Posted by: Mish | April 8, 2009

Gaiman and Fairy Tales

“Fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” ~G.K. Chesterton

Interestingly, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline was inspired by stories told by one of his daughters. The stories which he was dictated to write down often involved being taken away by an evil step-mother. When he was a child Gaiman lived in a split house that had bricks behind a door and he wondered what was behind it and where it led. In an interview on CBC Radio’s arts and entertainment show Q, Gaiman spoke with Jian Ghomeshi about Coraline and fairy tales. The interview can be heard here in its entirety, fast forward to the 15-minute mark.

With Gaiman’s stories usually being dark and menancing, Ghomeshi pointed out that Coraline‘s visual language isn’t what one would consider a Disney film. He asked, “Why is there that tradition in stories for or about children?” Gaiman replied:

“The for and the about are very very different and I think that’s interesting because it actually speaks to the different ways that two different groups tend to respond, initially intended to respond to the novel, and now I think are starting to respond to the film.”

When his agent said that Coraline was too terrifying to be a children’s book, Gaiman told her to read it to her children. Like his six-year old daughter, they loved it and weren’t scared at all.

“What seems to happen in Coraline is children react to the story fundamentally as an adventure. They may get a little bit scared, but it’s an edge of your seat what’s going to happen next scary thing because you’re giving them a story about somebody like themselves and what they’re going through and, yes, they’re going up against something dark and nasty, but it’s like James Bond going up against a James Bond villain. You never have any doubt that James Bond is going to get through it, absolutely fine. Adults get scared. Adults get disturbed and I think one reason for that is because it’s a story about a child in danger and I think we’re hardwired to worry about children in danger. It’s much more disturbing for adults.”

With it being visually and audibly more eerie than the novella, whether one likes the film or will find it scary depends on tastes. Gaiman compared it to whether a child will like a mushroom omelet or not. Ghomeshi asked:

“Do you think the ground has shifted so that- we’ve shifted as a society- so that kids can watch with more impunity than when we were young? If a kid watched the Lord of the Rings now there’s all kinds of things happening in that film that I imagine I would have found terrifying as a kid. Or do you think we just look back as an adult and forget?”

Gaiman in turns mentioned the original Snow White, the Wizard of Oz with its flying monkeys, and the child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. In his opinion it’s the scary stuff that makes them good.

“The child catcher is the one thing that everybody remembers and remembers with a delicious shiver. It’s not just a ‘oh my gosh, I need to go sit under the bed’. It’s ‘that was cool, yea, I was scared by that’. It’s the Dr. Who thing of remembering and loving the dialects, the cybermen, and the great villains.

Ghomeshi mentioned there was some question as to whether it was appropriate for the Graveyard to win the John Newberry Medal for children’s literature and what Gaiman made of that. Gaiman’s impression is that it was really only one person saying the book begins with a triple murder while a lot of other people rave about it and says, “I love controversy and I wouldn’t mind some, but I don’t see it”.

Ghomeshi asked Gaiman about the value of fairy tales for adults and what he loves about the G.K. Chesterton quote used in Coraline:

“Fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

Gaiman responded:

“What I love about that is it talks about what you’re taking away with you from a fairy tale and what the real moles are and what the big moles are and what function these things serve. And Chesterton wrote this wonderful essay in which he talks about fairy tales and he says they do not tell children that there is a bogie man out there. Children know there is a bogie man out there, they know there are monsters out there, they know there are dangerous things. What is important is to tell them that the bad thing can be beaten. And that for me, when I went into Coraline, that was what I held onto. And I thought I’m going to make my villain as bad a villain as I can. I’m going to make her as dangerous a thing. I’m not going to give Coraline magic powers. I’m not going to make her some kind of special chosen one and she’s not going to be a secret princess or anything like that. She’s going to be a smart little girl who is going to be scared and is going to keep doing the right thing anyway and that’s what brave is. And it was lovely to write that story and to feel like if anybody ever accuses me of anything I can defend it because absolutely – was the other mother scary? Yea. Does it matter that she’s scary? Is it important that she’s scary? Well, yes, actually it is because if she isn’t scary you wind up with what I think of as Disney channel cartoon fiction. You watch it hoping for some kind of story. And the story you get is something like somebody thinks they haven’t been invited to a birthday party, but actually they have. That’s not a story! Tell kids that the dangerous things can be overcome. Tell ’em that you can go out and dream. Tell ’em that you can go out and change the world.

Gomeshi commented that adults forget that, to which Gaiman replied, “Which is why I think fairy tales are very important for adults as well“.

I’m glad a friend pointed it out to me, it gives me a bigger push to read Coraline, which is already on my list. The film, which I already shared my thoughts on, was just as good the second time around.



  1. That’s a good point about adults being more scared about scary stories involving kids than kids themselves. As a parent, I can relate – it’s like you automatically picture your own child in danger. I can see how, though, for kids it can be empowering to see people like them go up against baddies and win.

  2. *nods to all of the above* Yup.

    Nice to hear Gaiman in an interview. The more I hear tim-bits about him the more I like him.

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