The Portrait of a Graduate series aims to publish pieces by recent graduates of classical Christian schools. Not only do we hope to encourage these students in future writing endeavors by publishing their pieces, but we also hope that the excellence shown in these pieces serves as a small portrait of what classical Christian schools hope their students will be able to do with a classical Christian education.
The Importance of Once Upon a Time
by Rachel Snyder, School of the Ozarks, Class of 2016
When I was a young girl, my days were filled with countless fairy tales rich with vicious dragons, wicked stepmothers, glass slippers, handsome princes, and, of course, happily ever after. Whether read from story books or relayed in Disney movies, the stories of Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, and so many others were familiar to me, and were engrained into my mind and heart from an early age. As I grew, I found the same recurring stories simply disguised in other contexts. My beloved classic Cinderella reappeared in popular movies such as A Cinderella Story in which the school’s star athlete falls in love with a girl who works at a diner, Another Cinderella Story in which a famous singer seeks out a girl after dancing with her once, Enchanted with a twist in which the soon-to-be princess falls down a well and into reality, and others. Just recently Disney released their own remake with live action stars of the famous rags-to-riches story. These and countless other depictions of the tale of Cinderella capture and recapture this classic tale.
It would seem from the recurrence of this single story that culture is obsessed with the magical world of fairy tales. Yet as time progresses, more and more people oppose the perpetuation of fairy tales for their content and messages with cries of, “It is silly to wish to be a princess when you grow up,” or, “No prince is going to come save you, so you better put those stories away and start preparing for the real world.” The question, then, is should our attitude toward fairy tales lean more towards obsession or opposition, or perhaps even a combination of both? At one point, fairy tales were considered a part of childhood, a natural occurrence. However, somewhere along the line, a large majority of culture has adopted a negative view of fairy tales, claiming them to be unrealistic, ludicrous, and even deleterious to the development of children.
My purpose in my following remarks is to defend the value of fairy tales in the lives of children. First, I will discuss their historical and cultural significance, then I will attempt to show their importance in the development of imagination, and finally I will seek to explore how they can assist in effectively instilling a correct worldview aligning with Scripture in children. Following these arguments, I will speak to counterarguments posed as to why fairy tales are not beneficial, and perhaps even detrimental, to introduce into the lives of children. Finally, I hope to bring everything I have said back together to convince you that fairy tales are not damaging, but rather enriching in the lives of children, and should be encouraged in the early developmental period.
One basic aspect which contributes to the value of fairy tales is their undeniable significance both in history and culture. Historically, fairy tales are believed to have stemmed from real events, and many have been around for a significant amount of time. It is even thought that some of the tales precede written record through oral tradition thousands of years ago (Fairy tale origins thousands of years old, researchers say, 2016). These oral traditions then trickled down into various cultures as time progressed. In this aspect, fairy tales are a crucial part of a shared cultural history. In 1893 (Cox), it was estimated that three hundred and forty-five variations of the classic Cinderella were circulated throughout the world, and shortly one hundred years thereafter another study found that five hundred variations of the tale existed in Europe alone (Huck, 1993). The pervasiveness of fairy tales makes them not only part of cultural tradition, but a cross-cultural connection. Though not everyone may know the exact tale of Cinderella, nearly everyone has a concept of the basic plot and main themes. Because of this, fairy tales are a way of overcoming racial and ethnicity-based obstacles and function as common ground between all societies. Due to their rich past, fairy tales add to children’s historical and cultural perspective in ways that kinds of nonfiction literature composed of dry facts cannot.
Fairy tales not only add to children’s understanding of past and present cultures, but assist in their future contribution to culture by fostering the imagination. They contain creatures and circumstances which surpass personal experience and thus expand the mind’s power to think beyond the stereotypical bounds of reality. In this, children who are familiar with fairy tales practice wrestling with concepts beyond what they can actually see, which produces a higher level of thinking than simply comprehending the tangible. It is from people who have learned to function in levels of thinking beyond the norm that arise unmatched feats in areas such as invention, architecture, and other various forms of art. One study of fairy tales and the effect they have on children found that “stories in particular provide an excellent medium for expression. Stories provide a rich language full of expressive and creative possibilities giving children an outlet for their experiences in their own world without any adult intervention or interpretation of that experience” (Al-Jafar & Buzzelli, 2004, p. 37). It is essential to give children space to express their own creativity and imagination, and fairy tales serve as a perfect avenue to do so. It may be that fairy tales could aid in nurturing the mind of the next Einstein, Mozart, Michelangelo, or other trail-blazing virtuoso of our day.
Not only do fairy tales encourage imagination, but they prove a strong tool in establishing a view of the world which aligns with the Christian faith. Of course, Christianity does not function on a basis of talking animals or fairy godmothers, but the makeup of fairy tales can relay biblical truths in a more relatable way, or enhance them to points of greater or deeper understanding. Surely one cannot grasp the fullness of God, so it may be reasonable to consider the possibility that the fairy tale, which has no limits, can attempt to reveal His world and His character better than logical statements bound by our own finiteness. For example, in speaking to grasping the gravity of the sufferings of Christ and the Gospel, C.S. Lewis posed the fairy tale genre as a way to overcome complacency:
“Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that casting all of these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of the stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could” (Lewis, 1966, p. 37).
In addition to the enchantment of fairy tales aiding in breaking through comprehension barriers, they reflect in their truest form elements which are crucial to the Christian faith, such as gentleness, kindness, courage, and sacrifice. G.K. Chesterton, in his book Orthodoxy, draws attention to the lessons engrained into common stories. For example, he refers to Jack the Giant Killer as an assault against pride, Cinderella as a picture of the lowly being lifted up, Beauty and the Beast of the idea that often a thing must be loved before it is loveable, and Sleeping Beauty as a depiction of death truly amounting to sleep because of the intervention of love (Chesterton, 2013, p. 47). Fairy tales can serve as effective tools in illustrating such truths and virtues and encouraging children to hold fast to and cultivate them. Undoubtedly, it is imperative to facilitate healthy discussion and application of the messages of fairy tales, and aid children in pulling out Biblical truths for emulation. If this is done well, aspects of fairy tales can prove a powerful representation of the Christian life.
At this point, I have made three arguments in favor of the reading of fairy tales, namely their historic and cultural background, expansion of the imagination, and assistance in constructing an appropriate Christian worldview. Though these points may seem thoroughly convincing, it is still a widespread cultural stance that fairy tales are unsuitable for children, and this conclusion is not without premises. In this speech, I will only address three of the main arguments attacking fairy tales, specifically the claims that they contain terrifying content, build unrealistic expectations, and serve as a form of escapism.
It would be foolish to deny fairy tales often contain graphic scenes or depictions of evil, because it would be contrary to their basic composition in which good must overcome a source of evil. Yet I think it should be carefully noted that there is a colossal difference between the existence of evil and the endorsement of evil. The former is surely a component of nearly every fairy tale, but the latter is glaringly absent. It is the essential nature of fairy tales for good to triumph over evil. I’ve yet to hear of a boy who wished he was the slain dragon rather than the heroic prince, or of a young girl who desired to be the cruel mother Gothel instead of the innocent Rapunzel. One also must be careful not to forget that the world is indeed filled with violence, death, and wickedness. Simply banning every story which contains such things doesn’t change the fact that they exist. Lewis warns that in only relaying “blameless stories of child life in which nothing at all alarming ever happens, you fail to banish the terrors, and would succeed in banishing all that can ennoble them or make them endurable” (Lewis, 1966, pp. 31-32). It may be that attempting to shield children from the frightening actually hinders in teaching them effective ways to deal with the presence of evil. In another essay, Lewis stated that “since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage…Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book” (Rigney, 2011). Author N.D. Wilson actually composed an entire article called “Why I Write Scary Stories for Children”, addressing how using frightening and dark images in children’s stories are beneficial in helping children overcome fears. In the article he states his purpose in using such images: “The goal isn’t to steer kids into stories of darkness because those are the stories that grip readers. The goal is to put darkness in its place” (Wilson, 2016). Though it has to be done with discernment and appropriate timing, introducing concepts which are potentially frightening and disturbing is healthy. In fact, doing so in a safe environment within the controlled plot in which good consistently overcomes evil and in the family setting is perhaps the best place do to so.
Many have also accepted the position that fairy tales are unhealthy for children in the sense that they are unrealistic and deceiving. These opponents of fairy tales assert that the stories lead children on to believe in mythical creatures and happily ever after, both of which simply do not exist in reality. However, this is a very surface-level reading. The point is not that dragons or witches are real, but that good triumphs over evil in the end; not that all stepmothers are wicked, but that evil invades and one must always be on guard; not that kisses have magical capabilities to awaken a sleeping damsel or tears accompanied by a song can bind up wounds, but that love heals, conquers, and brings life. Fairy tales are not full of deception, but of deeper meaningful truths, and the search to discover them and the emotional journey which leads to them are just as valuable as the truths themselves. To those who say that fairy tales are unrealistic, I say it is more arguable that they contain the very essence of reality.
The final claim I will answer is that fairy tales serve as a method of escapism, into which children retreat and don’t learn to function in the real world. The same argument can be posed against realistic stories which depict great feats, however in these cases there is no extra element in play, so protagonists succeed not due to any supernatural power but simply despite extremely impossible odds. Stories such as these are more likely to disappoint than fairy tales which claim no standing in reality. Furthermore, fairy tales don’t deny struggle, but rather offer hope in light of difficulty. J.R.R. Tolkien addresses how fairy tales actually promote engaging the world with joy:
“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’ (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist,’ nor ‘fugitive.’ In its fairy-tale – or otherworld – setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophy, of sorrow and failure; the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glance of Joy, Joy beyond the walls or the world, poignant as grief” (Tolkien, 1947, p. 81).
Fairy tales, then, are not a method of escapism but a framework of engaging the world with an appropriate attitude and maintaining hope in grace, deliverance, and a joy to come which surpasses current sorrow. Prince Philip without hesitation endures the thorns and dragon’s fire for the future hope of being united with Aurora. Ariel gives up her voice trusting that it will one day be returned to her when love has triumphed. This pressing on towards a goal in spite of difficulty sounds similar to Paul’s encouragement in Romans 8: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” We, too, have a future hope to pull us forward, as Christ proclaimed in John 16:33, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” Fairy tales are not a way to retreat from the world, but a charge to face it with courage. In conclusion, they should not be pushed aside absentmindedly as a method of escapism.
Here I come to the end of my refutation of those who have disregarded fairy tales as having any value whatsoever. Instead, I have shown how fairy tales, because of their extended and diverse past, are historically and culturally significant. I have also argued for fairy tales as a way to encourage imagination, and afterwards as a tool to develop a proper worldview. I then addressed those who attacked fairy tales with three main arguments. First, fairy tales are not to be thrown out because of scary content, for with appropriate timing and to a fitting extent, it is healthy to expose children to potentially scary things in order to teach them how to cope with them. Secondly, fairy tales are not unrealistic and deceptive to children, but rather recount deeper, meaningful truths. Finally, fairy tales are not a method of escapism, but lay a foundation for facing struggles while maintaining hope in the future. All in all, fairy tales should not be excluded from the lives of children, but rather extended to them as a historically and culturally rich, mind sharpening, and edifying piece of literature. In doing so, we can help to raise up children of intellect, imagination, and noble character. We should be embracing dragons and dungeons, kings and queens, curses and quests, “once upon a time” and “happily ever after,” because nothing else can equip our children better to understand the past, press on in the present, and make an impact in the future.
Al-Jafar, A., & Buzzelli, C. A. (2004). The Art of Storytelling for Cross Cultural Understanding. International Journal of Early Childhood, 35-48.
Chesterton, G. (2013). Orthodoxy.
Cox, M. R. (1893). Cinderella: Three Hundred and Forty-Five Variants of Cinderella, Catskin, and Cap O’ Rushes, Abstracted and Tabulated. London: David Nutt.
Fairy tale origins thousands of years old, researchers say. (2016, January 20). Retrieved April 3, 2016, from BBC News: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-35358487
Huck, C. S. (1993). Children’s Literature in the Elementary School. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers.
Lewis, C. (1966). On Three Ways of Writing for Children. In Of Other Worlds Essays and Stories. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.
Rigney, J. (2011, July 6). Three Objections to Fairy Tales and C.S. Lewis’s Response. Retrieved April 20, 2016, from Desiring God: http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/three-objections-to-fairy-tales-and-c-s-lewiss-response
Tolkien, J. (1947). On Fairy Stories. In Essays Presented to Williams. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Wilson, N.D. (2016, April 20). Why I Write Scary Stories for Children. Retrieved from The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/04/why-i-write-scary-stories-for-children/478977/