How I ended up fairy (tale) hunting in Wales

Summer vacation has come to its end here and everywhere I go, the conversations start with sharing stories of what we did and where we went.

We went to the UK, a week in East Sussex and two weeks in Wales. It was blissful. I’m trying to retain the spirit of being more in the moment than in my to do lists as we move into the inevitably hectic fall.

Coastal Trail in Pembrokshire between Whitesands Bay and Porthgain

Somehow, though, just like last summer, my vacation conspired to remind me that the reason I do this work is because I love the core of this work.

During the working year, my focus shifted from traditional storytelling with all its magic and mystery to the concrete. Since I help academics use storytelling as a format for sharing their work, my audiences require that I stay grounded in my storytelling. Move too far into the mystical and they will stop seeing themselves in the stories I tell.

The same is true for students and job seekers who are working on their professional stories. They focus on the concrete, not the abstract, because they have to. In order to help them, I end up doing the same.

Day-to-day and in a workshop, that’s terribly useful. But it doesn’t inspire me. It’s easy to forget that although fairy tales take places in worlds of wonder and magic, they are the stories that have helped generations to understand their world and themselves.

Many fairy tales lived first as oral traditions, passed from storyteller to audience after the sun went down and before Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. Each story teller changed the story just a little bit, giving us countless versions of stories that we consider classics.

Today, we consume fairy tales in a multitude of formats, children’s books, films, musicals, collections, and yes, old fashioned storytelling as well, if you’re lucky. Many people consider Disney the final expert on fairy tales and any variation problematic. Stories have happier endings and less gore. Ironically, in a world that can feel more violent than the past we imagine, the stories we tell our children seem to become less violent.

Despite teaching from fairy tales for nearly two years now, I haven’t studied them much. This gap in my knowledge didn’t bother me until an Italian stranger challenged me in a conversation over soup and salad this summer.

She asked me if I understood the symbolism and origins of fairy tales and urged me to learn more about it when I confessed I didn’t. This conversation came the day after I read in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever you go, there you are that “old fairy tales… are ancient maps, offering their own guidance for the development of full human beings.” (81) So, he’s saying here that fairy tales teach us not just about how to avoid evil witches, but about how to become complete beings on this plant of ours.

Now, the way I see things, these kinds of coincidences can only be read as universe gathering its resources to push me in a particular direction. This time, it was to get met to read and research more fairy tales.

Being such a resourceful thing, the universe then conspired to deposit me two weeks later in Hay-on-Wye, a village on the English-Welsh border dedicated to selling used books.

Now, a used bookstore packed to the ceilings with English language books is enough to make me give up an afternoon any day. But give me a used bookstore and a shopping mission as well, and my week is pretty much made.

The fiction section in Richard Booth’s Bookshop in Hay-on-Wye

We started in Richard Booth’s Bookshop, the first and the greatest of them. There, I found two fairy tales I use in workshops in editions illustrated with delicate silhouettes by Arthur Rackham. At Addyman Books down the road, I found an entire section devoted to fairy tales from around the world. For me, there was a book of annotated fairy tales as an introduction to origin and symbolism questions.

Paper cut illustration from Cinderella by Arthur Rackham

Since coming back home, I’ve read Cinderella and been just a little blown away by the differences I found there compared to the Grimm’s and Disney versions we’re all familiar with. More on that another time.

All in all, it was a great vacation and I’m absolutely on a mission to learn even more about fairy tales as I continue on this story journey!

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