The long tail of the fairy tale

In his book The Denial of Death, the American anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote that people create the reality they need in order to discover themselves. The reality he had in mind was not just their immediate reality, but that of culture more widely, the imaginative landscapes humans have always both explored and erected, myths, stories, ideas and ideals.

And also fairy tales. Those stories on the edge, fluttering between the ordinary and the prodigious.

We don’t believe in fairy tales, the modern credo goes. We’ve been catechised into a doctrine that undermines our ability to see the unusual for anything else other than, well, unusual, while impairing all possibilities for reading into it anything more than a sense of empirical apprehension. We’ve ceased to dread and fear, and we’re just simply scared, horror-struck, while knowing that the dividing wall between the two worlds, the real and the imaginative, is made out of reinforced concrete.

But fairy tales have long tails, and they wrap them up around us in ways we don’t always expect. In ways that make us doubt the existence of that wall – at least until we are woken up to our cherished dogma and remember that there is nothing to be anxious about, really. A story is just a story, we tell ourselves.

The distant root of the word fairy is the Latin word fatum, that which is ordained. Preordained. Fairy tales pre-exist us all, but we make them, too, as we go along because there is no other way to be. There is a case to be made that science-fiction stories are latter-day fairytales, the supernatural and legendary having been replaced by the techno-paradigm of scientific idealism. ‘What happens if the personal forces governing the universe descended in your backyard’ becomes ‘what if science could eat out a bigger chunk of reality and achieve what nobody thinks it can (but everyone secretly hopes it would, at least one day)?’. One kind of fairy tale grabbing another with its long, winding tail.

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