Once Upon A Time: 10 life lessons from fairy tales

Once upon a time, I stopped watching Disney and started reading the original fairy tales, and my life went downhill from there. Find out ten important life lessons I’ve carried into adulthood from these stories.

A few things can be learned from a childhood spent devouring Greek myths, Arabian legends and the classic tales of Grimm, Perrault and Andersen. Life is difficult and challenging; bad things happen to good people; the course of true love never runs smooth; and we all live happily ever after.

Unless this life is a Hans Christian Andersen story, in which case we’ll die miserable and alone.


1. Peter Pan: Girls are always going to be more mature than boys.

FAR peter pan .jpg copIllustration for ‘Peter Pan’ by J.M. Barrie (gouache on paper), Anne Grahame Johnstone / Private Collection / ©Anne Grahame Johnstone / Bridgeman Images

“One girl is worth more use than 20 boys.” ― J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

You might want to stay a lost boy forever, your girlfriend probably won’t. Let’s not forget that Wendy decided to get her act together and grow up, taking all the other boys back to London with her, and leaving Peter on his own to stay young forever in Neverland. 


2. Little Red Riding Hood: Invest in good eye care.

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Little Red Riding Hood, Arthur Rackham / Private Collection / Bridgeman Images

Everyone needs to venture off the beaten track at some point in his or her life, so no one can blame Red for doing that. But confusing a wolf for your grandmother? That’s just inexcusable.


3. Alice in Wonderland: Just do it.

FAR tea party copy

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, illustration from ‘Alice in Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll (colour litho), John Tenniel / Private Collection / Bridgeman Images

Throw all caution to the wind and have a grand adventure! Follow the white rabbit, drink from that mysterious bottle and go to tea parties with strangers. You’ve already made so many other inadvisable decisions in your life – what’s the worst that can happen?


4. Tristan and Isolde: Sometimes love is forever.

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The Love Potion, intended for Isolde the Fair and King Mark of Cornwall, but drunk by Tristan and Isolde the Fair, from ‘The Story of Tristan and Isolde’, William Morris & Co. (stained glass), Dante Gabriel Charles Rossetti (1828-82) / Bradford Art Galleries and Museums, West Yorkshire, UK / Bridgeman Images

The love triangle to end all Arthurian love triangles: Sir Tristan and Princess Isolde fall in love (by magic potion or poor judgement) and cannot bear to be apart even when Isolde marries to King Mark, Tristan’s uncle. Eventually the adulterous couple are discovered, Tristan is killed and Isolde dies of a broken heart. This immoral legend reminds us that, in some cases, you just can’t just “get over them”. 


5. The Little Mermaid: Sometimes you can’t have the one you want.

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The Little Mermaid before a statue in the sea, illustration for a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, from ‘Album du Pere Castor’ published by Flammarion, 1937 (colour engraving), Ivan Jakovlevich Bilibin / Private Collection / © Archives Charmet / Bridgeman Images

You may love him with all your heart. You may leave your family, give up your voice and change yourself to be with him. But, as the original Hans Christian Andersen story shows, you can’t make him fall in love with you. This tragic tale pulls no punches and teaches us from a young age that you don’t always get your prince, no matter how hard you try.


6. The Frog Princess: Give people a chance.

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The Frog King or Iron Henry (colour litho), Paul Hey / Private Collection / Ackermann Kunstverlag / © Estate of Paul Hey / Bridgeman Images

Let’s get one thing clear: the princess in question only kissed one frog, who just so happened to be a handsome prince under a spell. So you don’t actually need to kiss many frogs, you just need to kiss the right frog – but frog-kissing is still essential, so give that guy or gal a chance and it might just pay off.


7. Cinderella: It’s not what you know but who you know.

FAR cinderella.jpg copCinderella leaving for the Ball, Arthur Rackham / Private Collection / Bridgeman Images


 Never forget the importance of networking: where would Cinderella be without her fairy godmother? Most likely still sweeping cinders out of the fireplace. While many fairy tales commend success through one’s skill, talent and hard work, this story reminds us that friends in high places can also give us a boost up.


8. Love Like Salt: Biological family can be as bad as stepfamilies.

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Cordelia’s Portion, (oil on canvas), Ford Madox Brown / Southampton City Art Gallery, Hampshire, UK / Southampton city Art Gallery / Bridgeman Images

A king casts away his daughter in a fit of anger because she claims to love him “as much as food loves salt”. Fairy tales most commonly feature stepmothers who snub the children, but this international story – with versions found from Italian to Indian literature and even influenced the beginning of William Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ – shows that blood fathers can be just as malicious.


9. Cupid and Psyche: It’s never too late to make amends.

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France, Lyon, Love and psyche, Simon Vouet / Musee des Beaux-Arts, Lyon, France / © De Agostini Picture Library / Bridgeman Images

The classic Greek myth – girl meets boy, girl wrongs boy, boy leaves girl, girl travels far and wide, performs three Impossible Tasks and eventually wins boy back – inspired countless more stories for centuries after. Psyche messes up at crucial moments but her continual perseverance to find Cupid again eventually gains her immortality and ‘happily ever after’ – which goes to show that a mistake is not fatal and you can always right your wrongs.


10. 1001 Arabian Nights: Read more books.

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Scheherazade, Poster design for the Pageant of Beauty series for Pears’ soap (litho), Oakdale / © Look and Learn / Bridgeman Images

Scheherazade, the wise and cunning protagonist, extended her life each night by ending her tales on a cliff-hanger. Her storytelling, intelligence and passion for learning eventually overcomes her cold and distrusting husband, King Shahryar, and saves her life. Surely there’s a moral in there somewhere.


What lessons have you learnt from fairytales and childhood stories? Let me know in the comment box below!


Find out more

See more images in the Bridgeman archive of children’s literature, including Scandinavian folklore, Wind in the Willows, Chronicles of Narnia and The Hobbit.

Get in touch with the team on uksales@bridgemanimages.com with enquiries about licensing images and clearing copyright.

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