We Need Fairy Tale Dragons

We need Fairy Tale Dragons.

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We need the bad guys, the villains. Jack’s Giant. Cinderella’s and Snow White’s evil step-mothers. The Troll who bullied the Three Billy Goats Gruff. The witch in Hansel and Gretel. The Big Bad Wolf.

Not to mention Captain Hook, the Sheriff of Nottingham, Cruella DeVille, and the White Witch.

I said earlier that we create because we’re made in God’s image. Imago Dei. That includes making stories.

God is not only an Artist. He’s a Storyteller. Author of the world’s best story:

In pursuit of His lost people, the loving, good, and powerful King sacrifices His own Son, thereby defeating the evil Dragon. They live happily ever after (eventually).

God as Author takes hundreds of pages to tell us this. Hundreds of stories over thousands of years. All for this one purpose.

Maybe that’s why Hans Christian Andersen said, “Every man’s life is a fairy tale written by God’s fingers.”

So it’s inherent that we love a good story. We love hearing, reading, and telling them. Some of us enjoy crafting original stories, even writing them down.

But before any were written, they were passed by word of mouth from generation to generation. Thus, every culture and age has their oral traditions.

Those tales have enough in common with each other that men like Joseph Campbell have written about the universality of myth in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Similar archetypes and motifs run through all cultures:

  • the hero’s journey
  • magic objects and transformations
  • tests of cleverness or character
  • talking animals
  • treasure seeking
  • series of three
  • rewards for good
  • punishment for evil . . . and more.

All the stuff of fairy tales. But not just for children. They’re for everybody, as C.S. Lewis explains in his essay “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said.”

Yes, the creator of Narnia claimed that fairy tales are for all ages. For the young at heart.

Photograph by Arthur Strong, 1947; 1950 Geoffrey Bles first edition hardcover

At age sixteen, Lewis read George MacDonald’s Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women. Later he wrote about his first encounter with the book: “That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized.”

*******************
“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and
would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so.
Now that I am fifty, I read them openly.
When I became a man I put away childish things,
including the fear of childishness
and the desire to be very grown up.”
*********
“Some day you will be old enough
to start reading fairy tales again.”
–C.S. Lewis
******************

But fairy tales are for children, too, dragons and all. Even with enchanted forests, magic potions, and evil creatures lurking behind each tree.

But isn’t that too scary for kids?

Not according to British writer G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936). He said,

“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.”
—-G.K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles, 1909

Mr. Chesterton was also greatly impacted by fairy tale author George MacDonald. One particular book, Chesterton said “has made a difference to my whole existence . . . the most real, the most like life . . .” He was referring to The Princess and the Goblin.

Chesterton was appalled by the idea of withholding fairy tales from children or removing them from the curriculum:

“There are some refusals which,
though they may be done what is called conscientiously,
yet carry so much of their whole horror in the very act of them,
that a man must in doing them not only harden
but slightly corrupt his heart.
One of them was the refusal of milk to young mothers
when their husbands were in the field against us.
Another is the refusal of fairy tales to children.”

Why would he say this? Because . . .

“Exactly what the fairy-tale does is this:
it accustoms him by a series of clear pictures to the idea
that these limitless terrors have a limit,
that these shapeless enemies have enemies,
that these infinite enemies of man have enemies in the knights of God,
that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness,
and stronger than strong fear.”
–G.K. Chesterton, from Tremendous Trifles, 1909.

Good triumphs over evil. It conquers darkness and fear. No wonder Chesterton said that fairy-tales restored his mental health.

As a folktale expert on the social and political roles of stories, author Jack Zipes has plenty to say. He expounds on the struggles and fears due to barbaric forces we live with daily, then claims that fairy tales are the means “to conquer this concrete terror through metaphors” (Spells of Enchantment: The Wondrous Fairy Tales of Western Culture, 1991).

Additionally, Zipes says,

“We want to be given opportunities to change,
and ultimately we want to be told that we can become kings and queens,
or lords of our own destinies.
We remember wonder tales and fairy tales
to keep our sense of wonderment alive
and to nurture our hope that we can seize possibilities
and opportunities to transform ourselves and our worlds.”
Spells of Enchantment: The Wondrous Fairy Tales of Western Culture, 1991

So don’t fear the dragons. Or the Big Bad Wolf. Don’t withhold them from your children. Dragons can be conquered. Children need to see the drama unfold in the stories they read. And vicariously experience it.

Photo credit: sofi01 on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC

Fairy tales give us different ways to think about the world. They give us glimpses into ways that good can overcome evil. They inspire us to strive on the side of love, compassion, and justice, seeking what is good and right.

These tales also cause us to wonder. They open our minds and vision to new perspectives, new worlds. They can sharpen our focus, elicit self-reflection. They give us courage to move forward rather than retreat.

“The world will never starve for want of wonders;
but only for want of wonder.”
–G.K. Chesteron, Tremendous Trifles

So open up your world to include fairy tales! If you’re wondering what to get your kids or grandkids for their birthdays or Christmas, now you know.

How have fairy tales have impacted you?

Please add your comments below. I’d love to hear from you!

Ever musing,

Laura


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13 thoughts on “We Need Fairy Tale Dragons

  1. Thank you, Laura. This was beautiful. It is my favorite post yet because I often feel criticism for enjoying fairy tales and writing fantastical stories. I grapple with explaining this, and I appreciate the encouragement I felt I was receiving today through your words.

    1. I’m so glad you were encouraged, Elizabeth. It is difficult to explain to people who don’t already appreciate fairy tales. Or, in some cases, fiction in general.

    2. Elizabeth,

      Your reply reminds me of the old song that Frank Sinatra sang: “Fairy Tales, they come true, they can happen to you, if you’re young at heart…” This is kind of in the same vein as Jesus’ teaching “unless we become as children…” So, I say, keep on enjoying those fairy tales!

  2. Fairy tales are truths about human nature dressed up in fictional characters and places that exaggate a quality to be more clearly seen for what they really are. What a child friendly way to talk about difficult, but present issues.

    1. You put that so well, Mollie. It’s true for seeing evil and the difficult issues, but also for seeing the good. I especially love the way Disney portrayed the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast,” and later Rapunzel (in Tangled). Those two are my all-time Disney animated features. Unlike Cinderella and falling in “love” with outward beauty, B & B and Tangled show what true love is. Seeing the deeper person inside, but also loving sacrificially. Doing what’s good for the other person, not just trying to possess him/her.

  3. Laura,

    This was an excellent post! I think fairy tales, villains and all, are actually microcosms of what we deal with in the realm of aesthetics. Artists create/perform beautiful works because they (we) were created in His image, yet, we have to deal with not only the beautiful, but we also have to determine what to do with “the ugly” or the not so beautiful that comes with this world.

  4. It’s interesting the number of stories lately that want to turn fairy tales on their heads–where the evil dragon is actually the good guy, just misunderstood, and Prince Charming is bad, conniving, and narrow minded. That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed some of the remakes (The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs is HILARIOUS!) but I wonder if the frequency of this new genre tells the story of a shift in our culture itself.

    1. An intriguing thought, Elizabeth. If this is a culture shift, is it from having a fuzzier line between good and evil? Or is it due to our efforts to not judge by appearances? Or . . . is it something else? I’d like to know what other readers think, too!

  5. I’ve thought about this sympathetic approach to villains a lot, especially since it seems to be coupled with the public disgrace of heroes. I think it started with the modernists, who reacted to the “civilized” world breaking out in World War I. Perhaps we are trying to figure out what reality is – good people sometimes do bad things and bad people sometimes do good things. This supports the Christian notion that we ultimately are not qualified to judge others. However, our input of too much verisimilitude in disgracing our heroes can be harmful. We no longer have that moral ideal portrayed and society at large lowers its standard of what is acceptable.

  6. I was never really drawn to reading fantasy novels until my cousin, an avid reader, suggested the Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne or her son Todd McCaffrey. Wow. I was hooked. Anne McCaffrey created such a rich world and intriguing characters that swept me away, I even did a painting inspired by her stories. My thought is, embrace the fairy tale. If you find a book that sweeps you away, hang on for the enjoyable ride. You also will likely find it will captivate the creative muse within and soon you’ll be trying something you never thought you’d attempt, like a painting.

    1. I love how your enjoyment of the story led you to create a painting. You definitely were swept away! That’s the momentum of the Muse . . . it all comes from letting yourself go into new fantastical worlds.

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