November 10, 2011

The Ideal

Yesterday, Lindsey wrote a beautiful post on the importance of fairy tales for children. This morning, I posted on Twitter about Joy curling up with her favorite book of fairy tales. I've been thinking a lot lately about various quotes regarding fairy tales -

Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense. It is not earth that judges heaven, but heaven that judges earth; so for me at least it was not earth that criticised elfland, but elfland that criticised the earth. I knew the magic beanstalk before I had tasted beans; I was sure of the Man in the Moon before I was certain of the moon. This was at one with all popular tradition. Modern minor poets are naturalists, and talk about the bush or the brook; but the singers of the old epics and fables were supernaturalists, and talked about the gods of brook and bush. That is what the moderns mean when they say that the ancients did not “appreciate Nature,” because they said that Nature was divine. Old nurses do not tell children about the grass, but about the fairies that dance on the grass; and the old Greeks could not see the trees for the dryads. -GK Chesterton

But the things that seem really likely, like fairy-tales and magic, are, so say the grown-ups, not true at all. Yet they are so easy to believe, especially when you see them happening. And, as I am always telling you, the most wonderful things happen to all sorts of people, only you never hear about them because the people think that no one will believe their stories, and so they don’t tell them to any one except me. And they tell me, because they know I can believe anything. -E Nesbit

Fantasy is hardly a way of escaping from reality; it's a way of understanding it. -Lloyd Alexander

When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up. -CS Lewis

And Chesterton again -

Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed. -GK Chesterton

I love fairy tales, and always have. I bitterly resented the stupid English prof in college who tried to convince us that they were all a result of suppressed sexual desires (he said that about EVERYTHING we studied in that class - dude had issues), because there is so much richness to be found in their depths, richness that is missed when you focus solely on the secret message of Red Riding Hood's red cloak.

I also get frustrated with people who are only familiar with the Disney-fied version of fairy tales, and judge them all based on that. Dismiss them, really. Well, sure, when the only message you get out of fairy tales is that you need to have big eyes and a tiny waist and win your prince to be happy, I agree that they're a load of crap and our kids shouldn't be wasting their time on them.

But the originals have so much more. Did you know, in the original version of The Little Mermaid, the sea-witch wasn't evil, the mermaid didn't win the prince, and her sister sacrificed their greatest beauty - their hair - in order to have her turned into sea foam instead of just becoming nothing? It is, at its heart, a story about love and sacrifice, both love between a man and woman, and love between families - and the message is, the love between family is the strongest.


So I give my littles fairy tales to read. I don't encourage them to dream of being princesses in pink frothy gowns and sparkly shoes (though Joy at least does really love her sparkly shoes), but I encourage them to think of things like honor and courage, sacrifice and love, honesty and nobility. These are the themes I have always found wound throughout fairy tales, the idea of an Ideal, something that can and should be sought and aspired to.

I have one full shelf on my bookcases of fairy tale collections, not just the traditional European tales I grew up reading, but Russian fairy tales, Japanese fairy tales, and more. Every time I see any collection of tales at a garage or library sale, I snatch it up. I was my girls to be able to experience the tales from many cultures, to learn without having to be taught what ideals are universal, and which ones are specific to cultures, and to learn about other peoples simply by the stories that shape them.

Disney? Not so much.

Unless we're talking Mulan or Belle. One fights in her father's stead, and one loves books. Now those are heroines worth emulating.

Joy showing me something in her fairy tale book this morning.

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