I think everyone has a special story of their life alongside fairy tales—particularly bookish people. At one point you realize they’ve either been there all along, or you’ve spent your whole life chasing them. This post is very self-involved and for that I must apologize. If you don’t care about one person’s life in fairy tales (respectively mine) then don’t bother. If you care, read on!
Most of my childhood was spent in two separate locations in Romania, the first five years in absolute poverty in the middle of nowhere, and the second in an idyllic, pastoral village in the Carpathian mountains. For the first five years I have memories of my mother reading some Romanian folk tales to me—most of them were about revenge in a form of another and almost all had either anthropomorphic talking objects, or animals at their center. Images in my head of the first five years involve a goat with three kids (two of which get brutally murdered) who seeks revenge on the big bad wolf, the prince who turns into a pig every night and whose wife skins him alive, the competition between the ‘daughter of the old man’ and ‘daughter of the old lady,’ a rooster who swallows treasures, and a guy named Ivan who has a bag that traps demons while he is bunking with Satan in a jail cell…you know… your typical 5-year-old folk and fairy tales. Eastern Europe is so broken. I find it so amusing when Western kids find out a small inappropriate fact about one of their fairy tales or children’s movies and say ‘childhood ruined.’ Really? Have you heard the one about Ivan bunking with Satan? How about the one where the prince comes back home only to find a coffin and be slapped in the face by Death? I am not making these up.
I did however get a Walkman as a gift from a visiting cousin (keep in mind the ’80s made it to Eastern Europe by the late ’90s) and he gave me alongside it a tape with “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Snow White.” You best believe I listened to that tape cassette a million times. I also have a vague memory of my kindergarten teacher (who was also the mayor, my next door neighbor, and the principal) doing puppet shows for us where the big bad wolf ate little red and I remember seeing its stomach bulging. The last memory of this place from the first five years was finding in the library (which was made of exactly 20 books and was located beneath the discotheque) a very thick, dusty book with stories. I couldn’t read it, but I remember the pictures and that it was massive and for some reason it stayed in my mind forever. I also remember pretending I’m in a coffin and saying: “Look mom, I’m Snow White!”
I then moved to the village in the Carpathian mountains with my grandparents. Here life was much much better. While living here “St. Nicholas” once gave me the collected fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen which became my bread and butter. “The Wild Swans” and “The Ugly Duckling” were my favourite but I cherished “The Little Match Girl” every Christmas since. It was so beautiful and sad. Reading these fairy tales while living on a farm in the mountains was so perfect. Each spring we had real ducklings and goslings, and baby bunnies, and sheep. It was merged into my relationship with fairytales and my overall loneliness as an only child. I once visited my cousin in the city and he had gotten a boxed fairy tale collection in which I was introduced for the first time to “The Princess and the Frog,” and “Rumpelstiltskin.” The latter stayed in my mind forever and I’ll never forget those illustrations. My cousin was lucky, he had so many fairy tale books and so many Disney movies. When I turned 7 my cousin’s family relocated to Canada which meant that they handed down those tapes to: ME!
My copy of Andersen’s tales
These are the tapes I had from age 7-10: Beauty and the Beast, The Jungle Book, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Aristocats, 101 Dalmatians, and Sleeping Beauty. Most of these were two on the same tape, and sometimes with voice dubbed over with translation or just captions in Romanian. A few years later I got a present of a film of Snow White and The Wizard of Oz. Meanwhile on regular TV I watched only two things: The Adventures of Sinbad (a television series with live-action), and Xena: Princess Warrior.
Meanwhile, my knowledge of Romanian folklore was enriching with Ion Creanga’s memories from childhood series and a popular author-less folktale series containing a comical foolish peasant for whom everything somehow works out anyway named Pacala.
All these had a huge impact on my life choices. Having so little for so long made me remember each encounter with a fairy tale, and it stayed with me for very long. One day I was walking through the mountains (we had to go get our cow back) and I was on this walk with a family friend, who was in her 30s. As we were going up the mountain she pointed in a random direction and told me that if you go on a seven day journey in that direction you will come across the house where the seven dwarves lived, and that she’s personally been there. My jaw dropped. I was set on going to find it right then and there. It was the first time someone convincingly told me a lie. I never heard of grown-ups telling lies and I thought she’d have no reason to. Most importantly, I wanted it to be true. Every day I kept asking her to take me there so maybe I too can live with the dwarves. She always said no.
Alongside regular fairy tales I was always deep into Eastern Orthodox narratives and hagiographies (which I later realized were taken out of The Golden Legend) and the traditions of the small town were quite morbid—and I was very involved. I’d go to funerals and they would take on days. I’d see the whole process of death from beginning to end. Mix that with the fairy tales and folk tales from earlier….yep.
Skip forward now to ages 10-14. I moved to Canada and had to learn a new language from scratch. I had no friends and my aunt had somehow become over the top religious in this time and took me with her to her church which was very very very different from anything in Europe. No birthdays, no Christmases, NO MAGIC. We weren’t allowed to read or watch anything with magic in it, and that included Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, several other Disney films, and anything relating to Santa Clause. These four years were filled with Bible Stories of another kind and there was a lot of fear. I really missed my fairy tales. At school kids were reading Harry Potter and I always felt like I was missing out on something. I kind of stuck by the kids who were into A Series of Unfortunate Events, and I read the first 5 books and dropped the series after that because I wasn’t too interested anymore. Every time I think of those four years I get really angry.
Luckily I moved out from her house at 14 and never looked back. Slowly I returned to fairy tales and watched every Disney movie I never saw before. By 15 I decided that I would become an artist and work for Disney one day and make magical movies for children. I worked on that portfolio for three years. Unfortunately it had many rigid demands and I wasn’t able to meet the standards or get in to a very competitive program, though I received a letter telling me that the storytelling components and ideas were some of the best they’ve ever seen and ranked highest on their charts, but the art work itself was not up to the standard of allowing me into a program with 10% acceptance rate. Changing course I went into literature because in the end…stories were what I was after. By 18 I discovered new children’s literature that blew me away like Peter Pan: the boy who never grew up, and got quite literally under my skin, and Alice in Wonderland, and Mary from the Secret Garden, and oh so so many more fairy tales. I discovered that the Sinbad I used to watch had been from the Arabian Nights or 1001 Nights and that there’s so much more mythology out there from Greek and Roman myth, to Egyptian legends, to Tolkien’s vast made-up world, and the vast world of Medieval legends. In the year between 18-19 I was just as alone in my parents’ house as I had been in my Carpathian village. I read non-stop that year. I read every Victorian book, Russian Lit book, I went down the lists of “100 books one must read” and got a grasp of the canon. At 19 I got into seven universities for their English programs and chose the University of Toronto. Here I made a chart of everything I wanted to know. I took a course on Greek and Roman Mytholgoy, many many others on every Arthurian and Medieval thing, Celtic Mythology, Children’s Literature, Slavic Folklore, the Finnish Kalevala, and even retellings from the post-colonial world including Maori and other Indigenous forms of writing back to the Canon. My head was booming with so much literature. It got to be overwhelming. The magic started flickering away many times when things got too academic. I was moments away from pursuing this topic further, but each time I had to stop myself because I didn’t want to kill what I loved about my fairy tales and myths.
At the same time I was introduced to Once Upon a Time, a television series produced by ABC that brings together all the fairy tale characters out there in a very soap-opera way (got me through some of the toughest times). This show became so important to me and every time things were bad I still had Once Upon a Time. Meanwhile, my sister (17 years younger) was starting to discover things for the first time and forced me to keep updated with the new kids movies, shows, and books. My Disney and Fairy Tale side started pulling me in my sister’s direction while my dark morbid side found Gothic Literature, Tim Burton, and LORE. Meanwhile movies like Frozen completely reawakened my memories of reading Hans Christian Andersen. Also the Romanian side of me found a lot of joy in the sort of perception of Romania as the cradle of Vampires and creepiness. Yeah, pretty much. Can’t disagree with you.
I met some incredible academics along the way who did pursue this topic on a different trajectory. I spent a day with Maria Tatar, Harvard professor and (author of Enchanted Hunters, and most of the Annotated fairy tale books out the particularly on the Brothers Grimm). I took an independent research course on children’s literature focusing on what is magic really, and what makes it so different from technology, by zooming in on the Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud. (What a Muggle thing to do?!—from what I recall, my thesis was that communication is magic because there’s a lot of verbal incantations, signs, symbols, and textual preservation). I got very very involved with all sorts of projects involving children’s literature (click here if interested).
By fourth year I decided: I want to be very close to the books. I want to have them in my life. I want to participate in bookish culture and fairy tales will have a place in my life, but I will not become an academic. I will become a librarian!
So now I am a librarian with a library “job,” and Once Upon a Time just had its series finale last weekend….and I don’t know what to do with my life if I’m honest. People don’t interact with the library in the way I used to, or the way I fantasized they would. I feel no engagement with the actual books, and it’s really sad. I feel like subconsciously I chased fairy tales my whole life (but in a secret cool way that got to pass for acceptable in regular society). Somewhere in the last 4 years magic sort of started flickering away and I feel a little lost. I don’t know if this is a result of having read all of these, or actively studying them, or encountering too many retellings told poorly, or watching too many fairy tale spoofs like Shrek, Happily Never After, and short-format parodies…or losing the hope that maybe one day fairy tales will come true (though funny enough the royal wedding which happened alongside the Once Upon a Time finale was announced in the Toronto Star with the headline: “Happily Ever After”). Maybe it was also finding out that they weren’t special only to me. I always had this super-heightened intimate relationship to fairy tales and suddenly I found out that everyone does. I see people roll their eyes at the thoughts of a ‘fairy tale themed’ anything as if it’s something so cliche. I keep hunting for fairy tales. I try to decorate my apartment with fairy tale elements, I went to Disney World, I try to go in secret places…and they all turn out to be attractions. Nothing feels sacred, or special, or magical. I search for paintings, and art, and any semblance of anything that may come remotely close to feeling like it used to. Now I’m really into pirates for some reason. I still look into the distance sometimes and think about what that woman said to me: if you walk seven days in that direction, you will find the dwarves’ house. One day I’ll fucking do it!