C.S. Lewis loved fairy stories. He thoroughly believed that “sometimes fairy stories say best what needs to be said” (the title of one of his essays). And, as we’ve seen, Lewis rejected the modern association of fairy tales with children. Adults can and should enjoy fairy stories.
But Lewis was aware that many regarded fairy stories as unsuitable even for children. In “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” he sets out to defend the fairy tale against three objections.
Objection 1: Fairy tales give children a false impression of the world.
Lewis: On the contrary, fairy stories give them a realistic impression of the world. In fact, it’s the realistic stories that are more likely to deceive them. “All stories in which children have adventures and successes which are possible, in the sense that they do not break the laws of nature, but almost infinitely improbable, are in more danger than fairy tales of raising false expectations” (37).
Objection 2: Fairy tales promote escapism in children.
Lewis: Both fairy stories and “realistic” stories engage in “wish-fulfillment.” But it is actually the realistic stories that are more deadly. Fairy stories do awaken desires in children, but most often it’s not a desire for the fairy world itself. Most children don’t really want there to be dragons in modern England. Instead, the desire is for “they know not what.” This desire for “something beyond” does not empty the real world, but actually gives it new depths. “He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted” (38).
Realistic stories, on the other hand, are fraught with danger in that they tend to provoke resentment and anger. A child who reads about a boy who tells the truth despite difficulty at school and is acclaimed for it will most likely be disappointed when his own hard truth-telling is not met with the same accolades. Stories about realistic, but highly improbable scenarios send children back to their lives “undivinely discontented.” The things in the story “would have happened if the reader had had a fair chance” (38).
Objection 3: Fairy tales will frighten children.
Lewis: We must carefully define what we mean by “frighten.” If we mean that we must not instill “disabling, pathological fears” in children, well and good. The trouble is that we often don’t know what will trigger such phobias in children (Lewis notes that his own night-terrors as a child centered on insects, something which he received from the real world and not from fairy tales).
But in making this objection, some mean that “we must try to keep out of [the child’s] mind the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil.” But we are born into a world like that, and hiding it from children actually handicaps them. “Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. . . Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book” (39-40).
Indeed, Lewis argues that exposing children to the second type of fear can help them to overcome the first type of debilitating phobia. “I think it is possible that by confining your child to blameless stories of child life in which nothing at all alarming ever happens, you would fail to banish the terrors and would succeed in banishing all that can ennoble them or make them endurable. For in the fairy tales, side by side with the terrible figures, we find the immemorial comforters and protectors, the radiant ones. . . It would be nice if no little boy in bed, hearing, or thinking he hears a sound, were ever at all frightened. But if he is going to be frightened, I think it better that he should think of giants and dragons than merely of burglars. And I think St. George, or any bright champion in armour, is a better comfort than the idea of the police” (40).
Joe Rigney is Assistant Professor of Theology and Christian Worldview at Bethlehem College and Seminary.
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