Fairy tales for peace

Alice Konig
Monday 5 February 2024

In this presentation, Visualising Peace student Kim Wahnke discusses some of the research she has been doing on storytelling a positive peacebuilding intervention. She looks particularly at the role played by fairytales, sometimes in militarising young people but also in moral, religious, political and peace education. Kim’s research ties into our wider study of peace literature, and you will find lots of entries on storytelling in our virtual Museum of Peace, as well as a range of scholarship on peace literature in our library. Below the video, you can find a summary of the publications which Kim discusses in her presentation. These are also available in our Visualising Peace Library.

Rizzardi, B. (2019). ‘Once Upon a Time’ by Nadine Gordimer: A Fairy Tale for Peace. Le Simplegadi, (19), pp.43–52. doi: https://doi.org/10.17456/simple-127

The article is an analysis of “Once upon a Time: a Fairy Tale of Suburban Life” by Nadine Gordimer as a peace fairy tale. The book, published under apartheid, aims to connect different communities and show privileged white people the realities of the system that they live under. The fairy tale tells a story of a white family that wants to keep feeling peaceful in their home and  therefore continuously instals protection mechanisms against the outside world. To protect themselves from the disruption of riots and “coloured people”, they install barbed wire. Their child, after hearing “Sleeping Beauty”, tries to be the prince and climb across the wire, resulting in his death. 

The article shows that the family’s fairy-tale-esque existence depends on “protection” and a continuous fear of “the other”. The irony of the thing aiming to keep black people out leading to the death of the white child shows the roles of good and evil intersecting and being reversed. Not only is this piece a critique of apartheid, it also opposes the use of securitisation to secure peace, as well as the process of securing peace for one group by othering another. The intense fear of others (often based on stereotypes) is what grounds harm in the story. The dead child is then used to illuminate the ultimate cost of this violence of exclusion. The piece also shows us how peace for one group at the cost of another cannot exist and can never be a comprehensive form of peace.

Moskalenko, S. (2023). Fairy Tales in War and Conflict: The Role of Early Narratives in Mass Psychology of Political Violence. Peace Review, pp.1–10. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/10402659.2023.2181662.

The article discusses how cultural differences expressed in fairy tale narratives are able to illustrate different cultural groups’ behaviour in high-stress (e.g. conflict) situations. Through identification with the characters and using the tales as models for their significant quests, children enshrine fairy tale reactions into their repertoire of behaviours. These behaviours can still impact their actions in adulthood in the case of high-stress, high-stakes moral dilemmas, especially in war and conflict. This thesis was applied to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, where Russian soldiers’ incompetence was connected to local fairy tale narratives of luck leading to a happy ending. Ukrainian resistance on the other hand was connected to cultural narratives of an underdog succeeding through its wits and will. 

The tremendous influence of fairy tales on the actions of adults can help conceptualise the importance of storytelling for children for both conflict and peace. Ethical and moral standards invoked in fairy tales build an underlying layer of behavioural standards for the masses, that can shine through in high-stake situations. This gives a deep value to peace education projects grounded in fairy tales and promotes them as a culturally adaptive learning tool for behaviours. Focusing on the behaviours taught in fairy tales not only allows an improved understanding of people’s actions in war, but also in post-war peace-building and within fights for justice (e.g. in the Ukrainian Euromaidan protests). Looking more deeply into the kinds of actions sanctioned or promoted in fairy tales can help with better understanding and adapting to cultural differences in responses to peace and conflict.

Simpson, P.A. (2011). Recoding the Ethics of War in Grimms’ Fairy Tales. In: E. Krimmer and P.A. Simpson, eds., Enlightened War German Theories and Cultures of Warfare from Frederick the Great to Clausewitz. Boydell & Brewer, pp.151–172. URL: https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/B8D0D8628BCD1DDA08F159DF3B448423/9781571137630c6_p151-172_CBO.pdf/recoding-the-ethics-of-war-in-grimms-fairy-tales.pdf.

The article centres three different fairy tales by Grimm that deal with the post conflict reintegration of soldiers into society as well as their poverty and abuses within the military hierarchy. In both “The Devil and His Grandmother” and “The Devil’s Sooty Brother”, underpaid and desperate soldiers make pacts with the devil, but emerge healthy and wealthy. The critique is towards wealthy kings not paying them enough and sergeants treating soldiers terribly. The devil here has a higher moral ranking than the king/ army officers. In “Bearskin”, the soldier is rejected by his family and his military skills (shooting) prove useless after conflict. In a pact with the devil, he loses his human appearance and only after seven years, he is allowed to shave. This is him rehumanising and then coming home to his new wife, to domesticity. 

These critical fairy tales are set in a time where nationalism and war fever were highly valued in European societies. Yet, even though conflict is implicitly part of the stories, the treatment of powerful people and of society doesn’t value soldiers but puts them in penury. The stories serve as an important reminder that work towards peace building is not done at the end of conflict and that people involved in the war effort can’t just immediately assume their “normal” positions in a post conflict society. Both difficulties in post-conflict recovery and inequalities and abuses of soldiers in the military are uncovered.  The perversion of the devil being the soldier’s helper and society harming them distorts ideas of good and evil and of who disturbs or helps with building peace.

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