Once Upon a Time: The lure of the fairy tale by Joan Acocella is a new article at The New Yorker--dated for 7/23/2012 but appearing today online.
The article is lengthy and mostly draws from the works of Jack Zipes and Maria Tatar as well as some of the usual books recommended over and over here on SurLaLune. I'm adding images (with links) to this post here for easier reference.
Much of what is discussed in the article will not be new to those who have read much fairy tale scholarship, but the article is an excellent overview of theories and sources.
Here's the final two paragraphs which I think sums it up quite nicely:
Does the violence in the Grimm collection need a symbolic reading? Marina Warner, in her book on fairy tales, “From the Beast to the Blonde” (1994), says that most modern writers ignore the Grimms’ “historical realism.” Among the pre-modern populations, she records, death in childbirth was the most common cause of female mortality. The widowers tended to remarry, and the new wife often found that her children had to compete for scarce resources with the children of the husband’s earlier union. Hence the wicked stepmothers. As for the scarcity of resources, Robert Darnton has written that a peasant’s basic diet around that time consisted of a porridge of bread and water, sometimes with a few homegrown vegetables thrown in. Often, there was not even porridge. In the Grimm story “The Children Living in a Time of Famine” (Tatar moved this, too, into “Tales for Adults”), a mother says to her two daughters, “I will have to kill you so that I’ll have something to eat.” The little girls beg to live. Each goes out and somehow finds a piece of bread to bring back. But it is not enough. The mother again says to the girls that they must die: “To which they responded, ‘Dearest Mother, we’ll lie down and go to sleep, and we won’t rise again until Judgment Day.’ ” And so they lie down together and die. This is a hair-raising story, but also, I think, a wishful fantasy—that the children might die without crying.
And so you could say that the Grimm tales are no different from other art. They merely concretize and then expand our experience of life. The main reason that Zipes likes fairy tales, it seems, is that they provide hope: they tell us that we can create a more just world. The reason that most people value fairy tales, I would say, is that they do not detain us with hope but simply validate what is. Even people who have never known hunger, let alone a murderous stepmother, still have a sense—from dreams, from books, from news broadcasts—of utter blackness, the erasure of safety and comfort and trust. Fairy tales tell us that such knowledge, or fear, is not fantastic but realistic. Maybe, after this life, we will go to Heaven, as the two little girls who starved to death hoped to. Or maybe not. Though Wilhelm tried to Christianize the tales, they still invoke nature, more than God, as life’s driving force, and nature is not kind.