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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.

He wrote:

Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.

Fairy tales not only strengthen a child’s ability to manage real life, but also develop their imagination. Fairy world is the absolute height of imagination, since many of the creatures and characters do not even exist in our world –mermaids, dragons, elves, fairies, witches, talking animals and so much more. Children who listen and read fairy tales are inspired to discuss and play with these characters even more. They incorporate them into their own world of imagination –recreating scenes and acting them out with toys, dolls, blocks and props. These reenactments are the essence of their imagination at work. Something in the stories –the characters, their troubles, the events, the outcomes– stirs their thoughts and feelings. They feel compelled to explore this more and to bring it closer to home –to their own personal fears and struggles. They want to confront their troubles, but in a way that allows them to feel as if they have some control or effect on it. This is the fascination with being a hero or heroine. The latter have defied the odds and emerged with happiness and reward. Children want to emulate this in their own lives. They want to make sense of fairy world, so that they can make sense of their own messy world.

C. S Lewis wrote:

It would be much truer to say that fairy land arouses a longing for he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted. This is a special kind of longing.

Charlotte Mason also considered stirring the imagination of children essential to real growth. She writes in School Education that “Stories, again, of the Christmas holidays, of George and Lucy, of the amusements, foibles, and virtues of children in their own condition of life, leave nothing to the imagination. The children know all about everything so well that it never occurs to them to play at the situations in any one of these tales, or even to read it twice over. But let them have tales of the imagination, scenes laid in other lands and other times, heroic adventures, hairbreadth escapes, delicious fairy tales in which they are never roughly pulled up by the impossible––even where all is impossible, and they know it, and yet believe” (152). She believed that the imagination should and did grow over time and with nourishment.

She later continued:

Now imagination does not descend, full grown, to take possession of an empty house; like every other power of the mind, it is the merest germ of a power to begin with, and grows by what it gets; and childhood, the age of faith, is the time for its nourishing. The children should have the joy of living in far lands, in other persons, in other times––a delightful double existence; and this joy they will find, for the most part, in their story books. Their lessons, too, history and geography, should cultivate their conceptive powers. If the child do not live in the times of his history lesson, be not at home in the climes of his geography book describes, why, these lessons will fail of their purpose. But let lessons do their best, and the picture gallery of the imagination is poorly hung if the child have not found his way into the realms of fancy (153).

For children, fairy tales help build up their defenses, encourage their imagination and foster their moral growth. Additionally, fairy tales give children big ideas to consider. In Rumpelstiltskin, who is greedy? Should Hansel and Gretel’s father have left his children alone in the forest? Is it sometimes morally right to deceive than not? In “The Frog Prince”, should the princess keep her word? Should Beauty marry the Beast? These questions ask children to contemplate the right and wrong of the decisions with which the characters are faced. Greed, compassion, deceit, integrity and love are just some of the moral and ethical ideas to weigh. These are big ideas, but children love to be allowed to discuss them. Fairy tales provide a safe and imaginary vehicle in which to pursue them.

Fairy tales evoke emotion and inspire the imagination. Children are eager to share these feelings and inspiration, striving to make it a tangible part of their world. They seek beauty and wonder and, in seeking, find it. They find it in the ordinary, everyday things that many adults have forgotten to enjoy. They marvel over a ring of toadstools –is this a fairy ring? The tiny crevice at the bottom of a tree –is this a fairy home? A tiny splash or ripple of water in the pond –was that a mermaid? They marvel, wonder and admire nature. They seek beauty in all that they see and experience, even attributing it to the actions of others. Maybe that quiet, old man sitting on the park bench is lonely. Is he missing someone he loved? Maybe we should say hello to him? Children see the striking opposites of beauty and love too. The wrinkled and frowning older woman with a broom in her hand might secretly be a witch, concocting her evil plan to make all of the flowers in the world disappear. Maybe that great ugly toad is the same one that captured Thumbelina, hoping to marry her to her son. It is this liveliness of the mind –this eager seeking of wonder– that gives children all they need to appreciate poetry, music and art.

Music elicits “big feelings” and imagination. Having “big feelings” doesn’t necessarily mean they must be displayed exuberantly to be “big”. Feelings of quietness and reflection can be “big” too. Children enjoy music more if they can find a way to connect to it. Either music satisfies a need to have a feeling accentuated or embraced or the music is part of a scene or idea in the mind once the imagination has taken over. Just as in music, art too generates feelings, moods and ideas. Children view paintings, sculptures and other art forms seeking to understand or to feel. They see art as an illustration of what either is or could be. Poetry, too, pulls from their senses and summons their feelings. These all draw from the very same place from which fairy tales draw. Having read them, children are familiar with how to make the most of them. This transfers over into other realms –musical, artistic and poetical realms.

In The Parents’ Review, Miss Davidson writes:

To the influence of fairy-stories we owe much of our power to appreciate poetry. Had they not taught us to quicken our imagination and to live vividly in realms our eyes could never see, we would often fail to follow the poet’s mind or even vaguely grasp his meaning. The intellectual enjoyment of poetry and of all art is a poor thing if imagination does not accompany intellect to bring us into tune and sympathy with the artist’s soul. Fairy-tales form in themselves a very beautiful branch of literature, and to know them and love them is the child’s first step in the realms of the world’s art (Fairy Stories as a Help or Hindrance in Education”).

If we wish to take away from a child’s ability to develop these senses, feelings and ideas, then simply remove the most significant parts of the fairy tales and leave them as empty shells. Without the contrast of good and evil or the big ideas to consider, fairy tales are just simple, happy stories that only gently tap at the imagination. From Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Children, Anthony Esolen writes: “If you don’t want your child to have a mind capable of falling in love with the music of Puccini or the poetry of Dante, you had better see to the folk tales. How do you do that? … You drown the stories, or you flatten them into homogeneity….” (99)”. Choosing versions of fairy tales that have been heavily edited and altered is often the recourse that is taken for families that wish to include fairy tales, but are offended by their darkness and violence. These versions remove so much that the fairy tales are reduced to predictable plots with flat characters and empty dialogue. There’s nothing of any depth for children to contemplate. And they know this. Wouldn’t it be better to just simply wait until children are morally and developmentally ready to take them on as they are?

Fairyland also gives children the tools they need to distinguish between truth and lie –between reality and fiction. They learn very quickly that the world of fairy tales is a world set apart from their own. Heroes and heroines battle dragons and trolls, but yet befriend dwarves and fairies. These are very much characters of the imagination. Reality is watching a parent comfort a troubled neighbor or helping their grandmother safely down some steep stairs. They are very aware that the former is fiction or imaginary and the latter is real. If a child is having trouble making this distinction, then it may be that the child is not ready for fairy tales yet. Children also know the difference between truth and deceit. Fairy tales offer lessons in knowing and recognizing the difference. Should the witch have deceived Snow White (Snowdrop) by dressing as an old woman? Should Rumpelstiltskin’s father have told the King that his daughter could spin straw into gold? These questions show children that characters, just like people, face a cross in the road. They have a moment to lie or deceive or to turn away from this act. Their motivations propel them forward and the consequences unfold.

Charlotte Mason recognized this aspect of fairy tales as well. In The Parents’ Review, she wrote: “…let him learn life through the transfiguring medium of the fairy tale. But how is the fairy tale better than the tale of Tom and Harry who had each a cake sent to him at school? Simply because in the fairy tale all things are possible, and strange things come to pass. What if these things are not true? The children know perfectly the difference between the kingdom of make-believe and the arid realm of fact…” (“The Imagination of Childhood”) It’s true –much is possible in a fairy tale. Sometimes, it is through what we wish to be possible we can then discover how to make it possible. Through fairy tales, we learn how to live and how not to live. We learn which truths are real and that these truths can exist in fairyland just as well as reality. The truth of love, the truth of compassion and the truth of friendship are just as deeply felt in the alternate fairy world as in our own. Just as these truths are good, truths of evil exist too. Children learn that there is also a truth of greed, a truth of revenge and a truth of deceit. These are harder truths to learn, so by learning them in fairy tale world first, they build up their emotional armor to better face them in reality. Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller explained, “Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told me in my childhood than in any truth that is taught in life.” These lessons are very impactful and linger long into adulthood.

C. S. Lewis felt that rather than protecting children by reading only realistic stories, we actually cause more harm. In fairy tales, children know that there are many alternate outcomes, because there are some many possibilities in fairyland. In a realistic story, the outcomes are limited and much narrower. If a realistic story portrays a specific outcome in relation to an experience, and then children replicate this experience firsthand but receive a different outcome, they feel betrayed. This was sold to them as a “real” story, so they expected the outcome to be as it was given.

Lewis wrote:

The fairy tale is accused of giving children a false impression of the world they live in. But I think no literature that children could read gives them less of a false impression. I think what profess to be realistic stories for children are far more likely to deceive them. I never expected the real world to be like the fairy tales. I think that I did expect school to be like the school stories. The fantasies did not deceive me: the school stories did (“On Three Ways for Writing for Children”).

Fairy tales appear to be only windows to another world, but they are actually more a mirror to our own. It seems that children are more aware of this than we are. Bringing excitement, adventure, love, conflict and struggle to life, these tales offer children a chance to explore their own ideas and feelings within the boundaries of a nonexistent world. They learn while they are in this world and then come out on the other side ready to face the real one. Fairyland should not be completely free of threats, evil and horrible consequences, because to remove them extinguishes the very real dangers that children intuitively know exist. They want to struggle with these ideas, because they want to understand them; it’s a part of growing up. Having said this, it is not necessary to place the utmost in ugliness in front of children. There can and should be some editing. It’s also important that we move away from this idea that preschoolers are meant for fairy tales. These tales are meant for slightly older children. Preschoolers can enjoy folktales and nursery tales and some picture book versions of some fairy tales. The remainder, particularly the heavier fairy tales, should be delayed –this way they can be read as they are. Fairyland should not be too safe, because if it is it’s not true. And anything that isn’t safe should be experienced in the safety of fairyland.


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