About Fairy Tales

fairytaleIf you want to teach a child not to do something, then clear directions and consistent discipline will generally do the trick. However, if you want to teach a child not to do a certain kind of thing, something completely different is called for. Most likely, you will have to resort to stories. Stories tell us about characters. Characters in good stories (particularly good children’s stories) are more than simple individuals with complex and unpredictable behavior. Such individuals would be of no more use in training a child, than reciting random numbers is for teaching math. What we want in a character, is, well character. We need them to be a certain kind of person (or dragon, etc.). People, including children, make sense of the world through the stories they know. Children without stories are forced to stumble through the world without a clue.

This is not only true of children, but of people in general. We know of no human culture that has no stories (there might be modern story-less settings, but that is an indictment of modernity itself). Stories can entertain, but, more importantly, they shape our understanding of the world. Of course, there are some basic requirements for such stories.

The stories have to ring true. This doesn’t mean that they actually have to be true on the level of a factual account, but if they do not have the character of truth, they will be short lived, having been of little use. They also need to work on a deep level. Critics of religion often like to point out the similarity between stories from different religions, using that to disparage their reliability. But the opposite is the case. Some stories are so important, so fundamental to human existence, that they show up in many forms, some rooted in history, some rooted in fiction, or even deeper places within the heart.

The repetition of a story in a variety of forms points to its centrality and essential worth. It is so important that if you don’t know one version, you’ll make up another.

Christian believing is rooted in a story. It is a story that Christians believe really happened (and they have a good historical case for holding this to be so). It is a story that has echoes in the stories of many cultures. This doesn’t weaken its historical claims. Rather, its historical claims validate the importance of the other stories.

For Christians, the story of Jesus is the essential and primary story. It is the story through which all other stories are understood. There are precursors and foreshadowings of the Jesus story in the Old Testament. Some of those stories, or some parts of those stories, have a basis in history themselves. That is a point to be debated by scholars, historians, archaeologists, and the like. Their debate, however, cannot change the stories themselves – for what we have of history are the stories from within that history.

A commenter recently described religion as a “fairy tale.” Many fairy tales are religious, but all religious stories are not fairy tales. A child who is robbed of fairy tales (or stories we take to be fairy tales) will be impoverished, perhaps bereft of important characters. But the similarity between Christianity and fairy tales is not an indictment of fraud. It is only what we would expect to be true if ever there were such a thing as a transcendent-Truth-become-fact.

 

 

 

32 comments:

  1. I think GK Chesterton’s words from Tremendous Trifles (1909), XVII: “The Red Angel” add to this: “Fairy Tales are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. 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. Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.” We can see Christ continuing to trample down death by death in stories and the great victory He grants to the world. That’s the message we glimpse and mold into our character when belief is evoked by an encounter with Truth. My baby has woke up, I hope He grows up with Christ like character.

  2. Christian believing is rooted in a story.

    I thought Christian believing is rooted in an encounter, although I understand the general gist of this statement.

    Overall, I’m not quite picking up the article’s focus. It seems to jump around a bit. I’ll have to mull it over, I suppose….

  3. Stories stand in stark contrast to bare “facts” and propositional statements. Stories speak to the importance of experience, and to the experiential nature of the Christian faith and the life of the Church.

  4. Fairy Tales call for imagination and wonder, they stimulate them. I suppose one could call a parable a fairy tale, but we can easily see how they convey truth that could not be logically explained. You are right Father, as I think back on the fairy tales that were read to me as a child, they were about character. The funny thing is that I have forgotten most of the plot lines but I remember the character lessons.

  5. Byron,
    I wrote it on the fly. It might indeed jump a bit. I’m out of town lecturing…

    Rooted in an encounter? There certainly is an encounter (though perhaps not always in the sense that Evangelicals imagine it). But the encounter opens up the Story. The disciples saw the risen Lord, and then they understood all that He had said. The resurrection of Christ has to be placed in the narrative of Pascha, otherwise it would just be an interesting miracle. But it is our salvation. And to say that requires a story.

  6. It reminds me of C. S. Lewis. To paraphrase something in his Mere Christianity: Jesus Christ is the True Myth, when the Myth became a historical reality.

    I love all of the old fairy tales and stories. They helped to form me, especially when filtered through Lewis and others. I have been recently reading through the Brothers Grim fairytales and have found that there are more realistic characters there than what I see day to day.

    Lord please help me to open my eyes to see your wonder in all things at all times!

  7. Boyd,
    I have a baby coming and am an elementary school teacher. I have volume 1 of a set Brothers Grim Fairy Tales and also a set of Russian Fairy Tales by Aleksandr Afanas’ev. I also have the Chronicles of Narnia for when she is older. Of course all of this is supplementing reading a good story Bible, especially from the Old Testament and parables of Christ. I like this one, its the one I enjoyed as a child because of the wonderful illustrations.

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Childrens-Bible-365-Stories/dp/0745930689/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top?ie=UTF8

    There are some good Orthodox authors for Old Testament stories and about the Great Feasts

    http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=dp_byline_sr_book_1?ie=UTF8&text=Sister+Elayne&search-alias=books&field-author=Sister+Elayne&sort=relevancerank

    http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=dp_byline_sr_book_1?ie=UTF8&text=Mother+Melania&search-alias=books&field-author=Mother+Melania&sort=relevancerank

    And here is another author who writes about saints lives (she is a Byzantine Catholic)

    http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=dp_byline_sr_book_1?ie=UTF8&field-author=Dessi+Jackson&search-alias=books&text=Dessi+Jackson&sort=relevancerank

    Some Dr. Seuss are good but I prefer the older tales because they have better morals and more realistic characters.

    Roah Dahl books are good and entertaining but for a much older audience.

    I will also read Charles Dickens as she gets older.

    I think that the most important thing is to read, to walk, and to show children how beautiful and wonderful the world is. There is more than tv and toys.

  8. Hey Boyd, Check out the Brother’s Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, Mother Goose, Stories from a Thousand and One Night. I started with The Book of Virtue by William Bennett. Also, Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination by Vigen Guroian. Vigen has an interesting podcast on ancient faith about the topic of his book. http://www.ancientfaith.com/specials/orthodox_institute_2012_culture_morality_spirituality/dr._vigen_guroian_the_childs_moral_imagination

  9. Hi Boyd,
    A library will often have a section with books of fairy tales, myths and fables from around the world and you can look through there for quality tellings. As your kids get older, you can read the Brother’s Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, and Andrew Lang’s books. A lot of websites on classical schooling will include booklists of tales as well. Aesop’s Fables are wonderful for young kids too.
    Anna

  10. Mark,

    Although it is not specifically related to violence, there is a wonderful story (and excellent film co-staring Alec Guinness) entitled LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY that speaks to overcoming evil with good. I would recommend it for any child with the attention span required to sit through a movie.

  11. Mark,

    There are many fairy tales in which transformations/healings from dark enchantments/evil are worked through a kiss or some offering of love. The Frog Prince (although I prefer the version where he is thrown against the wall, hehe), Beauty and the Beast, etc.

    Boyd Camak,
    I like the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales because there you find them in their most authentic form. They can be a bit stark, but I think that bothers children less than us at times, and some are milder than others.

    Other than that, Mary Engelbreit has a collection of classic fairy tales that are softened and modernized a bit with sweet illustrations. Also I like the ones illustrated by Paul Galdone. Happy shopping and congrats! 🙂

  12. Sorry Fr. Stephen. Earlier I tried to post a comment with some Amazon links, but my comment is awaiting approval so I will try to publish it without the links.

    Boyd,
    I have a baby coming and am an elementary school teacher. I have volume 1 of a set Brothers Grim Fairy Tales and also a set of Russian Fairy Tales by Aleksandr Afanas’ev. I also have the Chronicles of Narnia for when she is older. Of course all of this is supplementing reading a good story Bible, especially from the Old Testament and parables of Christ. I like this one, its the one I enjoyed as a child because of the wonderful illustrations.

    The Children’s Bible in 365 Stories by Mary Batchelor

    There are some good Orthodox authors for Old Testament stories and about the Great Feasts

    Sister Elayne and Mother Malania

    And here is another author who writes about saints lives (she is a Byzantine Catholic)

    Dessi Jackson

    Some Dr. Seuss are good but I prefer the older tales because they have better morals and more realistic characters.

    Roah Dahl books are good and entertaining but for a much older audience.

    I will also read Charles Dickens as she gets older.

    I think that the most important thing is to read, to walk, and to show children how beautiful and wonderful the world is. There is more than tv and toys.

  13. Fairy tail recommendations:

    George MacDonalds the Princes and the Goblin as well as the short story of the Day boy and the Night girl and many more of his works .Good fairy tails keep on giving to us as well. We enter into diolog with them. As an adult I still revisit fairy tails of my youth with new eye’s and new perspective. They are grounding for the vary reasons that Chesterton points out in the comment by Moher.

  14. Fr Stephen,

    Would you build on what you mean by “… the similarity between Christianity and fairy tales is not an indictment of fraud. It is only what we would expect to be true if ever there were such a thing as a transcendent-Truth-become-fact.”

    It seems you are saying something profound, but it is not quite clear.

  15. Mark,

    If this is the end of my life
    or it’s beginning
    please nail it to Your cross

    I live in Your blood
    Your body feeds me

    This is not violent. It perfects.

    Amen

  16. Another great series of fantasy story books for kids and all of us: The Wingfeather Saga, by Andrew Peterson. He has a rich spiritual imagination (and a great deal of humor).

    Fr. Freeman, thank you for this.

  17. Fr. Stephen,
    Perhaps sometime you could write more about the different functions of fairy tales and Bible stories? I feel like I am better at comprehending the former than the latter.

  18. I love that father has written about fairy tales. Our children have been exploring fairy tales in their homeschool classes. What they have been able to find in them, with some instruction and conversation, brings them to and incredible understanding of Orthodoxy.
    We recently read “Cinderella” the Hans Christian Anderson version. Children in the class, we’re making analogies about all of the characters, and how they reminded them of the Trinity. For example, the Godmother, was like the Paraclete. I was shocked by their comments. They are sixth graders. Such a joy to see. Praise the Lord.

    Thank you Father Stephen for this article.

    Also….great lecture in Boston.

  19. Father,
    Not only did the apostles seenthe risen Lord, but He had to open the scriptures to them and break bread before they recognized Him. He had to tell them the story of Himself.

  20. Rooted in an encounter? There certainly is an encounter (though perhaps not always in the sense that Evangelicals imagine it). But the encounter opens up the Story. The disciples saw the risen Lord, and then they understood all that He had said. The resurrection of Christ has to be placed in the narrative of Pascha, otherwise it would just be an interesting miracle. But it is our salvation. And to say that requires a story.

    Thank you for this, Father! It helps a great deal.

    Thanks also to Gregory Manning and Rafael’s comments. Very helpful, all around.

    I am, in fact, a big fan of fairy tales and mythology (especially Norse) but I have not read them in quite a long time. I think I shall pick them up again and do some “light” reading. God bless all!

  21. Fr. Freeman,

    I have often taught literature with an eye to combatting a materialist or purely naturalistic worldview, emphasizing the ultimate futility or inadequacy of the physical world for capturing human significance and purpose. However, based on what you have taught me over the past year or so, I realize the danger now of speaking even implicitly as if the physical and spiritual are some how divergent or in strict opposition to each other. Recently I read superb article on Flannery O’Connor’s stories as intentionally “anti-gnostic” (specifically anti-manichean) and suddenly all the incarnational language began taking better traction in my heart.

    The article is here, and I think it is written by an Orthodox theologian: https://isistatic.org/journal-archive/ir/36_01_2/guroian.pdf

    So I thought (and correct me if I’m a bit off here), it is better to oppose operative ontologies in terms, not of spirit and matter, but in terms of life and death. Thus I might talk about a character (say, Raskolnikov) as attempting to think of the universe as primarily a dead thing, reducible to its empirical realities, and I could talk about another (say Sonya or Psyche in Till We Have Faces) as understanding the universe as deeply alive, full and charged with grace (as Flannery suggests in her wonderful, twisted fashion). Any thoughts on pedagogy here?

    Also, if I am choosing books to teach for the sake of highlighting the immanently divine and incarnational, do you have any suggestions? Will they look more like fantasies and fairy tales? Dostoyevsky allows wonderful glimpses to break through, but there are also long swaths of great bleakness.

  22. Any decent book you can buy on Amazon can be bought from Eighth Day Books. By doing so you not only get your book but support a Christian ministry instead of a de-humanizing consumerist giant.

  23. I am most appreciative to range of recommendations for constructive fairy tales and insightful perspectives springing from Fr. Stephen’s essay. Thanks to all and God bless you all.

  24. Tullius,
    Yes. Spirit versus Matter is a deeply false ontology, particularly for a human being. The point also is that we actually have no idea what we mean when we say “spirit.” And worse still – we actually think we do.

  25. Tullus,

    I don’t recall running across this particular article by Vigen Guroian. I don’t know why he is not better known/read. He is both more accessible and “relevant” than D.B. Hart for example. I want to take your class! I think your questions around pedagogy are very important.

    Father,

    “The point also is that we actually have no idea what we mean when we say “spirit.” And worse still – we actually think we do.”

    With this kids, I want to say “THIS!”. Just when I actually ‘get a handle’ on the “spiritual life”, God has a way of showing me my foolishness and worldliness. I have no idea about “the spiritual” and the few times in my life that I have touched it or gathered a glimpse out of the corner of my eye have left me with…a mystery that like my shadow can not be caught. Stuck in the world, sin, and death am I.

    This ties back to the “help” conversation – I am weary of how easily we want our “help” to be of the or justified by “the spiritual” – too easy I think.

  26. Christopher,

    Thank you. Guroian I think has a much to offer us.

    I think literature, in a modern western context, may bring us closer to reality than most academic theology, and I am fortunate to find my vocation suited accordingly–though if I weren’t in a broadly “public” institution, I could be more direct with my students. 🙂

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