On the Importance of Fairy Tales

When I was very small and just learning to read, my grandmother gave me a fat, red volume of best-loved fairy tales. I was very proud to have a grown-up book, and I was unintimated by the size of it, only by its lack of illustration. I doubt she ever had any idea of how much influence it would have on me. I lived inside that book. Through fairy tales I absorbed the virtues and values of a moral life that were highly prized and perfectly expressed in those stories. The rules, although never explicit, were crystal clear.

1. Be kind, particularly to strangers and very odd creatures. You never know who could be a fairy in disguise.

2. Be worthy. Because goodness is rewarded one way or another.

3. Be brave—which is not the same as fearless.

4. Be patient. There are trials in life. 

5. Share. Even if you have very little, allow a hungry creature—human or otherwise—to partake of your meager meal. See #1

6. There are witches, evil fairies, gnomes, trolls, and cruel stepmothers who will try to harm you; and elves who will try to trick you. Beware. 

7. Be wily, but be true. Put your values above risk.

8. Liars and crooks will be punished.

9. Beware of step parents (which, if you read the news, maybe isn’t such terrible advice).

10.  The world is wild and cruel, but there is beauty and magic in it.

One of life’s most important lessons is an undercurrent in nearly every fairy tale: Be prepared to encounter evil. But—and this is key—the mere presence of evil in the world is less significant than how evil is faced. Fairy tales are filled with those who stand firm on the side of goodness, as well as with those who capitulate and meet a bad end. When faced with cruelty the heroes of fairy stories are kind. When faced with duplicity they are patient, wily, and clever. They persevere through great trials. They are hungry, cold, cast out, forbidden from attending the ball. But they win in the end.

Adults tend to be squeamish about the raw cruelty in fairy tales, and in this era of unhealthy over-protectiveness there is earnest talk about damaging tender psyches. We forget that children are a curious mix of literal understanding with no capacity to grasp mortality. Death won’t happen to them. Uncomplicated black and white rules are comprehensible. So amidst the fascinating stories of poisoned apples, evil enchanted dogs getting their heads cut off, witches baking children into gingerbread, and cruel stepmothers leaving innocent children in the woods, young readers are able to both express their fears, and absorb the lessons of the world without pedantry or ambiguity.

People often focus on the princess stories, believing how wrong it is to teach girls that they will be rescued by a prince. I don’t think that’s the message at all. I think the message is: if you are good, and kind, and patientyou will be rewarded with love and happiness, and maybe a little bit of magic. 

The classic heroines of fairy tales, Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty all endure cruelty and unfairness, but they aren’t changed by it. They are lovely because they are filled with kindness and generosity of spirit. If you get caught up in the their beauty—or that of the handsome prince—you miss the point. Their physical beauty (and the wealth and high status of the prince) are metaphor. These young women have good hearts; this is why they are desirable. This is why they deserve love and the rewards of a good life. 

In my experience, little girls who want to be Cinderella want to be good as she is, not wicked, like her stepsisters. The stepsisters are sometimes depicted as being physically ugly, but their true ugliness is in their characters. They are proud, haughty, selfish, and vain, not to mention cruel. Little girls may want to be pretty, too, (who doesn’t?) but properly exposed to fairy tales, they internalize the real message: that beauty is inside.  Wise adults refrain from imposing their own anxieties, and emphasize the true lesson of the stories: that what matters is how we treat others, and whether we give of ourselves.

In the world of fairy tales, how we treat others is of paramount importance. A recurring theme is the necessity of being kind to strangers—human or otherwise—even the ugliest, oddest, most terrifying of them. The hungry stranger at the gate is given a bowl of porridge when food at the cottage is scarce; the trapped wild animal is gently released, even at risk to the rescuer; the demanding and ugly frog is kissed. The result is more wonderful than could have been imagined.

It worked for me.

Many years ago, I was kind to someone when I didn’t always feel like it. He would call wanting to talk, and I would put my day on hold to listen, even though it was, frankly, a bit of a nuisance. We would sometimes talk for hours. I had not been kind as a means to an end. I had no inkling that he would have influence in my favor. This went on for years. One day, out of the blue, he called to tell me about an important job; one that changed my life. His recommendation got my interview. It wasn’t until much later that I realized he had been the fairy at my gate, disguised as a beggar.

Again and again, physical appearance is shown to be deceptive; it is the goodness of the character that truly matters. Cruel stepmothers can be beautiful but dangerously vain. Horrifying deformities may hide a fairy. A hideous beast may hide a loving prince. In a tale like Beauty and the Beast the power of love transforms the qualities of human nature, and children learn to look past superficial appearance and gruffness to the heart that beats beneath. Its message—like that of nearly every tale—is that love tames the beast in us all. 

At the same time, any one of us can fall prey to greed, selfishness, and stupidity, and this, too, is wise counsel. Any wish-granting tale will caution what can happen to decent people when unexpected wealth comes their way. Or, come to think of it, any newspaper story about a lottery winner. 

These stories mostly share Judeo-Christian values, but I believe that many of them pre-date Christianity. Consider the theory that legends of elves and gnomes hiding in the forest may be a memory of the interactions between modern humans and Neanderthals, who, we now know, existed contemporaneously. Fairy tale morality reflects the basic infrastructure of a healthy society. It shows an imperfect world made better or worse by the deeds of us all. And it suggests that acting with a good heart—without cruelty or rancor—will be rewarded.

There aren’t all happy endings. Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid—which is a relatively modern tale—teaches about injustice, and envy, and trying to be what you’re not. It is a tragedy as pure as Romeo and Juliet, with miscommunication leading to heartbreak and death. Nevertheless, the goodness of the mermaid herself is rewarded, even if she does not win her kind (though somewhat stupid) prince. 

Think about what the public discourse would be like if everyone followed the standards of fairy tales. Twitter would dissolve like a wicked witch doused with water. Immigrants and strangers would be seen as beings with hearts and souls like our own, and welcomed at our gates. The hungry and afflicted would be treated with kindness and fed from our own pantries. Animals would be protected and cared for. Library books would be returned on time, even if it meant walking through storms to get there.

When I hear discussions about the dangers of fairy tales to young minds, I think of what I learned from fairy tales, and take a look at the world around us. 

Frankly, we could do worse. 

And often do.

Read the Beginning of J.F. Riordan’s new novel, *A Small Earnest Question*

Book Four in the Award-winning North of the Tension Line series

The telephone rang in the sleek, city office of Victor Eldridge. As he reached to answer the pain came again with a deep, resounding blow that made it difficult to breathe. He braced his hands against his desk, waiting for it to pass as it always did. The ringing phone, mixed in the wake of his agony, was almost beyond bearing.

Victor Eldridge was not a religious man, but what he experienced now was as much of a prayer as he would ever utter. Please, let this be the end of it. Please let the pain stop.

He did not care how.

The ringing and the pain faded at the same moment, and it seemed as if the room echoed with both. He stayed frozen in position, his breathing shallow.

He straightened slowly and leaned back in his chair. There. His breath became deeper and he could feel his heartbeat slowing to its normal pace. His reason returning from the chaos of suffering, he began to think. He had much to do but very little time. The pain was gone. For now. But he knew it would come again.

And again.

***

keep reading on Kindle.

A Small Earnest Question

It’s here…Book Four in the North of the Tension Line Series

“J.F. Riordan writes with a seductive immediacy which reveals the extraordinary in the lives of people we too carelessly think ordinary. A Small Earnest Question combines keen social observation, engaging characters, quiet humor, and rich sense of place. Rewarding from first page to last.”
— Richard North Patterson

Ask your favorite bookstore to order it for you…

A Lovely Letter from a Fan

I discovered your first Door County book at the beginning of the summer. I purchased it on my kindle and began reading eagerly. Then of course I had to read the second. I love Door county and Washington island so I was able to picture it in my mind as I read. We just returned from Door county last night. We spent 5 days camping on the island. I downloaded your book of essays to read while I was there, since I hadn’t purchased the third book in the series yet for my kindle.

I am glad I waited, because I was able to buy an autographed copy of “Robert’s Rules” and read it while I was there. The little book store on the island is lovely. I ate at the Albatross while looking at “Fiona’s house.”

My husband and I rode his motorcycle all over the island discussing and dreaming of purchasing property for sale there. On previous trips we had just went to the island as a day trip. This time we stayed.

I love Door county but now I am even more in love with Washington Island. Crossing over on the ferry yesterday and stopping for breakfast at the Viking in Ellison Bay felt jarring. Even that area felt like a harsh return to reality. The island is just this peaceful lovely sanctuary. I will dream about it this week while I adjust to a 20 degree temperature change. It seems that every time we come home from Door county we come home to an excessive heat advisory. Maybe God is telling me something.

Anyway, I just wanted to let you know how much I have enjoyed your books and I am anxiously waiting for the next one

Letter from a Reader

Hello Ms. Riordan,
I just finished reading Robert’s Rules, and so have read all 4 of your books. I just wanted to thank you for your stories, and for conveying your love of Door County and the Island so beautifully! I live just south of the Wisconsin border, and have been traveling to Door County since I was expecting my oldest child. He’s now 34. Door County is my favorite place on Earth. When people ask me why I like it so much, I describe all my favorite places, but I can never really capture why it means so much to me.
But you did. In telling your stories, you capture the beauty and the simplicity of local life, and how that life is cherished by the people who call Door County home.
I hope to spend more and more time there, especially when I retire. I’ve passed on my love for the area to my sister, and now she and my brother-in-law just purchased land on the Island, with the hopes of building their little piece of heaven.
I have never written to an author before, but no other author has focused on a place that means so much to me, and managed to capture exactly how I feel about it.
Thank you for your writings! I’m looking forward to A Small Earnest Question!
With kindest regards,
Monika

Long Goodbye

This essay is excerpted from my new book, Reflections on a Life in Exile, due out May 1, 2019.  It is the story of Reggie, our beloved golden retriever.

I am lying in bed with 170 pounds of dog: one big, one medium. I do love them both. But the big one, the one who lives inside my soul; he is dying.

Tonight we did the last thing: a rescue protocol of chemotherapy used only as a last resort. The vet said there was a fifty-fifty chance that it would give him a few more weeks. But no chance that it would save him.

I listen to his breath. The blissful thing is that he doesn’t know. Among all the deficits and injustices and hard things of dog life, the one great blessing is not to know your mortality. So to him, a hard day is just a hard moment, maybe not an oppressive forever.

Golden retrievers are gentle creatures. They are born sweet. Their docility is not a lack of character, though, as Reggie has demonstrated. He is an artist. His summer days at the lake are not for lounging. They are for a determined and relentless search for the perfect shape, the perfect addition to his sculpture. Tail high and wagging, he scours the floor of the lake with his feet, treading back and forth in a deliberate grid, fully engrossed in his life’s work. When he finds what he needs, he pushes it into place with his feet, and dives down to retrieve it, emerging triumphant to the shore with a rock the size of maybe half a soccer ball. He places it on the lawn in his own pattern, discernible only to him. Every morning my husband picks up the rocks—including those stolen from the neighbor’s shoreline—and throws them back. But by the end of the day a new work of art—a kind of Reggie Stonehenge—has reappeared.

Struggling to straddle the good days and bad days, to balance his happiness and his pain is my job; watching the progression of the evil cancer, and desperately trying to weigh my needs against his. Trying not to think of my deepest wish—to have him forever—and only of his—not to suffer. That’s all. Just no suffering. No nights in the scary hospital, only nights at home with his people who love him. He doesn’t understand if we abandon him as we did for the surgery on his torn knee. He trembled uncontrollably when we returned to that place for a routine thing.

Among the blessings is the kindness of those who care for him. His vet who returned to the exam room while we waited for blood tests with a flowered quilt to lay on the floor for Reggie and for me; the lab tech who smuggles him extra treats; the oncologist who wraps her arms around him and kisses his face before she begins her work.

We cuddle. I let him lie on the white couch. I rub his tummy, he puts his head on my shoulder and we comfort one another, as we do. We feed him rotisserie chicken and imported sausage because he will eat it while healthier things go untouched. And who cares. It nourishes him, and he will eat it. It makes him happy. That’s all.

This big dog, my puppy dog, at seven weeks used to put his whole self into my arms when he came back inside from his outdoor responsibilities. I would hold his small body in my arms. He slept on my pillow so I could carry him outside when he stirred. As he grew, he still remembered how to express love, and would lay his massive paws on my shoulders as I knelt next to him, his head towering over mine, and he would lay his enormous chin on my shoulders. I always held tight; but sometimes distractedly; sometimes hurriedly; sometimes without the same level and intensity of love he had to give me. I had other thoughts. But he always thought about loving me first.

The loss of this love, not human, but canine, may not seem important to everyone. But to me it is the intimate, personal and once in my life love of this soul; entrusted to me as a gift I did not deserve or fully appreciate. With all due humility about myself, I wonder if anyone could deserve this trust, this love, this kindness, this full and open heart. Anyone other than another soul like his.

I owe him the most reverent, beloved, happy and respectful days I can offer him. In his innocence he is both my king and conscience. He is better than me. And he was born to break my heart.

 

Signs of Hope

I was watching a small drama this morning at dawn. The polar vortex has moved on, the -22 temperatures have risen more than forty degrees, and the vicious winds, creating a wind chill factor of 40 or 50 below zero, have died. I have been worried about the wild animals, knowing that this weather kills many birds, and probably mammals, too. I have not seen a single squirrel in a week, and this is highly irregular. The turkeys, normally restless and predictable in their daily patterns, have not followed their usual path, but stayed beneath the trees where they roost, puffed into enormous balls of feather, clustered together like giant mushrooms.


I put out seed, and fruit, and all kinds of nuts, suet balls with nuts and meal worms, and big chunks of suet in fat strips from the butcher, which I have to shoo the dogs from. The fat has drawn crows, whom I rarely see up close, and that makes me happy. We have springs on our property so we don’t have to worry about a water supply, but still, this is a hard season for creatures. Many times over the past week I thought of the animals, curled up in balls trying to keep warm in their trees or burrows, and I felt helpless pity.

This morning, though, as I was watching the sunrise, I noticed a black mass against the side of tree deep in the woods. Suspicious, I watched until I saw it move. It was a raccoon, returning home from its nighttime ramble. And then I saw a second raccoon, climbing up the same trunk in a congenial fashion. So this is how they survive the cold. I was enchanted. A pair! There will be babies! 

As I watched their clumsy, though expert climb, I was cheered by the thought of their snuggling together in the winter weather. And then I peered more closely. Not two. Three raccoons. Clearly joining forces to keep one another warm. Were they siblings? In this woods, probably. They were all fat, but not as big as some I’ve seen, possibly yearlings. They each perched on a separate branch, far more precariously than any turkey. Turkeys, after all, can fly. And although there was one spectacular slip and fall, the raccoons all managed to stay on the tree without falling fifty feet to the ground. 

I wonder whether this arrangement is long-term or merely expedient, but the sight of this little pack, or family, or club, cheered me and distracted me.  I watched, my coffee growing cold, as they settled in uncomfortable-looking poses on their separate too-small branches, until they each made their way back to the trunk where they had their nest, and disappeared, presumably until night falls again, when they can resume their sociable adventurings.

All is well.

Morning in the Dark

It’s hard to get up in the dark. I want to stay under the covers, next to the big dog who comes up on the bed as soon as he hears me stir. The fireplace in the bedroom is lit, and it is tranquil and warm. But I know if I don’t get up and write, I will have missed the fundamental purpose of my days, and so, goaded by some kind of literary jackal nipping at my heels, I drag myself up, lured by the prospect of coffee.

And yet, despite my lack of enthusiasm, once I am there sitting before my keyboard, I find myself racing against the sun. There is some mystical thing that happens when I’m writing in the dark. It’s as if I have a direct line to the muse who hides in my heart somewhere, only bold enough to emerge in the dark. The writing and the dark go together, and I have to get as much done as I can while I can.

With the light, too, comes the household activity: the chores, the dogs needing to go out and to have their feet washed, the dishwasher needing to be emptied, the bed made, the calls to the insurance company, the roofer, the trips to the dry cleaner. These kinds of mundane things scare away whatever inspiration I am fortunate enough to find, and the day slips away in the routines of living.

And so, against my will, I find myself rising earlier and earlier, reluctant and eager at the same time, dragging myself to my desk, hoping to write faster than the earth turns.

This morning it is bitter cold, and the trees are still outlined in the snow from two days ago. A pink line of the sun is showing, and a few brave birds have arrived to feast on the seeds and nuts I’ve left for them. The turkeys still balance on their precarious perches high at the tops of the trees. I am hesitant to stir, because that will signal to the dogs that it’s time to move, and then the brief moment of opportunity will be gone. I look at what I’ve written, and vow that tomorrow will be earlier still.

Winter Morning

It’s dawn. There’s new snow on the ground and a fire in the fireplace. I sit in bed with my coffee and watch the turkeys come down from their roosts. If you didn’t know better, you would think there were tall, blue gray mountains to the east, but it is water vapor rising from Lake Michigan, a sign of bitter cold.
The turkeys have come down and are having a kerfuffle, but the dogs only lift their heads. Turkeys seem to do a lot of bullying.
I should bestir myself, but it is too beautiful, too calm, too temporary to walk away. The earth’s turning will change the light, and the soft rose and lavender of the woods will begin to catch brilliant orange edges along the trunks of the snow rimmed trees. The sun is so far south that I can’t see its rise from the bed, only the shafts of orange and pink, as they color even the backs of the dogs. A small troop of deer pick their way through the snow to the open water of the spring. The young dog perks up, prepared to bark, but for once he takes his cue from his elders.img_2976
Now the tops of the enormous clouds are white. I imagine the columns of vapor that must be towering over the shoreline. I used to be in the city by now, amid the skyscrapers near the lake, watching those plumes of eerie mist, fully alert, anxious, dressed in Armani, and regretting having to go inside to my office. But now I’m here. Watching, sleepy, considering tearing myself away for another coffee, listening to the soft breathing of contented dogs.
I am grateful.

Upcoming Appearance at Peninsula Bookman

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One of my favorite parts of any book tour is a stop at this wonderful little store, where new and used books are carefully organized in stacks to the ceiling. You can also find vintage maps, prints, and other curiosities. Its proprietor, Peter Sloma, is a thoughtful, passionate reader. Its location is not obvious, in part because of the signage rules, but it is very much worth a stop.

So, I am very much looking forward to spending some time at Peninsula Bookman in Fish Creek, Wisconsin, this coming Saturday, June 16th from 4:00- 6:00 pm.

Please stop by and say hello.