Sunday, May 9, 2010

Of Fairy Tales and Dragons by Suzanne Adair

Suzanne Adair writes a mystery/suspense series set during the Southern theater of the Revolutionary War. Her first book, Paper Woman, won the 2007 Patrick D. Smith Literature Award from the Florida Historical Society. In 2009, Camp Follower was a finalist for both the Daphne du Maurier Excellence in Historical Mystery/Suspense Award and the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction. Check her web site or blog for more information.


Of Fairy Tales and Dragons
by Suzanne Adair

When I tell someone that I'm an author, it usually generates a query about what I write. My response is that I write historical crime fiction set in the Southern theater of the American Revolutionary War. Categorizing my fiction satisfies people, stimulates additional interest among those who like reading that type of material, and earns me expressions of social acceptance.

Imagine the reactions, instead, if I told people that I write fairy tales.  They'd frown and recoil, as if I'd sprouted warts over my face, and find a polite excuse to leave my company. They'd think, Suzanne Adair's elevator isn't going to the top floor.

But I confess that I really do write fairy tales. At their cores, my novels published thus far — Paper Woman, The Blacksmith's Daughter, and Camp Follower — are each fairy tales. And I continue to write fairy tales, unabashedly.

The prolific English writer G. K. Chesterton said, "Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed."

Not all dragons possess the same strength. Some require extra effort to be slain. Thus fairy tales teach children about creativity and perseverance — good traits for them to develop in the midst of a copycat, instant-gratification culture.

Extra-powerful dragons have names like Disease and Poverty. What's interesting is that the same extra- powerful dragons that imperiled Assyrians, Celts, and Huns threaten us in the 21st century, in first-world countries. Consequently, when I write about these dragons in the 18th century, readers recognize them.

Historical fiction, like speculative fiction, removes the pressure to regard what's written as an in-your-face tale with an All-Important Lesson. What I'm actually doing is sneaking in stories about how people in the past might have dealt with dragons that have names like Psychopath, Addict, Shell-Shocked Soldier, and Child Molester.

Look for a traditional fairy tale that doesn’t terrorize children on some level.  You won't find it. In those old tales, lessons are taught well through fear. It is fear, not reward, that motivates heroes to slay dragons. When the hero stands beneath the dragon's shadow, the hero realizes that his/her existence is at stake. The dragon must be slain. Otherwise, the dragon will continue to imperil the hero's existence.

Some dragons will not be slain, no matter how a hero strives. But the hero doesn't stop striving, just because he or she cannot kill the dragon. As the Pirkei Avot says, "You are not expected to complete the work, but neither may you cease from doing your part."

What is my "part" as a writer of crime fiction? I believe mysteries and thrillers are actually fairy tales for adult readers. They appeal to people who have been denied justice in the real world or who have seen loved ones denied justice. These readers embrace crime fiction so they can see wrongs righted. They read to escape the grimness of a world in which some dragons will not be slain.

Each time I receive letters from my readers who thank me for helping them forget about a real-world dragon for a few hours, I believe I've done my part. By writing what I write, I make a difference in the lives of others — but not just by helping them escape.

You see, fairy tales aren't fluff. Every time you read one, whether it's traditional or contemporary, you're exposed to dragons that hobble the human race. You see them from different, often fresh, angles. These angles challenge you to ponder prickly issues anew, search yourself for resolutions perhaps invisible behind the defenses you've erected about your own soul.

The next time you read crime fiction, look for the dragons. Look for the angles. And ask yourself, "What is my solution to this dilemma? Might my solution benefit others?"

What dragons have you slain, and how?


Mason Canyon said...

A very interesting post. What a great way to look at things and so true. Children do know dragons exist, adults are the ones that forget.

Thoughts in Progress

Suzanne Adair said...

Hi Mason, thanks for dropping by! Child behaviorists say that by the time most children reach the age to attend elementary school, society has "cured" them of believing in dragons and faeries. Alas, the ability to access much of their fertile imaginations gets lost, too.

I saw some of that effect on my own children. Since I have always encouraged their imaginations, they now find it easy to channel their creativity. They seem less frustrated than their (teen) peers.

If we find a way to not completely crush that awe over the mysterious in young children, I suspect that we'll give them the gift of becoming better at problem solving. It's dangerous to forget that dragons exist.

Suzanne Adair said...

Hi Kaye, thanks for the opportunity to be your guest blogger on Meanderings and Muses again. You're a gracious hostess.

jenny milchman said...

Terrific post, Suzanne! I linked to it on my blog today. And I couldn't agree with you more about mystery/suspense novels offering readers the sort of justice that is, sadly, often denied in real life. I don't know that I've slain too many dragons myself, but the ones I fear for sure make their way into my stories, where they lie at the end, safely quieted...for the moment.

Vicki Lane said...

Excellent post, Suzanne! Those dragons are everywhere and whether we look for superheroes like Lee Child's Reacher or ordinary folks (aka amateur sleuths) acting like super heroes in times of danger, to slay those dragons, crime fiction provides a satisfying catharsis for readers from our real world where the dragons are all too often unchecked and wreaking havoc.

Suzanne Adair said...

Jenny, welcome! Thanks for the blog link.

You've hit the nail on the head about using fiction to quiet dragons. Too often, fiction is the only place where readers can shelter from dragons.

You've probably slain more dragons than you credit yourself for. Women can be reluctant heroes. :-)

Suzanne Adair said...

Hi Vicki, nice to see you again in cyberspace. I'm sure you've noticed we're in the midst of a craze for superhero movies? This seems to be in response to a collective moviegoers' cry for help: "Extra-powerful dragons are on the prowl through our day-to-day lives. We need superheroes!"

Not-so-incidentally, I saw "Iron Man 2" yesterday for Mothers Day and thoroughly enjoyed the escapism. :-)

Susan Schreyer said...

Fascinating, Suzanne, not to mention inspirational. I've been toying with an idea for a new book and after reading your piece realized I've been tethering my imagination. Thanks for your perspective, and the reminder that there are dragons!

Suzanne Adair said...

Susan, maybe we can deny real-life dragons, but if we don't give them their due in fiction, we cut the wings off our stories. Thanks for posting!

Neil Plakcy said...

Very interesting post! I love the connections you made-- certainly food for thought!

Suzanne Adair said...

Neil, thanks for your comments. Do you think I gave readers a new appreciation for mysteries, or did I scare them off? :-)

Sheila Beaumont said...

Suzanne, I really enjoyed this post! You said so well what I have been thinking for years as a fan of fairy tales, children's & YA fantasy, and adult mysteries & thrillers. I have the Chesterton quotation about fairy tales and dragons on my Goodreads page as one of my favorites, and I loved seeing it quoted here!

Suzanne Adair said...

Sheila, I'm glad you enjoyed my post. Thanks for your comments. Most fairy tales in Western civilization are a form of the Hero's Journey, as are most genre books and movies. So you can see why it's no great leap from Red Riding Hood to Kinsey Millhone. :-)

Cometprof said...

I'm teaching a class this summer (on-line) called Myth. Symbol and Meaning. May I use your post when I challenge my students to think about the relevance of fairy tales in today's world? I think your essay would fit in nicely with where I want to take them. I'm sure that none of them would be surprised at me throwing Star Wars or Twilight at them but I know I'll catch them off guard with having to thing about a mystery. And heaven knows, I love to catch them off guard!

Suzanne Adair said...

Hi Cometprof,

>> May I use your post when I challenge my students to think about the relevance of fairy tales in today's world? <<

Thanks very much for asking. Yes, you may reference my post for your class, as long as you credit me for it.

>> I'm sure that none of them would be surprised at me throwing Star Wars or Twilight at them but I know I'll catch them off guard with having to thing about a mystery. <<

Fairy tales in mysteries will definitely make them think. Since fairy tales underpin just about every genre fiction story, you could further throw them off by having them think about the fairy tale foundation in *westerns*.

Email me through the contact form on my web site ( and let me know how your class processed the idea. I might do a follow-up post about it on my author blog. Good luck!