Imago Dei and the Redemptive Power of Fantasy - Part 2

Sep 4, 2012

There is no natural connection between the minds of children and fairy tales, states Tolkien.

That’s the assumption of people who tend to think of children as a special kind of creature, almost a different race, rather than as normal if immature members of a particular family and of the human family at large. He say that children, neither like fairy stories  nor understand them better than adults do and no more than they like many other things. In fact, only some children, like some adults, have any special taste for them. The delight does not decrease but increases with age, if it is innate. In fact, a love of fairy stories was not a dominant trait of his own childhood. He explains that his taste was awakened by philology on the threshold of manhood and quickened to full life by war.

But even if fairy stories are incorrectly associated with children, that’s no reason not to read them.  Tolkien argues that if the fairy story is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults. They will, of course, put more in and get more out than children can. Lewis agrees that adults shouldn’t be ashamed of loving “children’s books.”

 In his essay “On 3 Ways of Writing for Children,” Lewis says, “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty—except of course books of information. The only imaginative works we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all.” He continues, “A children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last.”

Lewis goes on to say that the age-sorting of books by publishers is artificial. The same people who are blamed for reading books too young were blamed when children for reading books too old.  He says, “No reader worth his salt trots along in obedience to a time-table.” The other extreme position is that fairy stories are unfit for children. This is the more common position of our day (although anyone of us who has been seen reading Harry Potter in public knows that the first objection still exists).

The first objection to children reading fairy stories is one most often heard from Christians. Fairy stories are not true and therefore are lies. Christians should teach their children truth, not give them lies to read.

This is a debate that has been going on among Christians for a very long time.  In the 16th century in England, the Puritan Stephen Gosson charged that poetry (by which he meant imaginative fiction)—is a lie because it recounts things that are not real. Therefore Christians, he argued, should not read poetry.  Sir Philip Sydney responded to this attack in his work “A Defense of Poesy,” the first explicitly Christian discussion of literature. Sidney argued that imaginative fiction is one of the few expressions that cannot by definition be a lie. “To lie is to affirm that to be true which is false.” 

But a writer doesn’t affirm anything. He never pretends that his tale actually happened and therefore he never lies.

On the other hand, Sidney maintained, writers of what we consider “true” works, can hardly avoid lying sometimes.  A historian or a scientist can’t help but at times to declare something true when it is in fact false. But a writer of fiction never asserts that his work is factual; he writes “not affirmatively but allegorically and figuratively.”

Sidney calls works of fiction “profitable inventions” precisely because they deal with ideals, ”what should be” not “what is” and therefore, he argues, fiction is especially effective in teaching morality.  (And of course we have the example of Christ himself, using made-up fictional stories to teach moral truth when he spoke in parables.) But, not only are fairy stories not true, they aren’t realistic, the objection continues. Lewis says that people fear that fairy stories will give children a false impression of the world they live in. But Lewis responds, “I think no literature that children could read gives them less of a false impression. I think what profess to be realistic stories for children are far more likely to deceive them. I never expected the real world to be like fairy tales.”

Indeed the very appeal to “realism” raises the question of what is realistic. Certainly most modern “realistic” children’s books are filled with politically correct indoctrination. Books promoting the accepted social mores of our time might be realistic to some people but will hardly be the message that Christians want to send to their children.

Furthermore, in addition to promoting a very liberal social agenda, these books are materialistic, in the sense that only the material world is true. The realism presented in these books ignores God’s truth and the transcendent and therefore do not reflect reality at all.

Edith Nesbit, of whom Lewis was a great admirer, makes a similar argument in her work Wings and the Child, or the Building of Magic Cities. In the chapter “Imagination,” she points out that objections to fairy stories are just appeals to rationalism. She starts out by asserting that for children, life is the unfolding of one vast mystery. Everything is mysterious and miraculous; therefore, the mysteries of fairy tales are not odd. If electricity can move unseen through the air, why not carpets? But those who say that fairy tales are lies are really saying, to quote Nesbit, “that nothing is real that cannot be measured or weighed, seen or heard or handled. Such make their idols of stocks and stones, and are blind and deaf to the things of the spirit.

These hard-fingered materialists crush the beautiful butterfly wings of imagination, insisting that pork and pews and public houses are more real than poetry; that a looking glass is more real than love, a viper than valour. These Gradgrinds give to the children the stones which they call facts, and deny to the little ones the daily bread of dreams.” She goes on, “Imagination, duly fostered and trained is to the world of visible wonder and beauty what the inner light is to the Japanese lantern. It transfigures everything into a glory that is only not magic to us because we know Who kindles the inner light, Who set up for us the splendid lantern of this world. But Mr.Gradgrind prefers the lantern unlighted. Material facts are good enough for him. Until it comes to religion. And then, suddenly the child who has been forbidden to believe in Jack the Giant Killer must believe in Goliath and David.

There are no fairies, but you must believe that there are angels. The magic sword and the magic buckler are nonsense, but the child must not have any doubt about the breastplate of righteousness and the sword of the spirit. What spiritual reaction do you expect when, after denying all the symbolic stories and legends, you suddenly confront your poor little materialist with the Most Wonderful Story in the world?” But, as Tolkien admits, children will ask about fairy stories, is it true?  And this, he says, is “not a question to be rashly or idly answered.”  

He argues that a couple of different things are going on with that question: 1.When children ask is it true, they really mean, is it contemporary? Am I safe in my bed? The answer, there are surely no dragons in England today is all they want to hear.  2. The question “proceeds from the child’s desire to know which kind of literature he is faced with. Children’s knowledge of the world is so small that often they cannot judge, offhand and without help, between the fantastic and the merely strange (that is rare or remote facts.), the nonsensical and the merely ‘grown up’ (that is, the ordinary things of their parents’ world, many of which still remains unexplored). But they recognize the different classes” and they desire to know which class the story they are reading belongs in. About his own childhood reading, Tolkien cannot remember that the enjoyment of the story depended on thinking it was real. Fairy stories were plainly not concerned with possibility but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded.  Lewis makes a similar point in “On Stories” saying, “The story does what no theorem can quite do. It may not be ‘like real life’ in the superficial sense: but it sets before us an image of what reality may well be like at some more central region.”

Angelina Stanford

Angelina Stanford

Angelina Stanford has an MA in English literature from the University of Louisiana, graduating Phi Kappa Phi, and has taught in various Christian classical classrooms for over 20 years.  She is currently teaching the Great Books online to high school students at the Harvey Center for Family Learning and recently joined the online faculty of the Circe Academy.  She’s also the co-star of the popular Circe podcast “Close Reads.”  She has a particular interest in myths, fairy tales, and understanding literature through the study of mythological archetypes and biblical typologies—as well as a mild obsession with the influence of Celtic fairy stories and Celtic Christianity on the development of British literature.  She also has a more than mild obsession with Wendell Berry.​​

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