Can old stories help us navigate the future?

Sketchnotes for "The Great Cauldron of St...

Sketchnotes for “The Great Cauldron of Story” with Maria Tatar (Photo credit: On Being)

In this fascinating interview with Krista Tippett, Maria Tatar, a professor Germanic languages and literature at Harvard, talks about fairy tales and their influence and impact on our modern culture.  For example, there are the new adaptations of Snow White and shows like Grimm and Once. But she also points out that even the Kardashians and Sex and the City are versions of Cinderella.

Have these old myths and tales always been a large part of the culture, or is this a new trend?  Tatar talks about how we’re all navigating new territory and that there is a comfort in returning to these familiar stories to help us understand our world.

It makes sense to me, though I’m not sure that this is an entirely new trend. Myths and fairytales have always been part of the modern, popular culture, whether it was through Superman and comic books, or Star Wars in the 80’s.

But there are a couple reasons why these “old” stories might be more pervasive now.

First, the types of and platforms for entertainment have grown. Programmers and studios have so many more hours to fill, that numbers-wise, it makes sense that more fairytale-based stories are out there.

Also, with visual effects being so popular and of such a high quality, creatures and locations that a reader could only imagine before are now being pulled off the page and brought to life in a very convincing way. I think that’s why we’re seeing fairytale movies like Alice and Wonderland, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Oz-related stories being released every few months. Not to mention the numerous superhero movies.

But what are these old tales teaching us about our modern world? And can they really help us navigate our complex, global society? After all, these were tales that were told around campfires within small tribes, that had no concept of cel phones, computers, and space travel.

What if these stories aren’t about decoding our external world, necessarily, but our internal worlds? They offer us ways to understand and deal with fear, heartbreak, and disappointment — emotions that are universal and timeless.

And as Tatar suggests, in a world that is in constant flux, we find comfort in the familiar. We humans are kind of averse to change, so if a story will help moor us during the tumultuous waves of live, it’s not surprising that we welcome it.

Perhaps if there is a resurgence in the popularity of fantasy and fairytales, it speaks less to economics and special effects, and more to the fact that people are looking for meaning and a “happily ever after.” For a while now, there has been a backlash to the “hollywood ending” and the “happily ever after” because it’s too easy or too saccharine. But the opposite hasn’t helped stories thrive or find larger audiences. In recent years I’ve noticed a lot of shows and movies with cynical endings, hopeless outcomes, and characters who seems to have learned nothing and are no better off than at the start of their tale.

I am definitely suspicious of stories that are tied up too neatly at the end, but I also like to see a glimmer of hope and to feel that things can get better. That people can change.

I don’t need every one of the stories I read to have a totally happy ending, but I do like to see a character who has gone through tests and trials come out the other end in one piece, a little happier and healthier.

Because isn’t that what we want in our own lives?


12 thoughts on “Can old stories help us navigate the future?

  1. Love this post Mike. The work I’ve done with fairy tales and archetypal psychology points directly to what you’re saying – these stories are even more indefatigable as internal guides than external. And though we all “know” these stories in some sense, they retain a malleability that makes them wonderful stuff for examining the personal and interpersonal. What images and actions in these stories speak most strongly to us present a sort of magic mirror that allows us to mine the unconscious in creative ways.

    And on the subject of retellings, have you read Neil Gaiman’s Snow, Glass, Apples? Or Kelly Link’s Travels with the Snow Queen? A couple of my favorite versions of wonderful old stories.

  2. Yes!
    Thomas Moore is another good one.
    Enjoying -“emotions that are universal and timeless” in writing story as well as mine.
    Agree with how it helps us create meaning for our own story.

  3. I agree with this. I like stories that show growth and development instead of doing stuff just to do it. And they help tell me things about myself that I don’t know how to express (like how a baby cries because they can’t say “I’m hungry”)

  4. Hey Mike,

    I just wanted to say thank you for starting this blog. A:TLA is one of my favorite pieces of storytelling. Honestly, it inspired me to be a better person in every way that I can. I know that sounds corny but it’s true. You are one of the few people I look up to in the world of filmmaking.

    Sorry I don’t have anything to offer in terms of commentary. I just wanted you to know how much I appreciate what you’ve done with the stories you’ve told. Thank you.


  5. I just wanted to let you know that I love this blog and reading every entry that’s emailed to my inbox. I usually find it difficult to keep up with any blog or follow / understand more philosophical pieces, but this has made it possible and convenient for me to do both. And I thank you for that. I really enjoy reading everything you have to say, and getting your take on movies and stories. It’s a nice break from the action and special effects that I tend to indulge in otherwise.

  6. Mike, I love your work and your blog and has inspired me to work with animation. What is your advice to a freshman in college for eventually getting to work in a studio such as yours? And did you get a degree specifically in writing or graphic design? Thanks!

  7. Sometimes I feel that despite some stories being eternal and timeless, many people do not clearly remember the particulars of a given story. The majority can remember the general concept of old global folktales, but often times the messages or meanings are lost through time. So to an extent, I see the retelling of old stories not only a reminder, but also a redefinition of fading messages. That, and to expose a story to a demographic that would not sit audience to an unfamiliar story otherwise.

    @ 34:45, Tippett and Tatar start to discuss the grit, violence and death within our (current) media and stories and its affect on the audience. That triggered me to write down my sole thoughts on how I viewed death and violence in regards to story and (life) in general. Which got me curious, Mr. DiMartino, how do you view (grit,) violence and death as a vehicle in regards to story (or in general)?

  8. Your musings remind of an essay written by my favourite author, Ursula K. Le Guin, titled the Child and the Shadow in which she explores the method in which myths and fairy tales work and why they are so powerful and enduring:

    “The great fantasies, myths, and tales are indeed like dreams: they speak from the unconscious to the unconscious, in the language of the unconscious – symbol and archetype. Though they use words, they work the way music does: they short-circuit verbal reasoning, and go straight to the thoughts that lie too deep to utter. They cannot be translated fully into the language of reason, but only a Logical Positivist, who also finds Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony meaningless, would claim that they are therefore meaningless. They are profoundly meaningful, and usable – practical – in terms of ethics; of insight; of growth.” (The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, p. 52)

  9. The resurgence of the fantasy genre/fairytales/superhero’s in television and Hollywood in the past decade+ is definitely an interesting issue.

    However, I have qualms with the suggestion that this resurgence is due to their ‘timeless’ nature and ability to ‘decode our internal worlds’. It seem to me that this is nostalgia speaking and it fails to address the actual content of the ‘re-presented’ media. Such tales have clearly not been ‘re-presented’ to us on modern screens with entirely the same themes fore-fronted as they once were. They have a lot more to say about the ‘external’ happenings as regards to shifts in popular ideologies. It seems we are merely attracted to them because of their guise as the classical (more often than not, Disney-fied) tale.

    I have to disagree with Tartar if she suggest that these new renditions lend to a steady mooring ‘during the tumultuous waves of life’, and further that the modern audience even looks to this modernised content for such alleviation.

    Alternatively, I feel that what is more imminent here is the manner in which these tales represent the prominent ideologies of this day and age – the reproduction of old tales/films are indeed particularly useful in tracking these.

    Yes, there is familiarity in the tale of Cinderella, the characters of Red Riding Hood, the trials and tribulations of superheros. But in modern renditions there seems to be an emphasis on a model of abstract humanisation over plot or thematic familiarity; the idea that were are not just people of ideological categories but “people of the world”, “full, human persons” with anxieties, weaknesses etc. We see this in the familial strife of fantasy series’ such as Game of Thrones, Oz the Great and Powerful whose story is revealed, the copious reproductions of superheroes who are presented as more ‘human’ that super.

    This can ultimately be seen as a method of direct depoliticisation which screams to us: ‘don’t think! Entertain yourself in these characters who are human, just like you!’ But take no action.

    Can old stories help us navigate the future? Yes, entirely so. But we have to be sure that we pay attention to the nature in which they are RE-presented, rather than just assuming that their core thematic/morals remain the same. If we continue to consider their resurgence as simply the result of an ‘unconscious yearning for stability’, familiarity in a ‘tumultuous’ world or consider them useful only in navigating ‘timeless emotions’ we look only as far as the end of our noses, finding exactly what we hoped to.

    The resurgence of such stories tells us much about the rhetoric of popular ideology and the state of current affairs (both internal and external) more than it does any ‘innate’ yearning for their presence. If we settle for them at face-value then we forgo any worthwhile interrogation of the significance of their re-presentation.

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