Should Fairyland be Safe?

“It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart.” – J.R.R. Tolkien.

While some families today might question why fairy tales are even included at the elementary level in a curriculum –aren’t these meant for preschool children– others will question the type of fairy tales included. In the former case, no, fairy tales are not the domain of preschool children only –in fact, they may be best reserved for slightly older children. In the latter case, the types of fairy tales are significant when age and maturity are brought into the discussion. Fairy tales in their original forms are often strange and violent. Some are better saved for later and some are better completely left out. And in an effort to navigate around these problems, don’t exchange the original tales for those which have been adapted. If you must read adapted fairy tales, then you may be reading them too soon. Our culture needs to change the way we categorize these tales. These were not meant for the very young, but instead should be reserved for those old enough to take in the more advanced vocabulary, complicated sentence structure and grapple with big ideas. Read folktales and nursery stories such as “The Three Little Pigs” and “The Little Red Hen” to the very young, while saving “The Ugly Duckling” and “The Little Mermaid” for slightly older children. There are many beautiful and deeply moving picture books for very young children which –along with nursery rhymes and poetry– can be added to folk and nursery tales if more selections are needed.

Fairy tales –

1. help develop morality

2. offer children a shield or shelter when confronting evil

3. inspire and encourage imagination

4. give children heavy issues and ideas to contemplate

5. help children better appreciate poetry, music and art

6. provide children with the tools needed to distinguish between truth and lie –between reality and fiction

The importance of offering children opportunities to develop their own moral compass and to question big ideas can’t be understated. Charlotte Mason not only included religion in her original programs, but also included many other moral development possibilities. Including fairy tales was just one of these opportunities. In Ourselves, she wrote: “A child gets moral notions from the fairy tales he delights in, as do his elders from tale and verse” (Mason 10). Fairy tales provide children with almost every example of humanity at its best and at its worst. Told through engaging characters and dramatic events, children are captivated by the ideas put forth. The stark distinction of those who are good and those who are not are not hard to distinguish between. In fairyland, evil is punished and good is rewarded. In The Parents’ Review, Mason writes: “Is it perhaps the element of infinity in children that makes the fairy-tale world necessary? However it is, we need not be alarmed, for these tales make for righteousness, for the punishment of the evil-doer and the praise of them that do well” (“The Imagination in Childhood”). This clarity of morality helps children sort out their own moral code. They can align their own burgeoning thoughts and feelings of what is right and wrong to the lessons they are learning through fairy tales.

In another edition of The Parents’ Review, Mason wrote of “Moral Instruction”. She set forth the idea that lessons in morality must strike a sensitive balance between putting forth moments for growth, but yet not push too forcefully. Children want and need to be allowed to assimilate their thoughts and feelings on their own time table. She writes: “Moral instruction is a very delicate matter, chiefly because, in attempting to give it, we are in danger of invading that liberty of the individual which every child is on the watch to safeguard. What we may offer is sanction, motive, knowledge, opportunity, the sense of power, and, by way of incidental stimuli, a wide range of reading in the “humanities” (“Moral Instruction”). Often morality is not a battle between external forces, but instead between internal forces. Children are deciding between right and wrong within their own hearts. Mason writes: “This baffling human nature of ours, which we cannot understand, is, after all, human nature, and what we want to see is a sort of panorama of human nature. Such a panorama should help us to realize that our dreams fall short of the truth, that each of us has indeed a great and beautiful person within him, only waiting to be produced to the world; but, that this beauteous person has many enemies, also within. St. George and the dragon is a fable which each of us is called to enact” (“Moral Instruction”). Fairy tales provide a wonderful “panorama of human nature” in that they feature a great variety of moral conflicts and characters who struggle with them.

The original fairy tales are often fairly criticized as too dark and too violent. Their stark illustration of evil and wrong can be almost overwhelming. This leads many loving parents to believe that fairy tales are not appropriate and to choose to omit them entirely. Every family should always do what they think is best. However, removing fairy tales entirely will deny children the chance to face violence and darkness in fairyland –and this world is not real. They know this and can better battle the darkness of someone else’s world before having to confront it in their own. Many famous authors, some who wrote specifically for children, have acknowledged this truth. C. S. Lewis, author of many works, including the popular Narnia series wrote: “Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.” J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and the LOTR trilogy wrote: “A safe fairyland is untrue to all worlds.” Fairyland should not be a safe place in the sense that all real danger, suffering and cruelty have been removed in exchange for safety, pleasantness and perfection. This is inauthentic and children know this too. They know that the former elements exist and to create a world where it does not rings false –even to them. This certainly does not mean that we should expose children to all of the ugliness of the real world –and even all of the ugliness of fairyland– but, it does mean that it’s important that some of these elements should remain, and, incased in the cocoon of child-appropriate fairyland, the ugliness can be somewhat kept at bay. This cocoon acts a buffer between the harshness of evil and of reality.

Even Charlotte Mason knew that while fairy tales had their heaviness, children could learn to cope with the harsher realities of life through the safety of story.

In School Education, she writes:

We temper life too much for children. I am not sure that we let life and its circumstances have free play about children. We temper the wind too much to the lambs; pain and sin, want and suffering, disease and death––we shield them from the knowledge of these at all hazards. I do not say that we should wantonly expose the tender souls to distress, but that we should recognize that life has a ministry for them also; and that Nature provides them with a subtle screen, like that of its odor to a violet, from damaging shocks. Some of us will not even let children read fairy tales because these bring the ugly facts of life too suddenly before them (Mason 183-4).

She felt that “fairy lore [acted] as a screen and shelter to children”. She went on to describe how Wordsworth had experienced a particularly harrowing experience in real life, but wrote of how fairyland had helped him to cope with it, acting as protection from its dreadfulness. She further wrote, “It is delightful to know, on the evidence of a child who went through it, that a terrible scene was separated from him by an atmosphere of poetry––a curtain woven of fairy lore by his etherealizing imagination” (184).

These stories need not be overdramatized or read with a push towards creating a “scary” effect, but as Mason describes we should read them in “a quiet, matter-of-fact tone in speaking of fire, shipwreck, or any terror” (185). There is no need to create fear and anxiety through effect. She concludes: “All I would urge is a natural treatment of children, and that they be allowed their fair share of life, such as it is; prudence and not panic should rule our conduct towards them” (185). The main idea is that children can encounter darkness and evil though the fairy tale, so that their earliest experiences are in the safety of an imaginary world. The characters and events are not real and are distant from their own world. Remember, many stories begin with the words “In a land far, far away…”, so children are told that this is not really “close” to them. Children can relate and connect to the characters, feel sympathy, frustration, outrage and sadness for them, and, in doing so, exercise their own feelings and thoughts as to what they would do in a similar situation.

And while many fairy tales are very clear about who is good and who is not, some of the lengthier and more complex tales have characters of definite shades of gray. The latter being too much for very young children to read clearly. Their actions and motivations are muddier. This is where the discretion of the teacher and the curriculum writer come into play. The heavier fairy tales should be saved for when children are slightly older.

G. K. Chesterton, like Tolkien and Lewis, felt that fairy tales gave children the practice they needed to learn to cope with reality.