What is the purpose of fairy tales?
July 25, 2009 2 Comments
Another passage from Jim Trelease‘s Read-Aloud Handbook:
Before most parents realize it, a growing child is ready, in his own mind at least, to go out and challenge the world. In the last two thousand years, nothing has helped this exploratory need as much as the fairy tale.
I know what you may be thinking. “Fairy tales? Is he kidding? Why, those things are positively frightening. Children see enough violence on television — they don’t need kids pushing witches into ovens and evil spells and poisoned apples.”
Stop for a minute and remind yourself how long the fairy tale has been with us — in every nation and in every civilization. Surely there must be something significant here, an insight so important as to transcend time and mountains and cultures to arrive in the twenty-first century still intact. There are, for example, more than seven hundred different versions of Cinderella from hundreds of cultures. Nevertheless, they all tell the same story — a truly universal story. …
What distinguishes the fairy tale is that it speaks to the very heart and soul of the child. It admits to the child what so many parents and teachers spend hours trying to cover up or avoid. The fairy tale confirms what the child has been thinking all along — that it is a cold, cruel world out there and it’s waiting to eat him alive.
Now, if that were all the fairy tale said, it would have died out long ago. But it goes one step further. It addresses itself to the child’s sense of courage and adventure. The tale advises the child: Take your courage in hand and go out to meet the world head on. According to Bruno Bettelheim, the fairy tale offers this promise: If you have courage and if you persist, you can overcome any obstacle, conquer any foe.
By recognizing a child’s daily fears, appealing to his courage and confidence, and by offering hope, the fairy tale presents the child with a means by which he can understand the world and himself. And those who would deodorize the tales impose a fearsome lie upon the child. J.R.R. Tolkien cautioned, “It does not pay to leave a dragon out of your calculations if you live near him.” Judging from the daily averages, our land is filled with dragons:
[a bunch of horrifying statistics]
To send a child into that world unprepared is a crime.
Similar to the temptation to avoid fairy tales is the tendency of some adults to choose books that will keep the child forever young, books without problems, conflict, or drama. And then all too soon these same parents are asking why their children have lost interest in books. Of all the things we ask our books to be, few are as important as “believable.” Fiction, nonfiction, biographies, fantasies — the good ones work because they are believable. A world that is “forever pink,” … doesn’t work because children eventually realize its fakery.