Should children read fairy tales? Can children distinguish between real and that which is unreal? Is it wise to introduce children to a world of fire breathing dragons, creatures with magical powers, and big rock candy mountains? Are the children too young to contend with evil and warfare?
I once knew a mom who thought so. I watched as she read certain books to her children. Some of the pages were completely covered over with blank construction paper taped to these pages. She didn’t want her children to be exposed to the evil contained in these books. Cinderella had no wicked stepmother; Snow White had no evil, jealous queen.
Are fairy tales helpful or hurtful? In a later blog perhaps I’ll address Mason’s view that ‘Fairy Tales Act as a Screen and Shelter.’ (See pages 183-186 of Chapter 17, Volume III School Education.) But today I want to make a connection between fairy tales and what Charlotte Mason would call “The Shout of a King”
Toy guns are banned from the public schools today, and rightly so! But why do my boys need no toy weapons in order to “play” fight in our back yard? A jointed stick is a pistol, a knotted rope is a mace, and a slender branch is a sword. The wood pile is a barricade, and the tree fort is a castle turret. Could it be that they have an innate urge to fight something? From whence does this come? Is there a battle to be fought? For whom are they fighting and for what cause?
In the words of Leslie Laurio’s modern paraphrase, Charlotte Mason has this to say on pages 57, 58 of Chapter 5, Volume II Parents and Children:
‘The Shout of a King’
Children should also grow up with the shout of a King in their midst. Within our faulty human nature are fountains of loyalty, worship, passionate devotion, and cheerful service that unfortunately need to be unsealed from within the dirt-filled hearts of us adults, but only need a reason to flow from a child’s heart. There’s nothing more secure and more gratifying than being continually in the service of One Who is a joy to obey.
In our modern society, we’ve lost sight of the fact that a king or leader implies warfare with an enemy, and victory–or possible defeat and disgrace. It’s never too soon for children to learn this concept of life.
‘Christ’s Fight Against the Devil’
“…we were training for a big fight that would last all our lives. In fact, we were already involved in it. This fight would test all of our powers to the utmost–all of our physical, intellectual, and moral powers. I don’t need to say that this fight was the age-old battle of good against evil, light and truth against darkness and sin, Christ against the devil.”
That’s what the author of Tom Brown’s School Days, Thomas Hughes, said when he addressed Rugby School on a recent Quinquagesima Sunday. He’s right–education is only really education when it teaches this lesson, and this is a lesson that should be learned at home before the child begins any other life lessons. It’s an insult to children to say that they’re too young to understand this, which is the reason we’re sent into the world.
Do you see what Charlotte Mason has brought to light here? There it is—the age old struggle between good and evil. Charlotte Mason (through Thomas Hughes) takes us right to the heart of it—Christ’s fight against the devil. Every struggle has its root at the foot of the cross.
So what do fairy tales do for children? First of all, they do not evade the reality of evil. G.K. Chesterton would say if a book has no wicked characters then it is a wicked book. Fairy tales give children a sense that a war is being waged, and they are partakers of it. The bad guy must be caught, evil must be crushed. In their books children read of evil monsters, wicked queens, yes, but also of brave acts, noble deeds and heroic saviors.
Edmund Spencer wrote The Faerie Queen in 1589. This epic poem contains the story of “St. George and the Dragon.” In it are countless Biblical allusions. A king and queen are held captive by a fearsome dragon. St George is asked by their daughter Una to defeat the dragon. (See the illustrated children’s version, Saint George and the Dragon by Margaret Hodges.) Children love this story! They fight the same dragon in their minds as they listen to Mamma read. They recreate the adventure as they play outdoors later in the afternoon.
In a letter to his friend Sir Walter Raleigh, Spencer states the reason why he wrote his epic poem: “to fashion a gentleman or noble person in the virtuous and gentle disciple.” He wrote it to teach virtue! Furthermore, Spencer argues for his method in teaching virtue: “I know my method [story form, fairy tale] will seem displeasant [to some, who] had rather have good discipline delivered plainly in way of precepts, or sermoned at large…” But Spencer recognized the power of beauty to move us toward goodness and truth. He hoped his poem (beauty) would move us toward virtue and gentle discipline.
Last year we studied The Fairy Queen in our home school. We reveled in it for a few months. One morning shortly thereafter, I began the day with my usual plea, “Lord, would you help me not to become impatient, frustrated or harsh with my children today? May I go through this day being gracious?” Well, I had not yet made it to breakfast before they did something that aggravated me. (Can’t even remember what it was now.) There I was angry before 8:00 a.m.! When they came to me with their mournful looks, “Mom we’re sorry for whatever we did…” I began to weep. “It is not you, children. It is this dragon on my back. He is ever there, seeking to destroy me. But Jesus is mine and He has conquered that dragon once and for all on the cross. He is also with me in my daily, life-long battle with my own sin!”
King Jesus “seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.” Rev 20:2 Fairy tales embolden us to fight sin and the evil one. We fight for our King and as King He has fought (and won!) the good fight for us! And thus we rejoice! There is a shout of a King in our midst!