What father among you would hand his son a snake
when he asks for a fish?
Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? (Luke 11:11)
Some years ago I acquired a copy of Hansel and Gretel illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger. I’m an avid collector of picture books and I’d fallen in love with another of her books… but when the book came and I had to sit down and read it to my children, I suddenly wasn’t so sure. It is a very dark story. Parents abandoning their children in the woods. Witches eating kids. Bella was a very sensitive child who got too scared at the dramatic tension in Disney’s Cars and had to leave the room. Why on earth was I reading them this story? But with some trepidation we made it through. They weren’t too scared. (Though Bella did later dress as a witch for Halloween and developed a little fascination with witches. So maybe she was facing some of her Hansel and Gretel fears?)
This week my heart has been sore because, well, you know Hansel and Gretel is horrific, but it’s not a false picture of reality. There really are parents who would abandon their own children in the woods. Sadly, we can witness this in real life. Parents who not only fail to love and cherish and protect the small people entrusted to their care, but who are themselves the wolves. Children betrayed and hurt by the people who should keep them from harm.
And . . . fairy tales are one way we communicate this horrible truth to children. That this is a thing that happens. That there are witches who eat children, there are parents who are cruel to their children. There are parents who leave their children to die. It’s horrific, but this is the fallen world we live in and we cannot lie to children and tell them they are safe when they can see and know for themselves that horrors happen.
But fairy tales also depict clever children who outwit the horrible predatory adults. Fairy tales return agency and power to the powerless children. Fairy tales, as Chesterton famously reminds us, show that dragons can be killed, witches get pushed into ovens, that evil ultimately gets its reward.
Fairy tales teach the truth that yesterday’s first reading from the prophet Malachi proclaims: even though the wicked seem to prosper in the here and now, ultimately there will come a day of reckoning when those wicked men who do not fear the Lord will feel his wrath and will be burned up like stubble in the fields, roots and all. (Malachi 3) And those who do fear the Lord will feel the warmth of his love like a healing light and all their wounds will be healed.
Fairy tales tell us that ultimately there is hope for the poor widows and orphans of this world. This is one of those truths that keeps jumping out at me as we read the Old Testament: God spends an awful lot of time taking care of the widows and orphans and resident aliens. The powerless and dispossessed and voiceless. Father of the orphans, protector of widows, defender of the poor. The Just Judge who will render a righteous judgment.
When you watch the justice system fail the weak and defenseless and powerful men prey on their own children… then these titles no longer seem like artifacts from a far-gone time. Even in our day there is too often no justice for the poor of this world. Fairy tales allow children and adults to visit a world which, yes, is dark and full of terrors, but where ultimately justice is served. The good prosper and the bad are punished. Fairy tales and detective fiction have this in common.
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I’d also add that I find the modern “problem novel” whether aimed at teens, pre-teens, young adults, which depicts and addresses some of these same problems more directly, to be problematic. Because the genre is realistic fiction rather than fairy tale it often denies the characters the agency, the supernatural helpers, and most importantly the eucatastrophe which are all so important in fairy tales. Children venturing into the dark woods with pockets full of pebbles to find their way home again are weak but not helpless. Children who outsmart witches and push them into ovens have agency. And in fairy tales there are almost always helpers: magic trees, animals, talking brooks, fairy godmothers, there are those who are willing to give great aid to any children who are kind and generous and who take the time to care for those weaker and poorer than themselves. And finally there is the delight of the eucatastrophe, as Tolkien called it: “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears ”
Tolkien argued that this dramatic turn at the end of the fairy tale which ensures that the protagonist does not meet some horrible impending doom is the true purpose and highest function of fairy stories.
The social evils in the problem novel are too tawdry and too and gritty without the intermediary of the fairy tale genre’s witches and ogres and hungry wolves in deep dark forests which transpose the terror into the world of fantasy where it can be confronted more safely. The fantasy element are what make fairy tales so very helpful. It’s not only that, as Chesterton so wisely says, they show that evil can be overcome, but fairy tales exist in the realm of the imagination, a world of symbol and metaphor which makes the evil less triggering and traumatic. Fairy tales allow the reader the distance to allow the story to process the trauma instead of merely steeping the reader in more of the same. And fairy tales have happy endings.
I’m sure there are people out there who have experienced trauma who have found such problem novels helpful in some regard, knowing they are not alone in their circumstances… but I think that literarily they are junk food. They certainly serve a purpose and I don’t denigrate those who read or write them. But . . . they lack the transcendence that lifts people out of those negative experiences. The whole point of imaginative literature is that it’s transformative. The hero takes you on a journey and you are transported to another realm from which you return changed.
The impending doom is magically lifted, the eagles appear to sweep you to safety, the prince arrives, the spell is broken, the ants sort the seeds and the magic shoe fits and suddenly all is right with the world. Children already know that the world is a big, dark, scary place and that they are weak and small and powerless. What fairy tales give them is entry into a different realm: one where the smallest, youngest, simplest people are spared the terrible fate, outwit the bad guys, and– oh joy!– find real happiness at last. It’s enough to make you cry tears of joy.
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Coming back later to add some additional thoughts:
I could maybe have emphasized more that I do think many fairy tales are too dark for some kids. I mentioned in the essay that my oldest child is very sensitive, but I want to elaborate on that a little. She was a child who was easily disturbed by what she read or watched and we tried very hard to respect her sensitivities. There were more than a few books that I stopped reading when they got too tense, or parts we skipped over.
We held off on a lot of darker material until she was much older. Now at 13 she loves fairy tales, reads them and has even tried her hand at writing them. But she was definitely not ready for the darker ones even at 10 or 11. But she also peeks ahead when she gets to scary parts of books, she is still careful about what she watches. And careful about when she reads. She recently freaked herself out reading a book that was too intense too close to bedtime and realized it was a mistake.
So I think parents and teachers do need to use a lot of prudent discretion. It’s not ok to just say: see, fairy tales are good for kids and then use that as an excuse to walk all over a sensitive child’s sensitivities. If a child is genuinely scared by certain kinds of stories, don’t force the issue and give them nightmares. It’s ok to not read fairy tales to your young children. I think the idea age for these stories for many young readers is probably really middle school not elementary.
Because my oldest was so sensitive, all our kids tended to get a very delayed exposure to darker themes and plots. I’m glad that fairy tales, exist, but for a long time we didn’t read them. Hansel and Gretel stands out as a rare exception. Listen to your kids, respect their sensitivities. It’s almost always better to wait that to force a book too early.