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Why Children Need Fairy Tales

“The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.” G.K. Chesterton

Today, I saw an assistant pig keeper defeat an evil king. Yesterday I witnessed four children enter a wardrobe and come out the other side in lands not their own. And the day before that I listened, enraptured, as an unlikely rogue, in want of a hot bath and a soft chair by the hearth, riddled with a dragon.

Now, I’ve been told these things never happened, that they aren’t real. And perhaps that’s true. But if I can’t believe in fairy tales—that is—if I can’t believe that dragons can be killed, that there’s power in a promise, or that the old woman by the road rewards kindness and punishes selfishness, then what can I believe in?

Can I believe in truth? What of justice? Love? But what are these if not fairy tales?

What about God?

What is God if not the first fairy tale? If all my most important beliefs are fairy tales, then God is the greatest fairy tale from which all the others come. And if I can’t believe in the gluttonous troll who seeks to gnaw on my bones or the disciplined knight who slays it, how can I believe in He who created them?

I object to the cynics who say fairy tales never happened. Fairy tales happen every day.

Fairy Tales Reveal the Unseen

Otherwise intelligent people have somehow come to the absurd conclusion that fairy tales are about talking animals, fantastic beasts, and magic beanstalks.

But fairy tales aren’t about anything so mundane. They’re about truly extraordinary things like good and evil, spirituality, and the divine. That such things are invisible make them no less real or important.

“The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.” J.R.R. Tolkien

Fairy tales exist so that we may believe in what our eyes can’t see, our ears can’t hear, and our hands can’t touch; things like morality, miracles, even God. Rationalism, empiricism, and even our own senses fail to inform us of such deep truths. To learn of such things we must look to religion, philosophy, and, of course, fairy tales.

Perhaps that’s why fairy tales, in addition to accusations of being false, are slandered as childish. Our secular world is painted in shades of gray. It demands lukewarmness and calls it nuance. Black-and-white thinking: good and evil, virtue and vice, angels and demons—these things, and the fairy tales that teach them, are childish. The evils in fairy tales are too evil, the good depicted is too good. Conviction is childish.

Fairy tales aren’t childish, but they are childlike. After all, children believe in really fantastical things like justice and love. That is to say, children believed in miracles. Their belief runs wild out into the world, unleashed and untamed, looking for something greater than themselves upon which to stand. Children have yet to learn to lock their belief up in a box and keep it to themselves, using it only in private, like something dirty. Children haven’t been taught that such fantasies are impossible yet.

Adults, on the other hand, tired and disappointed as we are, often find it hard to trust anything other than ourselves. After all, we’ve been let down so many times before. That’s why “believe in yourself” and “follow your heart” are such popular modern maxims. Contemporary children’s media is saturated with such banal platitudes but the ancient fairy tales make no such mistake.

“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.” ~C.S. Lewis

We must teach our children fairy tales so that they don’t forget what they already know. So that they may grow up but not grow old. So that they may leave childish things behind but retain, always, childlike wonder.

If children can believe little miracles like the slaying of a dragon, they will not so easily forget big miracles like justice and love. And by entertaining the existence of monsters their minds are opened to the possibility of angels. For, as anyone familiar with fairy tales knows, if there exists a dragon then, too, there must exist a righteous knight to slay it.

Children are concrete thinkers so fairy tales speak in the language of blood. They take abstract ideas and make them literal. Fairy tales offer us a world of good and evil incarnate. They take the immaterial and give them bodies. Pride becomes a dragon. Fortitude becomes a knight in shining armor.

God becomes a man.

Christianity is brimming with examples of the spiritual made physical. We are baptized by water. We commune with God by eating bread and wine transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ. God speaks in the language of fairies so that we may better understand and know Him.

Fairy Tales Reveal Our Escape

“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!” Ursula K. LeGuin

Fairy tales are often maligned as mere escapism. Their evils are too violent for small ears, their happy endings too convenient and contrived, and both the good and the bad are condemned as unrealistic. How can children learn about the real world from such fantasies?

But by distancing ourselves from our everyday problems, fairy tales allow us to engage with them safely.

Through fairy tales, we escape the school bully only to be confronted by a wicked witch or an evil king. Fairy tales take our mundane problems and enlarge them. Our problems are taken to extremes so that it is all the more satisfying when they are defeated. We learn that if the wicked witch can be endured and overcome, then so, too, can our mere bully.

The fairy tale teaches the five-year-old that cheating the witch leads, of course, to having one’s bones ground into flour for the witch’s bread. At twenty-five, he knows that cheating one’s neighbor or on one’s wife is just as forbidden and disastrous.

The paradox of the fairy tale is that, in offering us escape from our daily problems, they can better equip us to overcome them.

“Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words.” Alasdair MacIntyre

Over 70% of adults have experienced a traumatic event; nearly one-third have experienced four or more. Our children must experience the micro-traumas of fairy tales—and the happy endings they afford—now before they experience the major traumas they will inevitably face as adults. We can’t shelter our children forever, but we can offer them the arms and armor that fairy tales provide so that they are well-equipped to confront such monsters.

Perhaps fairy tales are just fantasies. Perhaps they are escapist—but how else do we expect the prisoners to be set free?

EDITORS NOTE: This is the first in a three-part series. Coming up next is How to Read and Discuss Fairy Tales, followed by The Ultimate Fairy Tale Reading List. What are your thoughts on this topic? To continue the discussion, join other homeschooling parents at our Homeschool Connections Community or our Facebook group!

Resources to help you in your Catholic homeschool…

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Homeschooling Saints Podcast

Good Counsel Careers

The Catholic Homeschool Conference

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