(Part 2 of a piece begun last week.)
“My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery. I generally learnt it from a nurse; that is, from the solemn and star-appointed priestess at once of democracy and tradition. The things that I believed most then, the things that I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales.” – “The Logic of Elfland” from Orthodoxy.
Chesterton was a lover of fairy tales. He read them. He wrote them. He wrote about them. He defended them.
And the lessons he learned about life did indeed seem to arise from them. For to him, they were the truest way to judge life.
“They seem to me to be the entirely reasonable things. They are not fantasies: compared with them other things are fantastic. Compared with them religion and rationalism are both abnormal, though religion is abnormally right and rationalism abnormally wrong.” (“Elfland”)
And people who do not respect fairy tales are missing the point. As he notes in “Fairy Tales” (from All Things Considered):
“SOME solemn and superficial people (for nearly all very superficial people are solemn) have declared that the fairy-tales are immoral; … The objection, however, is not only false, but very much the reverse of the facts. The fairy-tales are at root not only moral in the sense of being innocent, but moral in the sense of being didactic, moral in the sense of being moralizing.”
He also argued against those who thought children should not hear fairy tales because they might be frightened. He countered that fairy tales provide children with a sense that they can overcome fear.
“Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. 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.” ("The Red Angel" from Tremendous Trifles.)
Not only do fairy tales teach the child that his fears and enemies can be overcome, they also teach him that the world has limits.
“If you really read the fairy-tales, you will observe that one idea runs from one end of them to the other - the idea that peace and happiness can only exist on some condition. This idea, which is the core of ethics, is the core of the nursery-tales. The whole happiness of fairyland hangs upon a thread, upon one thread.” ("Fairy Tales")
He makes a similar point in Orthodoxy.
“For the pleasure of pedantry I will call it the Doctrine of Conditional Joy. Touchstone talked of much virtue in an "if"; according to elfin ethics all virtue is in an "if." The note of the fairy utterance always is, "You may live in a palace of gold and sapphire, if you do not say the word `cow'"; or "You may live happily with the King's daughter, if you do not show her an onion." The vision always hangs upon a veto. All the dizzy and colossal things conceded depend upon one small thing withheld. All the wild and whirling things that are let loose depend upon one thing that is forbidden.”
He goes on to note: “Strike a glass, and it will not endure an instant; simply do not strike it, and it will endure a thousand years. Such, it seemed, was the joy of man, either in elfland or on earth; the happiness depended on NOT DOING SOMETHING which you could at any moment do and which, very often, it was not obvious why you
should not do.” (Orthodoxy).
Thus fairy tales, rather than being something to avoid or something trivial, teach children lessons – and can teach us all lessons.
“This is the profound morality of fairy-tales; which, so far from being lawless, go to the root of all law. Instead of finding (like common books of ethics) a rationalistic basis for each Commandment, they find the great mystical basis for all Commandments.” (“Fairy Tales”)
Indeed, they can help one’s faith to grow.
“Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.” (“The Red Angel”).
So read fairy tales to your children. They may help them to sleep, to deal with life’s problems, and to get to heaven!