On the Unsuitability of Fairytales for Adults

Deviation Actions

Daily Deviation
Daily Deviation
October 17, 2014
On the Unsuitability of Fairytales for Adults by MrWootton is an insightful passage on an often underappreciated form of literature.
Featured by SingingFlames
MrWootton's avatar

Literature Text

My dear Lucy,

I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand a word you say, but I shall still be

your affectionate Godfather,
C.S. Lewis

– Dedication of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe

Some time ago I wrote an open letter on the supposed unsuitability of fairytales for children, criticizing the notion that children should be sheltered from fairytales. Another view, even more prevalent, is that fairytales are an exclusively children's literature, the rightful domain of saccharine animated films and kindergarten story-time.

These two views – that fairytales are unsuitable for children, and that they are only suitable for children – are less at odds than you might think. Because they are united by a common failure to recognize the real value of fairytales, adherents of either group are likelier to join forces to ban fairytales altogether, given the opportunity, than they are to haggle about age-appropriate demographics.

According to one view, exposing children to fairytales is likely to scar them psychologically and impede or warp their development. According to the other, adults who read fairytales for personal enjoyment are odd, abnormal, coping with adulthood by clinging to comforting fixtures of their childhood – something like adult thumb-suckers. In both views, fairytales are things which have to be “got over” or “outgrown.”

But I am deeply convinced that we have not outgrown, and shall never outgrow, Faerie.

This may be an unpopular view, particularly with the sophisticates and intelligentsia among us; but no group of minds is more enslaved to intellectual fads than such self-important neo-aristocracies.

Lewis' Narnia dedication correctly infers that the season of life in which we are “too old for fairy tales” is specious rather than mature. The attitude occurs during that age in which we begin wanting to be “taken seriously” by others and feel that, to attain this goal, we must zealously safeguard our fledgling adulthood.

Being “too old for fairy tales” is an adolescent attitude. As a claim to literary maturity, it is analogous to acting macho (a claim to strength of body, mind, and character), or to adopting an air of worldly-wisdom and superiority (a claim to understand matters inexpressible to those of lesser experience).

Just as acting macho is proof of our weakness – just as acting ineffably wise is proof of our inability to explain experiences we ourselves do not yet understand – so, too, is dismissal of “childish” fairytales proof that we are not yet ready for them.

It is possible that the only fairytales we have encountered are those revised to be “more suitable for children,” stories which have had all their depth, layers, and morals stripped from them. In these circumstances the attitude is understandable, innocent... perhaps even inevitable. To discover and benefit from the merits of folklore, sometimes it is not our pretensions to adulthood we must overcome, but rather the poverties of our childhoods.

Nor is this challenge solely faced by individuals. From time to time whole societies experience hubristic fits of scientific or religious “enlightenment,” during which people come to believe that they can safely ignore, scorn, and abandon “simple” folk wisdom – only to discover on down the road that they really ought to have spent a few minutes sitting at the feet of the old woman or the uneducated man. It turns out they knew something valuable about life after all.

If we substitute the more accurate term folklore for fairytale, we immediately start to grasp, through sheer intuition, what is worthwhile about this canon of world literature:

    * Folklore transmits to us an entire heritage of “common” sense and everyday wisdom in memorable, highly-imaginative parables

    * Folklore unites us with our earliest human ancestors and our most distant kin – our neighbors furthest-removed in both time and space

    * Folklore convinces us that we are not isolated in our struggle against the human condition, except by choice

    * Folklore reminds us that we can choose a better course – for ourselves, for our loved ones, for our world and its people, and for the children whose inheritance we steward during our lives

But because folklore is an academic term, we simultaneously introduce a new misconception. “Ah, well, folklore, of course. Naturally there's merit to academic study of folk literature. But no well-adjusted person past the age of ten reads fairytales for fun.”

This attitude is a Modernist fad. Thanks to the rise of the middle class during the Victorian era, and a corresponding upper-class obsession with fairies and idealization of Childhood, children's versions of folk-stories began to be produced. Up to and through the Victorian era, folk-stories were all-ages entertainment. It was only afterward that fairytales became “old-fashioned,” then “anti-modern,” then “un-scientific,” then “escapist” and “anti-progressive.”

Partly, this was because whether or not fairies actually existed (in a taxonomic sense) was still a raging debate (Terri Windling points out that fairy abductions, for example, were commonly reported in newspapers until well into the twentieth century, when reports of alien abductions replaced them). Modernists wanted us to “face the facts”: science is unable to confirm that fairies exist. Ergo, we should assume they don't. Ergo, literature which roundaboutly claims or assumes the existence of fairies is false. False stories are lies. Lies are harmful. Ergo, fairytales are harmful.

(Funny, isn't it, that we don't take the same reductionist attitude towards the aliens!)

Thus, in certain circles of culture and with a varying rate of infection, opinions about folklore were reduced to “stories which falsely and harmfully claim that fairies are concretely real.” Belief in fairies became the province of the uneducated or willfully ignorant.

As so often happens in such cases, society happily traded wisdom for knowledge. Everyman Jack traded the “magic” beans inherited from his fairy godmother for an ordinary cow – and never met a giant or made a fortune all the days of his life. The dishonest miller's daughter refused Rumpelstiltskin’s offer of assistance on the grounds that it was scientifically impossible for him to hold up his end of the bargain – and starved to death in the king's dungeon. Dismissing his father Edward as a pathological liar, Will Bloom resolved he would never listen to another Big Fish story his crazy old man told. Eventually, their estrangement poisoned Will's relationship with his own kids.

When we ignore fairytales, we find ourselves living inside them: not as heroes, but as byword-characters – chumps whose arrogant misdeeds serve as warnings to those who come after us.

Have you ever wondered why the protagonist of so many folktales is the youngest of three siblings?

It's so the storyteller can highlight the mistakes and consequences experienced by the first two. In folk-stories, as in life, sometimes there is no margin for error.

Once again I must appropriate Neil Gaiman's paraphrase of G.K. Chesterton: reassured by the factual knowledge that dragons do not exist, we disregarded the far more important point, that dragons can be slain. And we paid no attention when the storyteller told us how. If we had, we might have realized that the instructions for dragon-slaying were not, in fact, about slaying dragons; or at least, that they were not only applicable to dragon-slaying.

Fortunately for us – and for the older siblings of those three-sibling tales – some folklorists argue that the three siblings symbolize three versions of the same person. The version who succeeds – typically the only character actually named in the story – is the one who has learned from past mistakes and carries the memory of those lessons forward into the next leg of the journey.

Are you following me?

Or are you caught up in an inability to suspend your disbelief about an older brother getting turned into a bleeding oak tree because he was rude to an elderly woman by the wayside? Because that's not what matters here.

To become the hero of the story, folklore teaches us that we must acknowledge and learn from our mistakes. We will be changed by them. Whether we are changed for the better or for the worse – whether we go on naively repeating them – is up to us.

We can cling stubbornly to the same ideas about adulthood we formed in our adolescence, and be warped by them. We can decide that we've “arrived”, that our character is complete, and stagnate until we rot.

Or we can keep questioning the meaning of success, humbly listening to and learning from others, so that we can keep refining and pursuing our dreams – so that we can keep growing.

A friend of mine, a musician and professional counselor, once remarked that he's seen many, many people get old – but he hasn't seen many grow up.

There's a reason we've always told one another these stories, some with motifs from the dawn of humanity. It isn't dumb luck that has allowed them to survive all the societies, all the centuries, and all the fads that have been. Fairytale wisdom is subtle enough to elude adults, yet palatable enough to delight children.

Only someone anxious to forget the child he has been, yet insecure about the adult he is becoming, could scorn that kind of story.

I fervently hope such a person will be old enough to read them again soon.
A follow-up to my previous essay On the Unsuitability of Fairytales for Children.

SEE ALSO: My folktale-based fantasy novel series Fayborn.
© 2014 - 2021 MrWootton
Join the community to add your comment. Already a deviant? Log In
SirenDrake's avatar
I have a quibble.  A number of people do indeed look down on anyone who is interested in science fiction in the same way that some people look down on anyone who likes fairy tales after childhood.

No matter what you do or like, there will always be someone out there ready to heap scorn on you for it.
MrWootton's avatar
Quite true. But aren't things that are worth doing or liking be worth defending as well?
SirenDrake's avatar
I don't particularly worry about defending what I like except when I hear people making unjust criticisms of a particular work.  Anyone who wants to look down on me just because I like fairytales, fantasy, and science fiction is welcome to do so.  Why worry about someone who would make a blanket judgement against an entire genre for no real reason?  People doing that are just doing so because they're that terrified of being judged themselves.  Not someone whose opinion seems particularly valuable to me.

I was just pointing out that science fiction comes in for the exact same thing.
dusky-alleykat's avatar
Growing old is mandatory, growing up is optional.

I still read fairytales, and now that I'm a parent, I find myself going back to some of the classics I read as a child with such pleasure. Fairytales are never unsuitable, for anyone. It all depends on what you take away from them. And ask any Irishman, and they'll tell you the little people, are real.
MrWootton's avatar
Just so. And failing to choose to grow up is frequently disastrous.

I'm only 1/16th Irish, but even so I'll tell you the folk are both real and relevant, the world is made by make-believe, and if there are natural laws it follows that there is a supernatural lawgiver.

Anyone who says otherwise is selling something - most likely an abysmally cheap, egocentric, and dangerously tiny view of the universe, and most likely on terms of credit literally soul-sucking.
Katieline's avatar
I wish I could fave this comment.
EuphoniousCacophony's avatar
What I don't understand is why studying mythology is somehow "better" than reading fairytales. They are both stories that have been enriched and changed by countless retellings, and are both ways that humans try to explain the inexplicable world around them. I love legends, fairytales, and mythology, and fervently hope to never"grow too old" for them.
MrWootton's avatar
Because you pay money to study mythology, don'cha know. And if you do it long enough, under "proper" supervision, you've bought the right to add a few letters after your name on official documents! ;-)
What a well written, intelligent piece! Congratulations, you deserve the DD! 
MrWootton's avatar
Clockspur's avatar
And may that wisdom flow like gold in stream, thank you sir:)
TheGalleryOfEve's avatar
Congratulations on your well-deserved DD!!! :iconflyingheartsplz::iconlainloveplz::iconflyingheartsplz: :clap::clap::clap:
I’m very happy for you!!! :iconloveloveplz: :tighthug:
DreamChasingWindie's avatar
I knew as soon as I noticed the C.S. Lewis quote in the preview that this was going to be a good read. :clap:
sevenofeleven's avatar
Well done.

"If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales."
Albert Eistein
AK-Outstanding's avatar
Amen! This was a wonderful read, thank you for sharing this. It is very much deserving of the DD.
Gryffgirl's avatar
Hey--congratulations on the DD!  Very well-written piece! :clap:
neurotype's avatar
I love folk and fairy tales, read a crazy amount through high school (and name dropping, but the one issue I take is the notion that they're always something more than entertainment. There's, for instance, an entire Japanese story about a dude who wants to learn how to make the penises of visitors who try to sleep with his daughter vanish after this happens to him, but he doesn't have the mental fortitude to purify himself, so he goes home with the second best trick and that's that.

So I guess the lesson here is...yes, you can definitely find adult-only fairytales, whether you need to is another question. ;p It totally is the height of arrogance to assume one outgrows things like that.
DarkGrievous7945's avatar

Honestly not sure what to say.
I WILL say, I have to agree.

Some people would say that fairy tales, among other things need to be outgrown.
I would say, as I sure would others, SOCIETY AND ALL ITS SO-CALLED, "VALUES" need to be outgrown and rejected. Sorry if that sounds extreme. Not sure what side of THAT you're on, but all I see are the stereotypes, false truths, and all the other mixes of crap that the brainwashed zombies buy.

Fairy Tales, and countless other works of fiction, at least, in their TRUE, uncensored, and sometimes even, "not politically correct" forms, teach valuable lessons. There are quite a few adults who could benefit from re-learning these lessons.

That's all I have to say on the matter.

And it's nice to see another person who believes in, and PREACHES common sense.
I once had a friend basically tell me, "no such thing, cuz everyone has their own version" .
I must disagree with that. It is not that no such thing exists, it is that modern society lacks it.

Gonna read your other one now
Glad this caught my eye.
Once again, my newly-formed habit of checking the DD's every day proves to be worth it!
CommanderGordon's avatar
Well said. Any time someone draws quotes from Lewis and Chesterton, you know you are about to be met with an overwhelming amount of that strange thing: common sense. I was not disappointed.
MrWootton's avatar
nightshade-keyblade's avatar
Excellent. So eloquently expressed...and so unpretentious. It really does so much to lighten up the blind spots. I especially liked this argument:

"...society happily traded wisdom for knowledge."

As a trainee information scientist, it reminded me of what I learned in one of my classes, and that poem "The Rock" by T.S. Eliot:

"Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"

Thank you once again.
MrWootton's avatar
Thank you for the comment!

T.S. Eliot is one of the best poets of recent memory. I recommend reading him every chance you get =)
Join the community to add your comment. Already a deviant? Log In