maria Tatar (Photo credit: On Being)


In this fascinating interview with Krista Tippett, Maria Tatar, a professor Germanic languages and literature at Harvard, talks about fairy tales and their influence and impact on our modern culture.  For example, there are the new adaptations of Snow White and shows like Grimm and Once. But she also points out that even the Kardashians and Sex and the City are versions of Cinderella.

Have these old myths and tales always been a large part of the culture, or is this a new trend?  Tatar talks about how we’re all navigating new territory and that there is a comfort in returning to these familiar stories to help us understand our world.

It makes sense to me, though I’m not sure that this is an entirely new trend. Myths and fairytales have always been part of the modern, popular culture, whether it was through Superman and comic books, or Star Wars in the 80’s.

But there are a couple reasons why these “old” stories might be more pervasive now.

First, the types of and platforms for entertainment have grown. Programmers and studios have so many more hours to fill, that numbers-wise, it makes sense that more fairytale-based stories are out there.

Also, with visual effects being so popular and of such a high quality, creatures and locations that a reader could only imagine before are now being pulled off the page and brought to life in a very convincing way. I think that’s why we’re seeing fairytale movies like Alice and Wonderland, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Oz-related stories being released every few months. Not to mention the numerous superhero movies.

But what are these old tales teaching us about our modern world? And can they really help us navigate our complex, global society? After all, these were tales that were told around campfires within small tribes, that had no concept of cel phones, computers, and space travel.

What if these stories aren’t about decoding our external world, necessarily, but our internal worlds? They offer us ways to understand and deal with fear, heartbreak, and disappointment — emotions that are universal and timeless.

And as Tatar suggests, in a world that is in constant flux, we find comfort in the familiar. We humans are kind of averse to change, so if a story will help moor us during the tumultuous waves of live, it’s not surprising that we welcome it.

Perhaps if there is a resurgence in the popularity of fantasy and fairytales, it speaks less to economics and special effects, and more to the fact that people are looking for meaning and a “happily ever after.” For a while now, there has been a backlash to the “hollywood ending” and the “happily ever after” because it’s too easy or too saccharine. But the opposite hasn’t helped stories thrive or find larger audiences. In recent years I’ve noticed a lot of shows and movies with cynical endings, hopeless outcomes, and characters who seems to have learned nothing and are no better off than at the start of their tale.

I am definitely suspicious of stories that are tied up too neatly at the end, but I also like to see a glimmer of hope and to feel that things can get better. That people can change.

I don’t need every one of the stories I read to have a totally happy ending, but I do like to see a character who has gone through tests and trials come out the other end in one piece, a little happier and healthier.

Because isn’t that what we want in our own lives?

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