These are the enduring stories, waning, waxing with the ages but never quite forgotten, almost-memories shared by a collective human consciousness. Presently, there exist millions of beautiful Cinderellas, Cendrillons, Cenerentolas, coloured by idle or active imaginations, unique yet similar, bound together by the familiar tale.
But there are elements of the story which have been unanimously forgotten over the years, the darker sadder side of the children’s tale. We still have ugly stepsisters Anastasia and Drizella – given names, at long last – but they are petulant caricatures, pathetically humorous; we have forgotten the sisters who cut off their big toe and heel, desperate to fit into Cinderella’s dainty slippers.
We have forgotten the less charming, more vicious image of the glass slipper, bloodied; Prince Charming, ordering birds to peck out the stepsisters’ eyes.
Universal memory has remained selectively faithful to the giddy concept of Happily-Ever-After. This is an indication of what fairytales and fantasies now mean to us, losing their harsh cautionary edge, tumbling into the blind certitude of Paradise-like child-censored resolutions.
Fantasies are our escape from reality, faint impossible hopes given form. Reality is duller, emptier, whereas in the modern fairytale there is always the grandeur of a soaring palace or mysterious forests, in settings rich but unreal, made magical with the hallowed promise of a perfect, joyful future for every Once Upon A Time. Everyone wants a piece of that magic, a little slice of unchanging happiness to keep by them, sustaining them through the travails of a routine-enshrouded life – and more than that, a slice of hope that one day they too might find that enchanted life.
This explains why over 24 million envious, vicarious households watched the marriage of Kate Middleton to Prince William, the fairytale for the 21st Century. She is, famously, a pretty middle-class girl who found true love with her Prince in a classic schoolyard romance, her life – her destiny – the plot of the archetypical fairytale. But once again, we have neither cared nor wanted to look deeply enough, easily forgetting that Middleton hails from the nouveau riche, having met the Prince and his elite circle of friends since before their University days. Her story is not for the true commoner, with college debts and a distinct lack of well-connected friends, but like all fairytales, it has been simplified for the modern reader, the modern watcher, to sustain the absent-minded desire and the lingering fantasy.
With these rare, dramatic reflections of fairytales in reality, our withering hopes remain through the passage of years. These tales become dreams tucked gently away, half-forgotten half-disdained as age creeps up, only brandished in the whimsical, weary moments as the oldest defense against our own minds, whispering of the possibility of miracles. There is, within every man, the faint shadow of Wendy, the girl who could always see a flicker at the corners of her eyes, who did always adore Peter Pan and his Neverland.
Older than even fairytales, daringly staking a claim to truth, are myths and legends, and which consequently served a similar function. Once upon a time, these were Truth, explanations for the workings of the world. Then, they were not diminished ‘myths’ and Gods walked the Earth; they were sacred and present. The Egyptian Pharaohs derived their legitimacy and absolute power from Isis and Osiris, and an ocean away, with an entirely distinct set of deities, the revered Emperor of Japan claimed his authority from the Goddess Amaterasu. Generations of farmers knelt in holy temples praying to Ceres for bountiful harvests; the Mayans sacrificed human lives for the bloody blessing of their Gods.
Civilizations revolved around these celestial beings, peasants and kings living then dying with gods’ names lingering on their lips. The centrality of and faith in these belief systems have since faded, reduced to merely remnant stories: today they exist entirely as world literature (sometimes history) in academia and re-imagined fantasies in popular culture.
Certainly, reading new permutations of myths lacks the intensity of genuine faith, yet these retold stories with their fabled heroes remain strangely compelling – Achilles and his choice of long life or enduring fame, the star-crossed Cowherd and his Weaver-Girl on the Magpie Bridge.
Two tales from two peoples, still beloved across the world. These are human creations, and acknowledged as such, yet in their original form, their magic and potency exceeds even the magna opera of Wilde, Miyazaki and other master creators. There are those who claim that the allure of these ancient canons lie in that they are grander depictions of humanity, the human instinct and desires and frailties magnified in the legends of gods and heroes. But this reflection of life holds true for all storytelling, not simply mythology, or fantasy – the jealousy that motivated Set’s fratricide is echoed in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where Claudius killed his brother the King; love for beauty as seen in Aphrodite’s spurning of hunchbacked Hephaestus is relived in Esmeralda’s rejection of Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Undeniably, it is more than scale and splendour which differentiates this particular genre. Part of the tales’ charisma lies in their age; more accurately, it lies in the knowledge that not too many years ago, someone – many someones – believed in them. Hence, the testimonies of these sincere believers, our own ancestors from a different age, lend a tantalizing glimmer of credibility to these stories.
They are elevated above the ordinary fantasy: not simply the creations of single minds, not starring merely imagined knights questing in non-existent lands.
So, with comparatively more effortless wilful suspension of disbelief, there glitters a frail spark of possibility that these myths are real, a step up from an ordinary creation entirely ungrounded in truth. Indeed, foremost amongst today’s retellings of ancient myths are the seven-and-counting novels of Percy Jackson, a demigod whose fantastical alternate universe integrates ancient myths with urban New York, immortal gods with incognito mortal descendants. Percy and the demigods have never existed and will never exist, yet Riordan offers a scenario where they walk among us, where heroic Percy is just another kid-next-door, except with secret lineage.
In other words, the epic of Perseus Jackson, Son of Poseidon, pushes into our minds that stray thought that maybe, maybe, such a tenuous maybe, the Greek Gods are real, as our forefathers believed. It helps, too, that myths today are not believed, not studied, but instead watched, coming alive through talented actors and realistic technological illusions. Once again, it is that skewed balance between reality and fantasy which gives these resurgent tales their allure, as these myths are ultimately anchored to our world and to the majesty of human history (not human creativity).
A strange lost world, our strange lost world. This is why people visit the Atlas Mountains in North Africa, the Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire, the Loch Ness in Scotland, to glimpse something great that might once have been.
Of course, we are now gawking tourists gallivanting around with cameras, driven by some lingering curiosity as we spend enjoyable summer trips lazily trailing old legends. It is a common hobby, for leisure, ranked up there alongside historical sites at Auschwitz and Kyoto. Clearly, we no longer seek to find redemption and understanding from myths, we do not rail at Poseidon’s rage to explain fishermen lost at stormy seas – we have science, tides, tectonics – nor do we explain away the bleak winter with the story of Hades and Persephone.
We no longer look up to these myths, these personifications of tragedies wrought by nature, but we still understand the desire to understand the terrible, because we do the exact same thing today, only it goes by two new guises, named ‘history’ and ‘science’.
Our curiosity is piqued by ancient explanations for timeless phenomena, discovering how people once thought. The stories of old were kinder, less solemn, and that is perhaps why we are so enamoured of them. Perhaps Poseidon might have mercy, perhaps he might be appeased by prayers, sacrifices. Plate tectonics, unfortunately, can never be reasoned or pleaded with: they shift, and people die.
It is interesting to see how our ancestors thought, and this feeds our curiosity, linked and strengthened by the continuity of the issues which trouble and frighten us. Ultimately, it is our fascination with our past and some quiet embarrassed part of our hearts that would rather believe these disregarded canons than the implacably researched modern explanation, which explain the undying attraction of these stories to the average wandering mind. We can never quite bring ourselves to leave the past behind.
Ultimately, as myth and legend blur into fantasy, they all come to fulfil the fundamental function of modern storytelling: enjoyment, relaxation, wonder. Powerfully rendered stories have always been sirens’ serenades to tired minds, presenting universally welcoming refuges for the crying toddler, the bored adolescent, the 9-to-5 worker. “A tale as old as time, a song as old as rhyme”: As long as there is a need for and love of these enthralling entertaining stories, they will always be retold, reread, remembered.