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Lawfully ever after: the law and fairy tales

Lawfully ever after: the law and fairy tales

Christianah B


The idea that the fairy tale is worthy of study by legal scholars may seem uncomfortable to many, with many wondering how the childish world of fantasy stories has anything to do with the sophisticated study of law. After all, fairy tales are about magic spells, wicked witches and faraway kingdoms!

Social justice

Fairy tales like Cinderella offer a sense of justice and retribution that young audiences need. In the tales, "Goldilocks and the Big, Bad Wolf”, the villains are on trial in three separate cases. The wolf is charged with destroying property, Goldilocks is charged with trespassing and the troll is charged with terroristic threats. As each character takes the stand to tell their story from their perspective, the curtain opens and the story unfolds. At the conclusion of each scene, the curtain closes and once again the character is in the courtroom, awaiting the judge's decision. In each case, the judge hands down a sentence of community service, which the characters don't agree with, but the sentence is fair and just. Fairy tales teach children that wrongdoers can't get away with everything.

It is clear that certain rules must be obeyed within the fairy tale due to the existence of a legal system. In short, the genre demands that good characters are duly rewarded and evil ones justly punished, thus guiding a young audience's conception of justice. This coercive process allows us to draw further links between the genre and our legal system – for example, both advocate justice and punishing wrongdoing. The fairy tale seeks to raise society as obedient social and legal subjects.

Fairy tales are law-abiding because they seek to internalise norms of good behaviour in young readers and concern themselves with the legitimacy of violent punishments. In doing so, the non-fiction genre persuades us to accept certain violent punishments as just and legitimate and reject the others as unjust crimes. For example, in “Little Red Riding Hood”, when the wolf devours grandma, he is bad; his act is a crime. However, when the hunter (who hears the girl's scream) kills the wolf, he is good; his act is justice. Another example is that of Robin Hood – he is a thief and an outlaw but is praised by the people and cast as a hero because he steals from the rich to give to the poor. Robin is clearly a villain to the law and should be arrested because stealing is a punishable crime, but such crime is justified because of its charitable cause.


Another link between the genre and the legal system is the target audience: both are intended to make an impression on young children. This is not to say that the fairy tale does not speak directly to adults. Indeed, it must speak to adults if it is ever to reach young audiences. Parents, publishers, educators and librarians (gatekeepers of children books) must continue to be impressed by the tales before they can be passed on to children. This is also not to say the law doesn't speak to adults, but children are more likely to commit an offence because they don't have a moral compass or a strong understanding of right and wrong.

Children are unique in ways that make them especially receptive to the morals in fairy tales. This is because children are particularly impressionable; thus, childhood experiences permanently shape the adults that children become. This is why society is careful about what it prescribes for children's eyes (or ears); many believe that the things children see affect the way they see the world. This is why it's important for fairy tales to have morals (to mould a moral compass), happy endings (so children are reassured everything will be okay in the end) and justice (rewards for the good and punishment for the bad will make children respect the authority of the government and the court).

Moral judgement

As Ian Ward notes, "Long before arriving at law school... the student will already have learned from literature, and of course from life, what the essential questions are, and have already decided what the answers should be" .Moreover, for the overwhelming majority of the community who never engage in the immediate study of law, these early encounters with fairy tales may well be the only occasion when these issues are seriously considered and when decisions might be reached. 

Thus, the study of the jurisprudence of fairy tales, which are very likely among a child's first encounter with the law, begins to take on an added importance when we consider the malleability of children and the enduring effects of the childhood experience. Because children are particularly vulnerable and in need of moral guidance, parents are invested in providing their children with moral education. Books are an important tool in this regard. We expect children's stories to teach lessons and we usually are not disappointed. Children are able to see which behaviour gets them the rewards they seek and which behaviour results in the punishments they fear. The fairy tale thus speaks directly to the minds of children, highlighting the direct link between fairy tales and the law.

Rewarding the good and punishing the bad

In fairy tales, 99% of the time, virtue is rewarded everywhere and vice is always punished. In Perrault's “Little Red Riding Hood”, the disobedient child is eaten by a wolf. In his “Sleeping Beauty”, snakes, reptiles and vipers have their way with the murderous mother-in-law. In Madame de Beaumont's “Beauty and the Beast”, the compassionate Beauty is rewarded with a handsome prince, while her pretentious sisters are turned to stone. In “Bluebeard”, a curious wife is sentenced to death by her husband, who is in turn killed for his murderous plotting. In the Grimms' “Cinderella”, the humble protagonist is rewarded with marriage to a prince. Her evil stepsisters, however, do not fare nearly as well: doves peck out their eyes. In the Grimms' “Snow White”, innocent and industrious Snow White is rewarded by marriage to a prince, while her envious and wicked stepmother is forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she burns to death at Snow White's wedding ceremony. Finally, in “Hansel and Gretel”, the resourceful children are rewarded with riches, while the cannibalistic witch burns in the fiery oven.

Source of comfort

Fairy tales tend to comfort their impressionable audience through 'happily ever after' endings; such endings are another basis for drawing analogies to law. Law is also a source of comfort, for it attempts to sustain the fiction that the law gets everything right in the end. Similarities can be drawn between reading a fairy tale's ending and the satisfaction of the legal system. The root of the source of comfort comes from human nature's desire to believe in a just world, where wrongdoers pay for their crimes and good Samaritans are rewarded or at least recognised for their good deeds. Without a belief in a just world and fair English legal system, there would be anarchy and no structure to society; thus, the promise of a just world is what allows us as a society to overcome violence. In short, fairy tales and the law are similar because they teach the same simple lesson: misbehave and you will be sorry because justice always prevails.