The Importance of Fairy Tales

Why are fairy tales, in their unadulterated form, important? Or, to make this a universal discussion, why is (good) literature important? If you are so inclined, I highly recommend you read the introduction to Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment, for a few good reasons why. If not, allow me to summarize it for you here. Bettelheim was a Jewish Austrian who escaped to the United States before World War II. He died in 1990 at the age of eighty-seven and had a long career as a child psychiatrist and writer. In The Uses of Enchantment Bettelheim compares the importance of fairy tales to the uses of psychoanalysis. "Psychoanalysis was created to enable man to accept the problematic nature of life without being defeated by it or giving in to escapism... This is exactly the message that fairy tales get across to the child in manifold form: that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human experience - but that if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets the unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious." Bettelheim goes on to say that what a child ought to gain from the experience of literature is "access to deeper meaning, and that which is meaningful to him at his stage of development." Children live in the present and while they may have anxieties about their futures, these are vague. The idea that learning to read is an act that may later enable people to enrich their lives is experienced as an empty promise when the stories children read or listen to are vacuous and devoid of deeper meaning. So much of the children's books published today try to be instructional, but are rarely meaningful. It is the difference between reading a Berenstain Bears book versus Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig. If children are mostly reading literature related to television shows or light works meant to entertain, they rapidly lose the notion that reading is important for more than just entertainment.

To hold a child's attention a story must entertain and arouse curiosity, but to enrich a child's life, the story must, in Bettelheim's words, "stimulate his imagination; help him to develop his intellect and clarify his emotions; be attuned to his anxieties and aspirations; give full recognition to his difficulties, while at the same time suggesting solutions to the problems which perturb him." When reading or listening to a fairy tale, a child learns to "make some coherent sense out of the turmoil of his feelings" and he gets ideas on how to "bring his inner house into order, and on that basis be able to create order in his life." Fairy tales achieve this by stating an existential dilemma briefly and pointedly, by simplifying all situations. There is no food, we cannot feed our children, and we will leave them in the forest, as in Hansel and Gretel. Fairy tale figures are never ambivalent, and there are no shades of gray. Evil is as omnipresent as virtue. This appeals to children because the polarization that dominates fairy tales also dominates their minds. To a child, there is only good and bad, sad/angry and happy. Bettelheim writes that "presenting the polarities of character permits the child to easily comprehend the difference between the two, which he could not do as readily were the figures drawn more true to life, with all the complexities that characterize real people."

Furthermore, children's choices are based not so much on good versus bad, right versus wrong, but who arouses their sympathies and antipathies. Bettelheim says the question for the child is not "Do I want to be good?" but "Who do I want to be like?" Succeeding, being worthy and lovable, fear of death and or separation are all issues that a child's subconscious struggles with. Children cannot always verbalize these fears but respond to their symbolic depictions in fairy tales, which offer solutions in ways that children can grasp on their level of understanding, whatever it may be at the time. Fairy tales work on many levels and mean something different to the reader/listener at various times. "And they lived happily ever after," teaches children that forming satisfying bonds can "take the sting out of the narrow limits of our time on this earth." This ending is not necessarily unrealistic wish-fulfillment but instead it can be read as a lesson to the child that, "in forming a true interpersonal relation, one escapes the separation anxiety which haunts him (and which sets the stage for many fairy tales but is always resolved at the ending)."

I think that traditional fairy tales have fallen out of favor in our society for a few reasons, the main one being the drive to be, above all else, entertained, to escape. The Princesses in children's media today are about calming pinkness, pretty dresses, being good and being adored, or, more recently being yourself and being brave, if we look to the Disney/Pixar juggernaut as tastemaker. They do not address any genuine anxieties a child may have, such as "am I lovable even if I'm bad?" In 1975 Bettelheim wrote, "the prevalent parental belief is that a child must be diverted from what troubles him most: his formless, nameless anxieties, and his chaotic, angry and even violent fantasies." I think that this still holds true today. I have seen several parents and grandparents shy away from Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are and Mercer Mayer's There's a Nightmare in My Closet, saying they think these books will be scary to their young child. What they fail to realize is that these picture books brilliantly and simply illustrate the fears that this child is already experiencing on a daily basis - fear of the unknown, fear of being unlovable. It is infinitely better to address these fears symbolically through books than to deny and ignore them, especially when the child is preverbal or not verbal enough to articulate these emotions. In this case, reading a book that seems to speak to and for the child can be a liberating experience. Bettelheim goes on to say that there is a widespread "refusal to let children know that the source of much that goes wrong in life is due to our very own natures - the propensity of all men for acting aggressively, asocially, selfishly, out of anger and anxiety." Instead, we want our children to believe that, inherently, all humanity is good. But, "children know that they are not always good; and often, even when they are, they would prefer not to be." I think that this explains the popularity and longevity of H.A. Rey's Curious George. He's a curious little monkey who is always being left to his own devices by the Man in the Yellow Hat. Of course he's going to get into trouble. The books have staying power because George always manages to redeem himself by the end of the story and children learn that, while they may do bad things, they will have the chance to do good things also.

Bettelheim says that the message fairy tales get across to children is that a "struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence - but that if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious." I think this can account for the generational popularity of Star Wars as well. The figures of good and evil (in episodes 4, 5, and 6) are clear cut. The battles are hard won, but they are won. The polarities of character allow the child to comprehend easily the difference between the two. Again, the question for the child is not "Who do I like," but "Who do I want to be like?" How many Luke and Anakin Sywalkers and Princess Leias did you give candy to last halloween? While the media is saturated with Star Wars these days, it wasn't more than thirty years ago when it first grabbed the attention of a nation of kids, myself included. And, to sum up one of Bettelheim's final ideas, fairy tales provide children with images of heroes who "have to go out into the world all by themselves and who, although originally ignorant of the ultimate things, find secure places in the world by following their right way with deep inner confidence." This is exactly who the character of Luke Skywalker is - a hero who goes out into the world knowing nothing of his history or his place in the world but he follows his convictions and, in the end, finds his family and saves his home. Bettelheim writes that, in a time when children "no longer grow up within the security of an extended family, or of a well integrated community...the image of the isolated man who nevertheless is capable of achieving meaningful and rewarding relations with the world around him" is of utmost importance.

Lastly, if you read fairy tales to you children, avoid them or have never given them much thought, please let me know. I suspect that very few children are read fairy tales anymore (based on the low number of collections we have on the shelf at the bookstore where I work) and I hope I am wrong. If you do read fairy tales and you have favorites, or a favorite collection, please let me know so I can order it in at the bookstore. Thanks!

A Great Place to Start: Good Fairy Tale Collections:

Yummy by Lucy Couisins. A singular standout collection of short (and authentic) retellings of fairy tales that is riveting to the under 5 crowd, based on parental and story time experience. A great baby gift, too!
Important Fairy Tale Books
Fairy Tale Collections
Classic Fairy Tales by Berlie Doherty with illustrations by Jane Ray
You Read to Me, I'll Read to You! Fairy Tales by Mary Ann Hobermann
Once Upon a Time Map Book by BG Hennessey

For older readers who still want to visit this magical realm:

A Tale Dark and Grimm by the amazing Adam Gidwitz
The Sisters Grimm, the phenomenal nine book series by Michael Buckley
The Frog Princess by ED Baker
The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman
A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears by Jules Feiffer. Fantastic, hilarious, book that reads a bit like a Phantom Tollbooth if it was a fairy tale.
A Necklace of Raindrops by Joan Aiken. One of my favorite writers, Aiken has an innate understanding of the workings of a good the fairy tale. I especially love this collection of short stories because it is perfect for a reader with a second grade reading level and so different from everything else on the shelf for this level.
Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu. Phenomenal! Avid readers of middle-grade fantasy and fairy tales will gobble this up.
Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes by Jonathan Auxier. This superb new book feels old.

Fairy Tale Retellings:

Beauty by Robin McKinley (Beauty and the Beast)
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine (Cinderalla)
Rapunzel: The One with All the Hair by Wendy Mass
Rapunzel's Revenge by Shannon and Dean Hale, illustrated by Nathan Hale
The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy. The true story of the Prince Charmings behind those princesses like Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White and Beauty and the Beast... Very funny, highly readable and infinitely clever.
Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu. Phenomenal! A loose retelling of Hand Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen.


nopinkhere said...

Wow! This really makes me think about some of my story choices for my son. While I stay far, far away from syndicated content for him, I am guilty of protecting him by not reading him books like Where the Wild Things Are. I will also be thinking about stories involving the triumph of an individual through his principles in a different way. Thank you very much for writing about this and reviewing this book.

Tanya said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I have to admit that I have never avoided books with potential scary comment (but, like you, avoid syndicated media related books) I have noticed my 4 year old son's fascination with Jack & the Beanstalk and stories with the Big Bad Wolf. His interest made sense to me after reading Bettelheim - toddlers tend to see the world in black and white, so of course he is drawn to these stories with distinctly good and bad characters. And maybe these kinds of stories really do help him sort himself out...

Dzagbe said...

Tanya, I am in total agreement with you. As you point out fairy tales can be a great means of teaching children moral lessons. Situations and people are either good or bad. The boundaries are simple and clear. One of the great problems with bringing up children today is that many parents seem to have great difficulty in establishing and maintaining behavioral boundaries.
TV programs such as "Super Nanny" have an expert flying in to assist parents in gaining control of a tyrannical small child who effectively rules the house.

As we mature we learn that life is not black and white but children do need the reassurance that traditional and other fairy tales give.
Dzagbe Cudjoe http://www.strategicbookpublishing.com/TalesMyGhanaianGrandmotherToldMe.html

Tanya said...

You are so right - I never even thought about the issue of boundaries in terms of fairy tales. Thanks for pointing that out. Another angle for me to ponder.

Storied Cities said...

I just read 2 really great fairy tale retellings which are in the YA section. Sisters Red (Red Riding Hood) and Sweetly (Hansel and Gretel), both by Jackson Pierce. They are "companion books" -- same world, different characters. A third companion book comes out this fall: Fathomless (Little Mermaid).

Tanya said...

Cool! I have seen Sisters Red in the teen section at work. Sounds great! I'll have to check out all three. Thanks for sharing.