Rowan Williams, the theologian and former Archbishop of Canterbury, explores their meaning:
One way of understanding the fairy tale is to see it as dramatising the human confrontation with nature and “the impenetrability of destiny”. Our environment, the fairy tale says, is unpredictably hostile and destructive; it is also unpredictably full of resource. Family members may turn out to be murderous and treacherous, ordeals may face us in which our life is at stake, horror and suffering may bear no relation to merit or innocence. At the same time, animals turn out to be saviours, winds and waves mobilise to rescue us, lost parents speak to us through trees in the garden and forgotten patrons (“fairy godmothers”) turn up to support.
The amoral scheme of the world can work in our favour; we never know when help is at hand, even when we have gone astray. The message is not just that there is the possibility of justice for downtrodden younger sisters or prosperity for neglected, idle or incompetent younger sons. There is indeed, as [scholar Marina] Warner … makes clear, a strand of social resistance running through much of the old material, a strand repeatedly weakened, if not denied, by nervous rewriting. But this depends on the conviction underlying all this sort of storytelling: that the world is irrationally generous as well as unfairly hurtful. There is no justice, but there is a potentially hopeful side to anarchy, and we cannot tell in advance where we may find solidarity.
Or, to put it in more theological terms, there is certainly a problem of evil in the way the world goes; yet there is also a “problem of good” – utterly unexpected and unscripted resources in unlikely places. And at the very least this suggests to the audience for the tale a more speculatively hopeful attitude to the non-human environment as well as to other people. Just be careful how you treat a passing fox, hedgehog or thrush….