by Terri Windling, with art by Meg Fox
Myths and fairy tales can play an important role in overcoming childhood trauma. Just as the symbolic figures in nightly dreams reflect the realities of our waking life, the symbols to be found in fairy tales and myths (which are the collective dreams of entire cultures) provide useful metaphors for grappling with the hard truths of our existence. These old tales have much to say about heroism; about how one finds the courage to fight and prevail against adversity. They are tales of children abandoned in the woods, of daughters who are handed poisoned apples or pressured to enter their fathers' beds, of brothers be-spelled, turned into swans, or who hack off their own sisters' limbs.
The old tales, which were often dark and brutal, were not considered mere children's stories at all -- not until the 20th century, when the pendulum of adult literary fashion swung sharply toward novels of strict realism, and oral tales (associated with the lower classes, and with women) were banished to the nursery. At that point the tales were cleaned up, simplified, and watered-down for children's ears, so that many of the fairy tales we know today are but pale copies of the originals.
In the older versions of fairy tales, the Just often found a way to prevail, and the Wicked generally received their comeuppance - but the stories reveal much more than a simple formula of abuse and retribution. The trials our heroes encountered in their quests illustrated the process of transformation: from youth to adulthood, from victim to hero, from a maimed state into wholeness, from passivity to action. It's this transformational subtext that gives true fairy tales their particular power: not as a quaint escape from the harsh realities of modern life, but in their symbolic portrayal of all the dark and bright life has to offer.
Today, many writers, artists, performers, philosophers and psychologists are returning to the world's oldest stories, finding much of value in them with which to address the complex issues of our age. The books, stories, essays, poems, and media arts recommended on this page address the complex subject of childhood in the same ways our distant ancestors did: by telling stories, and using those tales to move us, enlighten us, change us.
The haunting collage art on this page is by the multi-media artist and performer Meg Fox, who makes use of fairy tale imagery to explore themes of childhood trauma and the healing process. To see more of her work, visit the Meg Fox Art website.