Imago Dei and the Redemptive Power of Fantasy - Part 3

Sep 6, 2012

Another common objection of our day is that fairy stories and fairy tales in particular are scary and violent and are therefore unfit for children. 

In the Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, Bruno Bettelheim deals with this issue at length. Bettelheim was a famous child psychologist who worked with troubled children, and he has a lot of very insightful things to say about children and fairy tales. In the introduction, he argues that children know that the source of much that goes wrong is our own nature.  

Moderns, of course, want children to believe that inherently all men are good. But, Bettleheim points out, children know that they are not always good and even when they are, they would prefer not to be. What the child knows about his own heart, then, contradicts what his parents say about him and makes him a monster in his own eyes. The culture wants to pretend (for children) that the dark side does not exist. But, despite what modern parenting books may tell us, Bettleheim argues that children are filled with fears including desperate feelings of loneliness and isolation, and they often experience mortal anxiety. The fairy tale by contrast takes these existential anxieties and dilemmas very seriously and addresses itself directly to them: the need to be loved and the fear that one is worthless; the love of life and the fear of death.

Further, the fairy tale offers solutions in ways that the child can grasp on his level of understanding. Parents voice concerns about the sometimes violent ends of fairy tales. Chesterton says that children love fairy tale endings where evil is punished and goodness rewarded “for children are innocent and love justice, while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.”  Bettleheim’s experience with children has confirmed this view. Children reject prettified fairy tales where the violence has been removed. The child is only satisfied when wickedness is punished.  Bettleheim writes, “Consolation requires that the right order of the world is restored; this means punishment of the evildoer, tantamount to the elimination of evil from the hero’s world—and then nothing stands any longer in the way of the hero’s living happily ever after.”

Concern over the scary aspects of fairy tales is relatively new:  Fairy tales underwent severe criticism when the new discoveries of psychoanalysis and child psychology revealed just how violent, anxious, destructive, and even sadistic a child’s imagination is. Doubters claimed that these stories create or at least greatly encourage these upsetting feelings. (You can see the assumption that evil is something outside of us and if we can just keep those things away from our children, they will be ok.)  Those who opposed fairy tales decided that if there were monsters in children’s stories, they needed to be friendly.  As a result the child remains helpless with his worst anxieties. On the other hand, fairy tales give shape and form to these anxieties and shows ways to overcome them. Chesterton in an essay called “The Red Angel” relates a story of  a woman who wrote to him and said that  it is cruel to tell children fairy tales because it frightens them. He responded, You might just as well say that it is cruel to give girls sentimental novels because it makes them cry.

All this kind of talk is based on that complete forgetting of what a child is like which has been the firm foundation of so many educational schemes. If you keep bogies and goblins away from children they would make them up for themselves.… The fear does not come from fairy tales; the fear comes from the universe of the soul. The timidity of the child or the savage is entirely reasonable; they are alarmed at this world, because this world is a very alarming place. They dislike being alone because it is verily and indeed an awful idea to be alone. Barbarians fear the unknown for the same reason that Agnostics worship it—because it is a fact.

Fairy tales, then, 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 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.

Moderns concluded that because a child is already afraid of so many things, anything else that looked fearsome should be kept from him. Bettelheim goes on to say that the opponents of fairy tales believed that by starving the imagination of the child they could extinguish the giants and ogres of the fairy tales. But, parents who forbid fairy tales because they don’t want to increase their child’s anxieties remain oblivious to all the reassuring messages in fairy tales. 

Bettleheim writes, “A particular story may indeed make some children anxious, but once they become better acquainted with fairy stories, the fearsome aspects seem to disappear, while the reassuring features become ever more dominant. The original displeasure of anxiety then turns into the great pleasure of anxiety successfully faced and mastered. “Fairy tales are loved by the child not  because the imagery he finds in them conforms to what goes on within him but because—despite all the angry, anxious thought in his mind to which the fairy tales gives body and specific content—these stories always result in a happy outcome, which the child cannot imagine on his own.” As Chesterton says, “At the four corners of a child's bed stand Perseus and Roland, Sigurd and St. George.

If you withdraw the guard of heroes you are not making him rational; you are only leaving him to fight the devils alone. For the devils, alas, we have always believed in.” To the charge that to read fairy tales is to indulge in escapism, Bettelheim argues that fairy tales are not escapists because they allow us to confront our fear and longings instead of being distracted from those things.  The fairy tale confronts the child squarely with the basic human predicaments.  It thrusts us into reality. To a child terrified of abandonment, reading “Hansel and Gretel” is not escapism! It confronts his fears head on and offers reassurance because even in their most exaggerated forms—anxieties about being devoured--they prove unwarranted. The children are victorious in the end, and a most threatening enemy is utterly defeated.

I’ll talk a little later about what Tolkien has to see about this criticism of escapism.  But first, Tolkien explains why there are so many bad fantasy books. He says that fantasy is very difficult to write.  Most of the time, fantasy is not a truly subcreated world, but a “decoration.”  To create a truly subcreated world requires labor and thought and a special skill. “Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art, indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.” 

Fantasy, Tolkien says, is not a lower but a higher form of art, indeed the more pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent.

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.​​

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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