We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. ~Isaiah 64:8

Monday, October 24, 2011

Fairy Tales for Today

On my way to run an errand recently, I popped on the radio to our local NPR station where a panel of very ardent women were discussing the evil that is the Disney princess empire. One panelist explained her concern that girls get stuck with a princess mentality: looking for a man or money or just really long hair to solve life’s difficulties. They were also quick to point out that the male figures in these stories didn’t fare much better.  What surprised me was that their concern wasn’t just with Disney, it was with the fairy tales even in their original form.

Now, I don't like the disney-ization of fairy tales either, but these women were ready to strip all children's stories of anything that diverged from their political agenda.  We'd be left with stories in which no children lose their mother.  No children are  in any danger.   No ugly creatures are transformed by another's love. No princesses ever need rescue.  No strangers ever offer a poisoned apple.

It would be safe, I suppose.  But how anemic.  How boring.

Fairy tales present opportunities for a child to confront some of their biggest fears, for example being small and helpless in the face of bad people.  Once can see this most clearly in the persistent absence of mothers in fairy tales (only dead mothers and mean stepmothers).  Is this not the epitome of vulnerability to a child?  Fairy tales allow a child to enter into those deep fears, without them being too realistic for comfort, and imagine themselves triumphing by kindness, wit, bravery, and love.

I know this is not revolutionary thinking.  JRR Tolkein has written about fairy tales. Bruno Bettelheim published The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.  William J Bennett has compiled volumes of stories that display virtue. GK Chesterton commented on fairy tales in Orthodoxy.   More recently, Vigen Guroian, a theologian, author, and professor of Religious Studies at Univ of Virginia, examined the importance of fairy tales in developing a child's "moral imagination."(a great essay, by the way)

Fairy tales are also just good story-telling.  A good story has a dynamic power which can fire a child's imagination.  When we feed our children’s minds on good stories, those that present Goodness (not just niceness), Truth (not just honesty) and Beauty (not just prettiness), they grow up to be adults who seek those virtues.  Fairy tales are all about Truth and Beauty and Goodness.  Captain Underpants, not so much.

I understand those ladies were just trying to do their best to provide their daughters with "strong role models."  But I would remind them that generations of daughters were able to love fairy tales as children and still manage to grow up to be wise and good mothers, hard workers, and faithful leaders in so many aspects of their lives.  There are more to those fairy tales than just princesses with beautiful dresses and long, flowing hair.

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