A Charlotte Mason Education, Books/Wide Reading, Parenthood
Comments 4

Fairy Lore: A Screen and a Shelter by Lori Lawing

Wouldn’t it be something if we lived not in a fallen world?  If we didn’t have the realities of sickness and suffering?  If children weren’t faced with heartache and pain?   Don’t we long for the courts of heaven where “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying”?

Truth is we live, for now, in a marred world, and Charlotte Mason recognized our temptation to shelter children from this reality.   In School Education she suggests:

We temper Life too much for Children.––I am not sure that we let life and its circumstances have free play about children. We temper the wind too much to the lambs; pain and sin, want and suffering, disease and death––we shield them from the knowledge of these at all hazards. I do not say that we should wantonly expose the tender souls to distress, but that we should recognise that life has a ministry for them also; and that Nature provides them with a subtle screen… (Vol. 3 pgs. 183,184).

In a past ChildLight blog, https://childlightusa.wordpress.com/2008/07/04/the-shout-of-a-king-by-lori-lawing/ I mentioned an acquaintance of mine, a thoughtful mother of 11 children, who covered over certain pages of fairy tale books with blank paper.  She knew how frightening and evil Snow White’s stepmother is, or how horrifying it would be to imagine Hansel being stuffed into a burning oven.  No, these disturbing scenes she would keep from their tender eyes.  She did not want her children exposed to evil.

It seems Charlotte Mason would beg to differ.  Perhaps she identified this manner of thinking in her own day, stating, Some of us will not even let children read fairy tales because these bring the ugly facts of life too suddenly before them.” (CM Vol. 3 p. 184)

If the ugly facts of life are inescapable, is there anything that can be done to temper the blow to children?  Miss Mason mentions that “Nature provides them [the children] with a subtle screen” and suggests that fairy lore provides a screen and shelter.  She explains, It is worth while to consider Wordsworth’s experience on this point…[He] tells us how, no sooner had he gone to school at Hawkshead, than the body of a suicide was recovered from Esthwaite Lake; a ghastly tale, but full of comfort as showing how children are protected from shock. The little boy [Wordsworth] was there and saw it all;––

          “Yet no soul-debasing fear,
Young as I was, a child not nine years old,
Possessed me, for my inner eye had seen
Such sights before, among the shining streams
Of fairyland, the forests of romance:
Their spirit hallowed the sad spectacle
With decoration of ideal grace;
A dignity, a smoothness, like the works
Of Grecian art, and purest poesy

Just like purest poesy (poetry), the fairy tales of his childhood softened the horror of death for the young Wordsworth.

Mason continues, “It is delightful to know, on the evidence of a child who went through it, that a terrible scene was separated from him by an atmosphere of poetry––a curtain woven of fairy lore by his etherealising imagination.”

What’s going on here?

When a child’s first encounter with tragedy is through fairy tale, he is introduced to the reality of evil through imaginary scenes.  Because it is fairy tale, the scenes are far off.  He can contemplate the effects of evil from a distance.  He has had time to experience real empathy or sorrow for an imaginary character.  His heart is then buffered or “screened” from the blunt of a real tragedy.

In Critical Discourses on the Fantastic (1712-1831) author David Sandner quotes this same section from Wordsworth’s poem and explains, “The nine-year-old boy remains unafraid because he had seen ‘Such sights before’ in ‘Fairyland.’”

Should we shelter our children from evil?  Miss Mason would advise not wantonly exposing the tender souls to distress, but preparing them for the reality of evil through the imaginary world of fairy tales.  This sheltering/curtaining effect alone might make them worth the reading!

For more on this topic see “Fairy Stories as a Help or Hindrance” by Miss Claudia Davidson, 1916,  in The Parents’ Review, Volume 27, no. 10, a Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture, edited by Charlotte Mason. http://www.amblesideonline.org/PR/PR27p000FairyStories.shtml

© Lori Lawing 2012


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.


  1. Jack Beckman says

    You might want to read Keiran Egan’s “Teaching as Storytelling”. His perspective on children’s innate abilities in comprehending major abstract dualities such as Good/Evil or Dark/Light (for example) demonstrate Mason’s earlier affirmation of this genre.

  2. Lori Lawing says

    Thank you, Jack, for the recommendation. I look forward to reading it!
    BTW- It was great seeing you at Covenant College’s chapel service yesterday.

    Your Ed department did a fine job of presenting! In fact, I’m sure our Charlotte Mason readers would love to hear or read Dr. Young’s presentation on education. So fitting!! Any way we could have it posted on our ChildlightUSA website?

  3. About Charlotte Mason and the arts. She may have had a music deprived early life as gramophone recordings didn’t arrive until the turn of the 19 C and I doubt that there was a gramophone at Scale How- it might have been seen as an indulgence! So hymns in church would have been her main music as a child and young woman. There were concerts in Worthing but no information to say that she went to them. At Scale How the students were invited to play on Tuesday evenings & the Fairfield children also played their piece in Miss Mason’s presence once a term.

    She did get very involved when she first saw Gainsborough’s ” Blue Boy” but while she enjoyed looking at pictures on her travels it may have been the cost element that kept picture study to those monochrome prints, although colour photography was around. I doubt she ever painted in “blobs” or drew a flower tho’.

    My book is nearly finished!

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