On the Supposed Unsuitability of Fairytales for Adults

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 onlysuitable 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 sophisticatesand intelligentsiaamong us; but no group of minds is more enslaved to intellectual fads than such self-important neo-aristocracies.

Lewis’ Narnian 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 childhood.

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 folklorefor 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 folkloreis an academic term, we simultaneously introduce a new misconception. “Ah, well, folklore, of course. Naturally there’s merit to academicstudy 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 folklorewere 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 wisdomfor 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 Fishstory 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 willbe 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.

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