“The Happy Prince and other tales” via Wikimedia Commons
When I was in college, a fellow student scoffed at philosophy classes about possible worlds. She did not understand why we should waste time on such imaginary frivolities. Her parents had, with misguided benevolence, deprived her of works of fantasy and faerie. They had a Puritan outlook on such things, believing them to be anti-Christian and hence anathema simply by virtue of mentioning magic.
She was not the only one who was unable to grasp philosophical concepts thanks to a stunted imagination; another student struggled badly with his essays, discounting philosophy as so much tripe. He had avoided even Enid Blyton, thinking that her books were “just for girls”.
I found echoes of this deprivation in an atheist who had somehow laid his hands on Dante and Crime and Punishment in his teens, but who never had fairy tales in childhood. He said, “I read books about things like jellyfish and dinosaurs.” In high school, he chose to study science and mathematics, because he could not see the point in the humanities. He scorned Shakespeare and Chaucer. He also believed that humans are basically robots with no free will.
I found these young people intellectually and spiritually malnourished, even emotionally stunted in some ways. They lacked a balanced educational diet. On one end, they had drunk the milk of Christian teachings; on the other, had fed well on the meat of hard science and mathematics. But neither had tasted the sweet fruits of literature, the leafy vegetables of fairyland (Rapunzel, anyone?), the nourishing mythic roots of their own civilization. They turned their noses up at what they had never been taught to appreciate.
Certainly, one should be wary of the occult, avoiding unhealthy curiosity in diabolical matters. However, traditional fairy tales are far from conduits to evil. On the contrary, they present humanity's perennial battle between good and evil, usually with the good, pure and noble protagonist triumphing over selfishness, cruelty and misfortune.
They do this through appealing to the imagination, whose role is described by one writer as follows:
“Man’s soul is rational, and that means he has both an intellect and will. The intellect desires truth; the will desires the good. But the imagination is something other. The imagination serves as a database of mental images stored by sensory experiences, and therefore, the intellect recalls images from the imagination which present it to the will as something to be desired. For this reason, it’s important to flood the imagination with the ‘good, true, and beautiful’…”
In the 1800s, Oscar Wilde and Hans Christian Andersen used fairy tales to explore the drama of human passions, often with a poignant moral in each tale. Their stories celebrate true love as demonstrated through self-sacrifice. For instance, Andersen's original Little Mermaid loves the prince so much that she refuses to kill him to save herself. In Wilde's The Happy Prince, the prince who neglected his people during his earthly life is able to atone for his sins of omission with the help of a swallow who strips the gold and jewels from his statue to give to the poor. The swallow tarries too long and dies of cold, while the prince's denuded statue is melted down, but their remains are received into Paradise as the most precious things from their city.
Fairy tales provide basic human formation, building empathy, rewarding courage, affirming sacrificial love in the face of death. They broaden the mind, enlarging it to admit mysteries and other points of view. When you can place yourself in the shoes of a lowly kitchen maid or a young stowaway, you can begin to appreciate the value in every human life.
In the ancient fairy tales of Europe, the proud are humbled, the lowly exalted. Lost princesses regain their stolen kingdoms in Snow White and The Sleeping Beauty; good-hearted and intelligent maidens are raised to royalty in Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella. Other fairy tales act as cautionary tales, such as Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel, opening children's eyes to the wiles of crafty evil-doers.
The British atheist Richard Dawkins dismisses religion as “fairy tales” but at the same time highlights a truth about these stories:
“Fairy tales, as well as charming, can be good training in critical thinking… My whole life has been given over to stimulating the imagination, and in childhood years, fairy stories can do that.”
Through these tales, we learn the rewards of virtue over the grasping pretensions of vice. We enter worlds which are in many ways very like our own, and we admire the fortitude and wit of often-disadvantaged heroes and heroines who overcome wickedness and temptation to win their crowns and true love at last. They supply a diet of moral fibre and lend us hope that good will eventually rule the day despite all the machinations of evil. G.K. Chesterton, a great defender of faery, wrote:
“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.” (Tremendous Trifles, 1909)
Indeed, fairy tales exercise the imagination, making possible that which, by all accounts, should be impossible, considering the dire circumstances in which protagonists usually find themselves. They celebrate the triumphs of their main characters not only over their adversaries but also over their own selves. Princes, princesses, servant girls and shepherd boys alike suffer abuse, fight despair and deny themselves, while discerning whom to trust for assistance, in order to accomplish their quests. In fairy tales, children venture beyond their comfort zones into a world fraught with peril, and after much tribulation, as Kay and Gerda in The Snow Queen, they grow up. They are fulfilled.
By contrast, a world devoid of fairy tales is a utilitarian world robbed of the lifeblood of human emotions, passions and freedom. As portrayed by Mr Gradgrind in Charles Dickens' Hard Times, someone who views the world only through the lens of empiricism (“… Facts, sir. Nothing but Facts!”) is someone who is woefully impoverished. He is ignorant of greater realities and purposes beyond the merely material. He has no sense of adventure or appreciation of beauty; worst of all, he is unable to truly love. For love is an act of the will and a response to the beauty and goodness in every living creature.
Indeed, says another writer, fairy tales are truer than mere facts:
'We need to keep being told fairy tales because we need to keep being reminded that fairy tales are always true — more true than mere fact because, were this story merely factual, it would apply to one person at one time. But because it is fiction it applies to all of us, all throughout history, before and beyond.'
Far from useless trifles or evil explorations, fairy tales are necessary in training a child to love the true, the good and the beautiful. They open our eyes to see with a renewed vision, beholding with wonder the magic and mystery in creation, which should not be reduced to mere scientific facts or cast aside with Puritan coldness. The way of faery is the way of virtue, learning how to love ourselves and others we meet on our life's journey.
Mei Ling is a Singapore born freelance writer and social media manager living in Queensland, Australia.