Children Need Fairy-Tales…and So Do Adults

There are some refusals which, though they may be done what is called conscientiously, yet carry so much of their whole horror in the very act of them, that a man must in doing them not only harden but slightly corrupt his heart. One of them was the refusal of milk to young mothers when their husbands were in the field against us. Another is the refusal of fairy-tales to children.

Two years ago, when we first moved to Nevada, I went to a mother’s group that’s held at a local church to try and make some friends. There were lots and lots of women there, and after we sat around some tables, ate some food and chatted for a while a speaker gave a talk about something. I don’t honestly remember what the talk was about, just that it wasn’t particularly interesting. But what I do remember was the conversation afterward. They passed out this sheet of questions based on the speaker’s talk for us to discuss at our respective tables. I guess she must have talked about lying at some point because one of the questions was, “Do you believe it is acceptable to lie to your children about things such as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny?”

The question itself made my jaw drop. Lie? About Santa Claus?

But their answers made me furious and vaguely nauseous. Without exception, every single woman at the table agreed that to tell children “lies” in an effort to “amuse them” was still “lying.”

I didn’t respond. I actually was so angry and upset that I couldn’t order my thoughts enough to guarantee that I wouldn’t burst out with “you people are destroying your children’s lives! You’re ruining them! Let them have Santa, let them have fairy-tales, let them have the wonder at the world that you have obviously lost!”

Instead, I just sat silently, left at the earliest possible opportunity, and never went back.

Was that the coward’s exit? Absolutely. Did my fear of confrontation and my inability to present a rational argument at a moment’s notice prevent me from using a genuine opportunity to defend the whole host of the unseen world? I believe so. I want to correct that mistake and defend, on behalf of all the children in the world, the world of faery, fancy and fable.

Of course, nothing I say here can ever defend fairy-tales as well as G.K. Chesterton’s “The Dragon’s Grandmother” and “The Red Angel”, present in Tremendous Trifles. If you find my arguments remotely compelling or interesting, please buy a copy of his book and read the real thing. I’m borrowing liberally here from his thinking and will quote him liberally as well (in italics), so you’d be well-served to just stop reading here and go get Tremendous Trifles. But if you don’t want to, I’ll do my best to do him justice.

The most important thing to remember about fairy-tales is that they are real. You can all get up in arms and call the Ogre and tell him to call the psychiatrist and have me carted away to a padded room and still I will maintain that fairy-tales are REAL. I hate the argument that fairy-tales were made up to scare children away from the woods or (even worse) as an allegory of a child leaving the safety of childhood to enter the treacherous waters of adulthood. It is easier to believe in Peter Pan and Jack’s beanstalk than it is to believe in the whole modern creation of psychology. I would much prefer that we admit that we have angels on one shoulder and devils on the other than that we have these ugly, incomprehensible things, the ego and the id. As to the argument that one doesn’t see wolves dressed in old women’s clothing in ordinary experiences, well, I do not expect a glass of water to be turned into wine; but neither do I expect a glass of water to be poisoned with prussic acid…What we assume in action is not that the natural order is unalterable, but simply that it is much safer to bet on uncommon incidents that on common ones.

So to refrain from telling your children fairy-tales (or believing in them yourself) because they “couldn’t possibly have happened” is just ridiculous. No one knows all that could or could not possibly have happened; why believe in the Big Bang or the story of creation, and not believe that a boy once pulled a sword out of a stone? Consider the kind of world we have created by disbelieving in fairy-tales. In fairy-tales, people are always solid and sane. There may be evil people, but they’re still just people. It is the world around them that is crazy; dragons and demons, spirits and sprites, wizards and werewolves. But in this world, our world, nothing is extraordinary except us. We are insane; the demons are in our mind while the world around us remains as dull, commonplace and repetitive as ever it was. Chesterton explains this perfectly:

Folk-lore means that the soul is sane, but that the universe is wild and full of marvels. Realism means that the soul is sick and screaming. The problem of the fairy-tale is — what will a healthy man do with a fantastic world? The problem of the modern novel is — what will a madman do with a dull world? In fairy-tales the cosmos goes mad; but the hero does not go mad. In the modern novels the hero is mad before the book begins, and suffers from the harsh steadiness and cruel sanity of the cosmos…It is only sanity that can see even a wild poetry in insanity. Therefore, these wise old tales made the hero ordinary and the tale extraordinary. But you have made the hero extraordinary and the tale ordinary — so ordinary — oh, so very ordinary.

See what we have done by giving up fairy-tales? We have made our world so ordinary that the only way we know how to deal with it is to go mad ourselves. We could save thousands of dollars in therapist’s bills and medication if we would only just go out and fight the dragons in the world instead of creating dragons to fight inside our minds.

The world needs it’s fairy-tales back. We need to bring them back so that we again have evils outside ourselves to fight. But most importantly, children need fairy-tales so they can fight the things in the dark.

Children know what most adults have forgotten; there are, indeed, things that go bump in the night. The house doesn’t just settle and that’s not just a shadow. Assuring them that scary and bad things aren’t real is no assurance at all. Who among us can forget the hours we spent as children, lying awake in the dark and frightening ourselves with half-mad imaginations of demons and dragons and devils?

Many people object to fairy-tales (I mean the true fairy-tales here, like the original Grimm tales, not the saccharine Disney perversions) on the grounds that they are too scary for children. But children are already afraid! You could protect a child from every scary image, every horrible news story, and every thrilling tale and still that child would find a way to scare itself. 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. Children intuitively know that this world is a frightening place. There are horrors present at every corner and behind every shadow. When you take away fairy-tales from the child you are not taking away fear; you are taking away the child’s ability to combat fear. 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 give the child a way to combat the evil that it knows is there, lurking just out of sight. Fairy-tales give a boy a St. George to slay the dragon; they give a girl an Alice to find her way through Wonderland. Those terribly, terribly realistic parents who don’t want to “lie” to their children are doing them a far worse disservice: they are denying their children the comfort of shining swords in the dark, of angles circled round their child’s bed. At the four corners of the child’s bed stand Perseus and Roland, Sigurd and St. George. If you withdraw the guard of heroes you are not making him rational; you are only leaving him to fight the devils alone. 

Even if you are one of these frighteningly modern realists who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus and has lost the ability to see faeries among the flowers, let your children have their fairy-tales. No child should have to face the darkness on it’s own; let your child have companions on the journey, protection in the battle. 

But if, after reading all this, you still refuse to let fairy-tales back into our world, well…

In the name of God and Democracy and the Dragon’s grandmother — in the name of all good things — I charge you to avaunt and haunt this blog no more!

(To read — and you really should — “The Dragon’s Grandmother” and “The Red Angel”)

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  • Mary Catherine

    I agree with you and Chesterton about fairy tales. I don't think that Santa Clause is a fairy tale in the sense you're talking about, though. For children, the difference between fact and fiction is in a dynamic state of fluctuation. They see something which they don't understand, and later when they find that it was really something else, they accept the change and move on. It's the flexibility of mind that allows them to learn so much about the world in such a small amount of time. Later they will learn to define their perceptions into rigid structures, but during childhood the structures are still being created.So I think the fact/fiction dichotomy is really a moot point during childhood. If you tell them the story of St. George slaying the dragon, they will believe you. If they later come to notice that dragons are relatively uncommon in the modern world, they will still believe you, not about the historical fact of St. George slaying the dragon, but about the important human truths underlying the story. If you tell them about a girl trapped in a stove in the forest and saved by a prince, but who speaks a word at the wrong time and a witch spirits the prince away across mountains of glass which the girl must cross using three needles, they won't worry when they discover that there are no mountains of glass which can be crossed using three needles – they will still understand what is important about the fairy tale. They will still dream of a quest, of struggle for something more important than life itself, and of loving someone enough to cross a mountain of glass using nothing but some needles as footholds.With Santa Clause, I think that we impose our jaded adult perspective that if it didn't *really* happen, it's not real or important. And I think that by insisting that Santa *really* does come down the chimney (nevermind if our fireplace is electric, he finds a way), not only do we impose an unnecessary distinction in their minds, but we open our relationship with our children up to a breach of trust. I know way too many people who felt absolutely shattered when they found the presents in the top of the closet, and whose trust was so broken that they couldn't bring themselves to ask their parents about it. They KNEW they had been lied to, and it was a tragedy that their own parents were the very ones who now they could not trust to tell the truth. I don't think any number of "magical" years beforehand are worth that harm to the relationship.But I also don't think that you doom your children to a life devoid of wonder and dreams if you don't tell them that Santa personally comes to your house at midnight. Me, I was taught about St. Nicholas, and about Santa Clause traditions around the world. My birthday is Dec. 6th, so St. Nicholas always played a large role in my holiday-time celebrations. I feel that I had the wonder, because I was told the stories, but I never had the loss of trust. When children ask if something is true, they want to know. "Santa Clause doesn't live at the North Pole and come down all the chimneys of the world at exactly midnight, but St. Nicholas dropped bags of gold into the windows of the poor girls who could not marry because they didn't have dowries. That's why we put presents in each other's stockings and say that Santa Clause did it – to remember St. Nicholas, and to celebrate being generous by giving presents and not telling who they came from." Tolkien's Letters from the North Pole (which you really should look up if you haven't already found them – they're wonderful and gorgeous) lose none of their magic from knowing that they're made up. For children, it's the imagination that makes up the wonder. Children already know that it's not the fact that dragons exist that is important, it's the fact that dragons can be slain. We're the ones who have forgotten that most basic rule of wonder and imagination.

  • Melanie B

    Well said. This was a great piece.