Thursday, March 31, 2011

Fairy Tales, Faërie Stories, and What to Tell the Kids

I have always been a fan of fairy tales, but, I must admit, I hadn’t always thought much about them. They were always cheerful, silly tales with happy endings that allowed me to think about something other than my “real” life. I still get that feeling sometimes, like when watching Disney movies. I suppose many of Tolkien’s critics would say I’m an escapist, though I prefer to think of myself as one of Tolkien’s prisoners attempting to relieve the doldrums of life in a cell as opposed to a deserter abandoning actual life. That may just be pretention on my part. All the same, I never thought of fairy tales as much more than entertainment. I didn’t associate them with the kind of fantasy I loved and felt so enthralled with, fantasy like The Lord of the Rings and the legends of King Arthur. I confess, I placed fairy tales into the realm of children’s stories.

Tolkien’s essay On Fairy Stories finally explained the difference between fairy tales and Faërie stories. Fairy tales could be any short story with unusual elements designed (or adapted) for children. Faërie stories, on the other hand, deal with what Tolkien describes as “primordial human desires”. According to him, the enchantment of Faërie is based in the desire to realize “imagined wonder”. He uses the example of communicating with animals, but it seems like practically anything could apply. For me, the Faërie elements are what make fantasy stories compelling. Contrary to what many of Tolkien’s critics seem to think, fantasy, when it is Faërie, goes straight to the heart of what humans want most. It addresses our fears and our hidden or overt desires. The reason The Lord of the Rings can speak to us so powerfully is because it is a Faërie story that addresses real human problems, of hope, despair, love, greed, fear, anger, friendship, hatred, and basically any other human emotion that influences our actions (which would be all of them). The enchantment of Faërie gives us a mirror to look through at ourselves, showing us things that were, are, and have not yet come to pass. The Faërie makes stories timeless because it shows us elements of the nature of humanity, a nature that is not likely to change.

Fairy tales, on the other hand, seem to endure out of habit, told over and over again simply because they were told to us. There doesn’t necessarily need to be any sort of substance in them, though they seem to try to stuff morals in somewhere. Indeed, a lot of fairy tales today have been substantially altered for children so their minds won’t be corrupted or their psyches damaged from dark tales with scary imagery and lacking happy endings. This, I think, takes away most of the interesting parts of the fairy tales, or of any story. I work in a children’s library and I’ve always found it amusing to look at picture book versions of these stories. All the rape, incest, adultery, and murder mysteriously vanish from Arthurian legend in a modern children’s library. Many would argue that that is a good thing and that children do not need to be exposed to such harsh real world elements. I’m sure that’s true… to an extent. However, it seems to be going a bit too far, and not just in fairy tales.

For example, recently the movie Gnomeo and Juliet came out. Poor Shakespeare. To be fair, I haven’t seen the movie, but, SPOILER: nobody dies. Even Tybalt, though smashed, apparently reappears in the credits glued back together. I have a problem with this, and I think Tolkien would have too. Romeo and Juliet is a great story, though not a Faërie story, and there is no reason to soften it for children. Tolkien says, “the age of childhood-sentiment has produced […] a dreadful undergrowth of stories written or adapted to what was or is conceived to be the measure of children’s minds or needs. The old stories are mollified or bowdlerized, instead of being reserved; the imitations are often merely silly”. Gnomeo and Juliet is probably the silliest an imitation can get.

I am of the opinion that, as a society, we are getting a bit too protective. Sure, I can see not mentioning to a six-year-old that Arthur slept with his sister, but why not mention he had a son with someone other than Guinevere? Why not say that Lancelot and Guinevere were having an affair? Is that really something too inappropriate for children?

When I was a child, I created my own drama. I started a collection of Fisher Price dolls when I was seven or eight. Every time I got a new doll, I had to explain not only how the new doll arrived, but why they hadn’t been with my original dolls. Reasons included kidnapping, comas, adoption, orphaning, amnesia, car accidents, war, and escaping from Mexico across the border. There were all kinds of romance, complicated when a new doll came into the mix. A standard story when something like, “Dave thought Karen was dead and she didn’t remember him for the longest time but now she’s back with his child but he’s married Sarah!” Generally my solution was to ask my mother for another doll that would even things out. The point, however, is that children are more than capable of creating a soap opera’s worth of drama.

Children are not so fragile that they can’t handle or appreciate a Faërie story. The degradation of fairy tales has inadvertently degraded fantasy as a whole. Maybe if we start allowing children to dictate the type of stories they want to hear, instead of letting adults determine what is “appropriate” for them, fantasy stories will finally be appreciated as a viable art form that can provide real insight instead of the second-class citizen of literature.


P.S. All the quotes (with the exception of the movie reference) were taken from On Fairy Stories. I'd cite the pages but my version of The Tolkien Reader is from 1966 so it'd just be confusing for everyone else.


  1. The distinction that you are trying to make here between Faerie-tales and fairy-tales is a good one, if we take "fairy-tales" to mean the kind of watered-down (lit. bowdlerized) versions of what are typically (in their Faerie forms) quite terrifying stories, like "Romeo and Juliet" vs. "Gnomeo and Juliet." What mystifies me is why anybody puts up with the Gnomeo-version--and I say this as someone who was terrified by the Abominable Snowman in "Rudolph."


  2. I think that the increased bowdlerization of classic stories (and creation of new stories in the mode one might call "bowdlerization ab initio") has everything to do with the increased protectiveness, indeed overprotectiveness, of children which has been growing in our society in the past decades, possibly even centuries. It's quite ridiculous these days. Consider the 9-year-old allowed by his mother to ride the subway by himself; it was a route he knew, it was his idea, everything went fine, yet the mother was called out on many fronts as a child-abusing monster. (see for story)

    --Luke Bretscher

  3. I totally agree about children’s ability to handle information. Some things may be too much, too scary, and only serve to make children fearful of the world, but it seems to me that exposing children to fictional monsters and evil sorcerers and wicked stepmothers is just an indirect or symbolic or (gasp!) allegorical way to tell children that there are bad things in the world and it’s not your fault that there are and good will always overcome. I’m fine with children growing up a bit before they have to learn that good doesn’t always overcome, but a little blood and guts in a story at an early age isn’t likely to do any real damage.

    Have you considered the effect of this bowdlerization on the ‘eucatastrophe’ of the story? Is it really sufficiently cathartic that ‘they live happily ever after’ if the worst that happened was that the stepsister was mean? Do we (even as children) really feel that a great trial has been overcome? Do we fully understand the risks taken, the danger of utter failure, the costs of success, or the true value of victory without those truly dark and desperate moments?

    CDK Jacobson