Are Fairy Tales Bad for Children? Part Two: The Wonders of the Fairy Tale Helper or Donor

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“Dreaming of Snow White,” by Franz Schrotzberg, in the Public Domain

Tolkien states in his essay, “On Fairy-Stories” (read it here) that fairy tales are not more suited to children than adults, particularly, and that ”

in fact only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them; and when they have it, it is not exclusive, nor even necessarily dominant. It is a taste, too, that would not appear, I think, very early in childhood without artificial stimulus; it is certainly one that does not decrease but increases with age, if it is innate.”

I think he’s right. Personally speaking, I don’t remember being read fairy tales as a child—I rather came across them on my own, and then sought them out myself throughout grade school. I would say that from about age 8 through 12 years old I was somewhat obsessed with them, reading the Grimm’s tales and the whole gamut of Andrew Lang’s colored fairy books, as well as books about Greek, Roman and Norse mythology.

Short film versions of “The Happy Prince,” and “The Little Mermaid” (original story!) were shown on Canadian television every year around Christmas when I was a girl, and they held great sway over me: it’s impossible to articulate what a profound effect they exerted on my young soul. Had they been sanitized—e.g., the little mermaid is never faced with her dilemma of either killing the prince or being obliterated herself; the swallow in the Happy Prince makes it to Egypt and all is well in the Prince’s city—these stories would have meant nothing to me. (Even as a child I was not big on the moralizing about good and naughty children at the end of Anderson’s tale, although I did love the idea of “the daughters of the air”—they just should have been left as mysterious beings.)

Here’s the rub: children face difficulties, and heartaches, however we strive to protect them, and must make sense of a world teeming with loss, suffering, unfairness, immense challenges, and yes, also tragedy, cruelty and death. And it’s important to acknowledge that the reality of dark forces is both external and internal (the original “Star Wars” series captures this idea very well): some of the great minds of psychology have emphasized the intrapsychic nature of such stories, the fact that they symbolize universal aspects of the psyche and the particular internal dynamics within individuals:

Children feel anger and hostility, violent emotion and feelings of helplessness and fairy-stories enable them to realize that they are not alone, that others have such feelings and living involves a struggle between good and bad, fortune and misfortune. Fairy tales appeal to both sides of reality and help children deal with their own deep inner conflicts. Often dreams have a fairy tale quality about them and you can help children work through nightmares by making this connection. (Dream Time with Children: Learning to Dream, Dreaming to Learn by Brenda Mallon, p. 70)

I find fairy tales gratifying because they are for the most part balanced, incorporating dark, evil, or ignorant characters or elements as well as those who are eminently good-hearted, wise and brave. Usually, although not always, the latter types of characters prevail. More often than not they do so with the aid of some sort of magical helper, e.g. the little doll in “Vasalisa the Brave,” the grey wolf in the Russian story “The Firebird,” the spirit of a dead thief in the Norse tale “The Companion,” the kind and mysterious old woman in the German tale “The True Bride.”

I’ll write more about this element of fairy tales in a subsequent post. For now I will say that this element was probably one of the most important to me, psychologically, and I don’t think I’m alone in this. How comforting to have help from a magical “other” at your service, in your time of great need? (This is probably a variety of the “religious impulse” of the psyche at work.) When you are older, more academically-minded perhaps, you can understand these others as “just” or “only” aspects of yourself. But at the time that you read them, imagine them, or dream them, they are potently real, autonomous, mysterious, and a little spooky: anything but “just” or “only.” And I’m guessing that for young children this potency is not yet diluted, lucky for them. (Not because they can’t distinguish reality from make-believe, but because for them make-believe has not yet been dismissed as unimportant.) This helper or donor element of fairy tales is anything but “bad” for children, in the sense of polluting their young minds; it is rather a source of awe and a beacon of hope and trust in the midst of an inherently dangerous world, both inside the metaphorical world of the tale, and in the outside world of literal realities.

Stay tuned for Part Three of “Are Fairy Tales Bad for Children”. . .

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