Some of my children’s favorite stories are the ones my husband or I make up and share with them at bedtime. Now, it’s a delight to hear my older kids making up stories to share with their younger siblings in hopes of helping them to drift off to sleep when mine can’t seem to do the trick. They frequently ask for us tell them the same stories we’ve made up over and over again. Thus the beginning of our own collection of made-up and passed-along stories.
The most well-known collection of made-up and passed-along stories are what may be called fairy tales, or fairy stories. I’m using the term, ‘fairy stories’ rather loosely to refer to stories that present various forms of supernatural beings, imaginative situations, and worlds. This is a broad field of literature which includes nursery tales, legends, myths, and ancient tales.
There is incredible value in reading stories to our children in many different genres, but there is something mysteriously powerful about fairy stories. Why are children especially drawn to stories that don’t resemble their everyday life?
And perhaps more importantly, are fairy stories shaping a child’s moral imagination or damaging it?
In his essay, ‘Fairy Stories’ by J.R.R. Tolkien, he says that fairy stories contain rich, spiritual knowledge. The metaphors in the rich characters of these tales are a reflection of our world which we know to be spiritual. Although there are great differences in these various types of fairy stories, they all depict good as good and evil as evil.
“Magic has been used traditionally in fairy stories to give a visible form to spiritual powers. But a crucial distinction must be made between “good magic” and “bad magic” as they appear in fairy stories, because for us in the real world, there is no such thing as good magic, only prayer, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and abandonment to divine providence.”
Michael D. O’Brien
In fairy stories, good magic presents itself when the fairy godmother appears to rescue Cinderella from her unfortunate and unbearable circumstances. In this story, good magic appears in Cinderella’s life like God’s grace intervening in our lives. ‘Bad magic’ represents the evil power possessed by those who set out and desire to do evil. Characters who desire to do evil, like Snow White’s mother, in the first edition of the story by the Brothers Grimm, didn’t only want Snow White’s heart – she wanted her liver and lungs, too. She sets out to try to kill her in several different ways: with an overly tight corset, with a poisoned comb, and ultimately with a poisoned apple - after she realized the huntsman didn’t kill Snow White. Characters like these are grasping for power in order to control or dominate their world. Representatives of ‘bad magic’ are metaphorical figures in fairy stories of those who oppose God, who desire to please themselves.
Saint Paul says, “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual host of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 6:12
In fairy stories, we have the potential to step outside our own world and into worlds where ‘good’ is fighting against ‘evil’. For example, in ancient literature (Egyptian, Greek, and Roman, to name a few), dragons are depicted as being cunning and evil. In Saint George and the Dragon, retold my Margaret Hodges, Saint George, also known as the Redcross Knight, slays a dreadful dragon, who has been terrorizing the land, over the course of a long battle with the assistance of Lady Una. Their victory brings peace and joy back to the land.
We resonate with this battle in our own hearts, and we are often witnesses to the struggle going on in our children’s lives. Saint George and the Dragon is a favorite of my son’s. Despite it being difficult for him at seven to articulate why he is drawn to it, I believe he identifies with the struggle against something that robs joy. For my son, his day to day difficulties involve his body not having the ability to digest gluten, dairy, many forms of sugar, nuts, or much of anything processed. His daily dragon to slay this dietary sensitivity by denying his desires to eat food that would upset his stomach. By sticking to a fairly ‘clean’ diet, he is able to render the dragon powerless— no stomach aches!— and enjoy his normal activities.
Now, as I encourage reading stories of dragons, you should know that I am happy for my children to know that literal dragons are not present in our world! The truth is, children that hear fairy stories can distinguish between centaurs and farm animals. Even young children have a natural intuition that there is something beautiful and mysterious about a fairy story, but sense the characters they imagine are not walking around in their kitchen.
Beyond the fear of children confusing fantasy with reality, there has also been some concern about the amount of violence or death that ultimately comes to the character who pursues malicious deeds. Take, for example, the death of the wolf in The Three Little Pigs— a beloved tale for younger children. The wolf resorts to coming down the chimney, where the pig catches the wolf in a pot of boiling water, slams the lid on, then cooks and eats him. This fairy tale is not meant to conjure up a a desire for violence, but rather the desire to eliminate ‘sin’ in the general sense. We hope our children will sense that the wolf was intent on hurting the pigs and therefore his participation in evil should be ended and justice served. As in many fairy tales, an evil character makes numerous decisions that ultimately end up leading him to death. But here again, the goal is not to see the evil one come to death, but to allow a storyline to help our children make connections in seeing how the character did not follow truth and goodness.
As Christians, however, we are not interested in pure moralism, or in proposing that every one receive the consequences of their choices. We believe in mercy that triumphs over judgment, and in a God who died for us ‘while we were yet sinners’. Parents will want to supplement these reflections as they read fairy tales with their children.
If the concern is about introducing stories that depict evil to our children— as opposed to all happy and light stories—we may need to rethink our approach. The Bible does not hide from us stories of violent men and noble women, good and evil kings, shepherds and drunkards, warriors and prophets. So, with discretion and discernment, we ought not retreat from the realities of good and evil as they are depicted in fairy stories. Fairy tales may be a part of an appropriate feast for young minds, as they train themselves to distinguish good from evil.
If you are looking for fairy tales other than watered down Disney versions, I would recommend Grimms or Hans Christian Andersen’s or Langs. (See recommendations below) If you have older children who have never read fairy tales, they will enjoy these versions too.
Some fairy tales in these collections include stories you may feel are gruesome. If you are looking for gentler fairy tales, check out Paul Galdone’s versions. (See recommendations below)
Many of the ideas in this post were inspired by the writings of Michael D. O’Brien in his book A Landscape with Dragons. I highly recommend it!