Why I like fairy tales

Franz Jüttner (1865–1925): Illustration from S...

Franz Jüttner (1865–1925): Illustration from Sneewittchen, Scholz’ Künstler-Bilderbücher, Mainz 1905 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s not what it looks like: grown man lingering over Snow White, thumbing the pages delicately and with great interest, following her every movement. I’m not actually in love with her. It’s the story that grips me.

Yes, grips me.

How can that be? I’ve read it a hundred times. I’ve read other stories much like it, too, in this thick volume of collected tales. I have three editions of Grimm alone (not counting e-books), and at least two (I haven’t counted) of Russian folk tales. Then there’s Anderson, MacDonald, a “Treasury of Jewish Folklore,” … And my collection is small, by my own standards and that of others. Yes, you see, I’m among a larger group of (ahem) men (and also women) who treasure these old tales.

Do we have some strange, infantile illness? Obviously not. Ours is a refined palate. We savor something of value here. It is not we who are strange (okay, just a little …), but the mass of humanity that has lost interest—or have they?

To illustrate the appeal of these tales, let me walk you through one that I bet you’ve never read. I hadn’t, at least, until recently. It’s a Czech folktale called “Batcha and the Dragon.”

A shepherd, idling outside, spies hundreds of snakes climbing to a cliff, touching a leaf to the cliff, and then slithering into an opening that appears there.

Come now, aren’t you at least a little intrigued by whatever’s inside that cliff?

Naturally the shepherd follows suit and finds himself in a glittering, gold-encrusted cavern. At its heart is a golden table with a “king of serpents” lying asleep on top. After discovering that he can’t get out, he too goes to sleep.

Aren’t you a little like me in thinking, “What’s this? What’s happening? Who are these snakes?”

Batcha wakes up to find the snakes being conducted out of the cavern by the king snake, who however forbids Batcha to leave until the shepherd swears “by a triple oath” not to tell how he entered the cavern. Of course he swears.

I know, as well as you do, that Batcha is going to break his oath. But I’m delighted that the storyteller has put that oath in. It increases my interest. How will he break his oath? What will the consequence be?

Batcha emerges to discover he’s been asleep all winter. He goes home but, not knowing what to tell his quarrelsome wife, he claims he’s been asleep in the sheepfold all winter. She abuses him so terribly that a stranger interferes and sends his wife away. When Batcha and the stranger are alone, the stranger transforms into “a horrible looking creature with a third eye in the middle of his forehead”—the “wizard of the mountains.”

Bet you didn’t see that one coming. I sure didn’t.

Naturally, the wizard gets Batcha to break his oath, take him to the mountain, and make the mountain open. Then the wizard reads an incantation that forces the king of the serpents—now at last revealed to be a dragon—out of the cave.

Surely by now you want to read to the end. And you’re almost there.

The wizard gets Batcha to try to harness the dragon, and the poor shepherd winds up on the dragon’s back. Not surprisingly, the dragon wants to punish him, so it flies high in the air, to the stars and into the firmament. Batcha, convinced he’ll die, finds help in a skylark, who carries his prayer to God. God sends down some birch leaves on which He’s written something in gold, and the skylark drops them on the dragon’s head. The dragon sinks to earth, and Batcha passes out, awaking at the end in front of his own hut.

Wasn’t that a fun ride?

Two closing thoughts. One, I hardly cut much of anything out of the story; just some dialogue and a few storyteller tricks that make it more enjoyable than this little synopsis. In other words, all that adventure in a very short story.

Two, I don’t think that story was just for children; but if it was, I guess I’m still a kid at heart. And I’m not the only one.

But, in fact, I have the suspicion that beneath the obvious action of the story, something deeper is going on, and I want to read it again–don’t you?

Here’s the tale: “Batch and the Dragon

Want another instead? Try this one: “The Dragon’s Strength

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