Christians, Charlotte Mason, and Fairy Tales

by Wendi Capehart

When many homeschoolers first come to Charlotte Mason's own writings, they are concerned about some of the books she uses. Her students read fairy tales, myths, Plutarch, and Beowulf.

AmblesideOnline's purpose is to duplicate, as nearly as possible, what Charlotte Mason did in her own schools. For this and other reasons, these things are also part of AmblesideOnline's curriculum. It is important to understand, however, that members are free to make substitutions for their own families. It is not the intent of anyone at AmblesideOnline to brow-beat our members into violating their convictions.

It is our intent to try to educate ourselves and others as to what Miss Mason's reasons are for including these materials. A fuller understanding of her thinking is beneficial whether we end up agreeing with her choices or not. The principles behind her choice of fairy tales may be applied to other books that are acceptable to those families who cannot use fairy tales.

Some object to fairy tales, Plutarch's Lives, and other books included in AmblesideOnline's booklists because of prayerfully and thoughtfully considered convictions.

Some Christians on the other hand, are puzzled by these selections, because they have learned to consider Elsie Dinsmore as the standard for "fine Christian literature." (smile) I believe that we need fine literature for Christians, rather than fine Christian literature. The former places the emphasis where it belongs, on the quality of the writing. The second leaves us dependent upon the morals the author tacks on to the story. I believe it is for us to apply a Christian worldview to the stories that we read and extrapolate the morals ourselves, in line with biblical standards. I also believe that we need to go a little further back than Elsie Dinsmore to find a standard for good writing.

The Bible, for instance, would be a fine standard. And the Bible has stories of good and evil kings, of noble women and prostitutes. We read of fallen women who rose from their fallen states, and those who didn't. It tells stories of those were loyal, like the Rechabites, and those who were not, like Annanias and Saphira. We find stirring accounts of noble actions, like when Moses parted the Red Sea, and of ignoble, as when he lost his temper and thus the right to enter the promised land. It tells of things that are real, such as the Resurrection, things that could be real, such as the parable of the woman and the ten coins, and things that aren't real but represent real things, such as the trees who chose a king in Judges or the Dragon in Revelation.

Charlotte Mason also thought the Bible a fine guide when choosing literature:

"Now Plutarch is like the Bible in this, that he does not label the actions of his people as good or bad but leaves the conscience and judgment of his readers to make that classification. What to avoid and how to avoid it, is knowledge as important to the citizen whether of the City of God or of his own immediate city, as to know what is good and how to perform the same. Children recognize with incipient weariness the doctored tale as soon as it is begun to be told, but the human story with its evil and its good never flags in interest. Jacob does not pall upon us though he was the elect of God. We recognise the justice of his own verdict on himself, "few and evil have been the days of my life." We recognise the finer integrity of the foreign kings and rulers that he is brought in contact with, just as in the New Testament the Roman Centurion is in every case a finer person than the religious Jew. Perhaps we are so made that the heroic which is all heroic, the good which is all virtuous, palls upon us, whereas we preach little sermons to ourselves on the text of the failings and weaknesses of the those great ones with whom we become acquainted in our reading. Children, like ourselves, must see life whole if they are to profit. At the same time they must be protected from grossness and rudeness by means of the literary medium through which they are taught. A daily newspaper is not on a level with Plutarch's Lives, nor with Andrew Lang's Tales of Troy and Greece, though possibly the same class of incidents may appear in both..." [vol 6, pg 186-7]

Miss Mason thought that the children should be introduced to whole books, to living books, to the thoughts and ideas of other minds and cultures, and that they should be introduced and allowed to deal with the material themselves, without the middle man of a teacher or a textbook telling them what to think. She believed the children were able to deal with books on their own, making judgements and drawing conclusions for themselves.

Of course, she also believed that children should be taught good habits of both action and thought from the cradle. She believed that from their earliest moments they should be reminded of their place in the Kingdom of Heaven, that they were made for and must have God, and that they owed their Heavenly King much love and service. She taught that even our thoughts are not our own, but that we have a duty to think just thoughts of our neighbors just as much as we have a duty to deal justly in our actions. I think it's important to remember that side of her methods when considering the books she used.

It is my experience that children brought up already to have some idea of right and wrong in their own actions (and very few homeschooling parents fail to do at least this much) are able to judge right and wrong in their reading, even if it is not pointed out to them. Perhaps sometimes they judge even better under those circumstances.

A recent discussion of fairy tales prompted me to think further on this topic of children's judgement and the stories they read. I was a voracious reader of fairy tales at a certain point in my youth. I've never given much thought to whether I picked up any morals from them. I just loved the stories. But I started thinking about it, and tried to recall my childhood view of the stories. I realized that I had made judgements of right and wrong, even when the story didn't make them. And on occasion, when the story did seem to point to a moral, I was perfectly able to disagree with it if it didn't line up with what I knew of right and wrong.

The Tinderbox is a good illustration of what I mean. For those of you not familiar with it, is the story of an out-of-work soldier who, in an Aladdin's Lamp-type series of events, comes across a magic tinderbox. Striking the box 1, 2, or 3 times will bring one of three different dogs to him to do his bidding, and these are no ordinary dogs. One has eyes as big as saucers, one has eyes as big as dinner plates, and one has eyes as big as the clock in the bell tower. There's the usual princess in the story, and in the end, he of course marries the princess.

It would appear that the soldier is the hero. However, although I always enjoyed the story, I never liked the hero, never felt there was anything about him I'd want to emulate or want my own knight in shining armor, when he came, to imitate.

My 9 year old daughter also loves fairy tales. We've never discussed them or talked about the morals in any way, so it occurred to me that it would be useful for the purposes of this discussion to ask her if she'd read The Tinder Box and what she thought of it. Here's what she said:

"Oh, yes, I've read it so many times I'm sick of it! I like it, but I don't like the soldier. He starts off by cutting off the witch's head for not telling him why she wants the tinderboxes, and he doesn't know she's a witch!"

Yes, I agreed, that was what happened. "What," I asked her, "do you think about the soldier in the rest of the story?"

"Well, he does do some nice things. He gives a lot of money to poor people. But he bothers the princess and he makes his dogs bite the king and queen. Then he marries the princess and the story says they lived very happily."

She stopped there, but from the tone of her voice, it was clear that she didn't see how such a beginning managed to end in a happy marriage.

My daughter used her conscience and judgement to make her own decisions about the actions of the 'hero' of The Tinderbox and whether they were right or wrong. I was impressed with how well she did judge. I asked her if she thought he was a hero of the sort she would like to imitate, and received a resounding "no!"

Charlotte says that 'reason, judgment, imagination, discrimination...take care of themselves and play as naturally and involuntarily upon the knoweldge we receive with attention and fix by narration as do the digestive organs upon duly masticated food-stuff for the body. We must feed the mind as the body fitly and freely; and the less we meddle with the digestive processes in the one area in the other the more healthy the life we shall sustain. It is an infinitely great thing, that mind of man, present in completeness and power in even the dullest of our pupils." page 259 of Volume 6

Miss Mason often uses metaphors of food and digestive processes when discussing education. Babies begin life by taking in only liquids, and specially prepared liquid at that. Later they begin eating more solid foods, a little at a time, as their parents make sure their bodies can deal with each newly introduced food (checking for allergies), withholding foods that might cause choking (hotdogs, popcorn, raw carrots), and the unwholesome. They learn to deal with food by being given food to eat. Their parents do not stop them in the middle of the meal and ask them to regurgitate their food so it can be seen to that it is properly chewed. They are not fed on carefully distilled vitamins, divested of all the life and interest of real food. They are given wholesome food and parents let the body's natural, God-given digestive properties take care of the digestion and nutrient extraction.

Just so with reading material, Miss Mason thought that real books were food for the mind. Stories told with vigor and imagination were the proper mind food for children--not distilled moral tales, bereft of any spark of life. The children would learn to deal with literature by being given literature--suitable to their age, and at times judiciously edited--but still literature. Given the proper food, she felt the child's mind would act on it in the proper way, and the more of that proper food, the better the child's mind would be able to deal with stronger meat.

I believe this fits in well with Paul's injunction in Hebrews 5:14 [But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil]. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

Fairy tales are not quite solid food, but they are a fit food for young minds to begin working on, as they train themselves to distinguish good from evil, by constant use.

Further information on fairy tales is in volume 1 of the six volume series, between pages 151-153.


Just a note on the whole idea of non-grisly fairy tales. Fairy tales, as they were written (or 'came down' to us) were all pretty grisly. I've listened to fairy tales in French, or fairy tales translated from the French, of 'classic tales' and I've been stunned at how gruesome they are. We're so used to the Disney or sanitized versions, I think it's a real shock to our systems. I see these tales as the way a culture dealt with the horrors of life and sin and all of that . . . (I mean, at the very least, they describe some major dysfunctional families!! ;-) Children can learn to handle evil and horror and sin better from reading it in the fantasy/abstract... rather than that being a deterrent to reading them....These stories also sometimes have Biblical themes in them, for instance, reminding me of Joseph as the preferred but then persecuted brother, Esther being chosen from the 'common people' to be the Queen, etc.

What I think are more troubling - because they are read at such a young age, and not in a high school aged class, where it would be more appropriate in a critical thinking context - are any fairy tales that are ambiguous in their morality. A concern is that some children may identify with 'anti-heroes.'

Donna-Jean Breckenridge

I don't think that cultural literacy is the only thing to be gained from reading fairy tales, which is why I'd hesitate (personally) to use the more watered down versions. If cultural literacy were all I wanted, I'd let youngsters watch Disney's "Cinderella" so that they'd know the reference to a glass slipper. <g> There is a great deal of linguistic richness in the Grimm and Lang fairy tales, a richness that gets lost in other versions. If you're still uncomfortable with some of the gruesome stories, you can certainly just choose to read ones that are "safe" in these collections. There may be some who are unaware that the Advisory has listed gentler fairy tales on their sites.

Developing an imagination is also not the main object of reading fairy tales; that would be pointless, as children possess active imaginations. What we want children to do is develop a morally sound imagination or, to borrow the title from a fantastic book, an "educated imagination." Here are two quotes from "The Educated Imagination" [by Northrop Frye] which perhaps help define what I'm trying to say: "Imagination gives us both a better and a worse world than the one we usually live with, and demands that we keep looking steadily at them both." ~ "Literature keeps presenting the most vicious things to us as entertainment, but what it appeals to is not any pleasure in these things, but the exhiliration of standing apart from them and being able to see them for what they are because they aren't really happening."

Later in the book Dr. Frye makes an excellent statement that, in my opinion, ties together the idea that there are other reasons for fairy tales and for ones that haven't been watered down: "Nobody is capable of free speech unless he knows how to use language, and such knowledge is not a gift: it has to be learned and worked at." These fairy tales provide excellent stepping stones for knowing language, and standing apart from the evil in the world around us.

(Incidentally, Northrop Frye thought that children should first be introduced to Bible stories, as they provide the best "myth literature," "myth" not referring to a fake story but to something with grand and lasting proportions).


Three articles from Charlotte Mason's original magazine, The Parents' Review:
Children and Books by Mrs. Conyers Alston
Fairy Tales by S. Douglas Wilson, 1902
Fairy Stories as a Help or Hindrance in Education by Miss Claudia Davidson, 1916
The Imagination in Childhood by Charlotte Mason, 1916

Angelina Stanford did an hour-long interview about the gospel basis of fairy tales; view it here.

On Three Ways of Writing for Children, from Of Other Worlds by C. S. Lewis (pdf) " . . . just as a composer might write a Dead March not because there was a public funeral in view but because certain musical ideas that had occurred to him went best into that form. This method could apply to other kinds of children's literature besides stories, I have been told that Arthur Meek never met a child and never wished to: it was, from his point of view, a bit of luck that boys liked reading what he liked writing."

On Fairy-Stories by J. R. R. Tolkein (pdf) ". . . But there are also other and more profound 'escapisms' that have always appeared in fairytale and legend. There are other things more grim and terrible to fly from than the noise, stench, ruthlessness, and extravagance of the internal-combustion engine. There are hunger, thirst, poverty, pain, sorrow, injustice, death. . . ."

Ethics of Elfland, from Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton "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 I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales."

This is from an online post at AO's old yahoo email loop about Chesterton's essay: Chapter 4 of G.K. Chesterton's book Orthodoxy:
"The first several paragraphs may not seem to pertain to the topic, but keep reading. Here's a snippet to give an example of Chesterton's insight: 'If I were describing them in detail I could note many noble and healthy principles that arise from them. There is the chivalrous lesson of Jack the Giant Killer; that giants should be killed because they are gigantic. It is a manly mutiny against pride as such. For the rebel is older than all the kingdoms, and the Jacobin has more tradition than the Jacobite. There is the lesson of Cinderella, which is the same as that of the Magnificat--exaltavit humiles. There is the great lesson of Beauty and the Beast; that a thing must be loved before it is loveable. There is the terrible allegory of the Sleeping Beauty, which tells how the human creature was blessed with all birthday gifts, yet cursed with death; and how death also may perhaps be softened to a sleep.' He goes on to discuss philosophy and ethics in depth, so be prepared to take some time for serious thought. --In grace, Colleen in Wis.; Chapter 4 - read online.

(Credenda Agenda also had an article about the value of reading fairy tales called Imaginative Succession by Douglas Jones. It's archived at "But it's not only moral judgments that suffer from a defective imagination. Plain reasoning does too. One of the common myths about logic is that it can free us from that 'nasty' world of metaphor and imagination."

This blog post about How the Grinch Stole Christmas explains why, if preparing our children for the evil in the world with literature is how we equip them for the world they'll be living in, then more convincing and terrifying portrayals of evil can get the message across more effectively [but trite treatment of tragedy can seem trivial, not true!] "And when it comes to equipping an individual for encountering evil, I have yet to find a better training device than literature, and for children that most often means fairy tales."

The book Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child's Moral Imagination by Vigen Guroian discusses the role of fantasy and fairy tales in developing Christian character. This quote from the book is about George MacDonald, who wrote The Wise Woman, The Princess and the Goblin and many other stories: "Imagination is a power of discovery, not a power to create. The latter capacity he reserved to God alone. Nor did MacDonald equate imagination with mere fancy...Rather, for him, imagination is a power of perception, a light that illuminates the mystery that is hidden beneath visible reality: it is a power to help 'see' into the very nature of things. Reason alone, MacDonald argued, is not able to recognize mystery or grasp the moral quiddity of the world. As the sensible mind needs eyes to see, so reason needs the imagination in order to behold mystery and to perceive the true quality of things. Imagination takes reason to the threshold of mystery and moral truth and reveals them as such." Read a series of blog posts about this book starting here.

Please read whatever resources you need to in order to make an informed decision, and then prayerfully decide what's best for your family and for where you're at. AmblesideOnline is meant to be a help, not a strait-jacket. Feel free to be flexible and tweak what isn't right for you. You know your child best. If your child is too sensitive, or not ready, or you feel uncomfortable, then wait and use the book at a later age. Or find an alternative book. Some moms have liked The Wonder Clock by Howard Pyle, or fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen. Charlotte Mason thought that fairy tales were wonderful for children, but if you have a strong aversion to them, then don't use them. Progressive AO Years don't depend on a familiarity with fairy tales. We respect the right for each family to make the final decision about which books to use, and we don't want to pressure parents to go against their own convictions. We also expect parents to be respectful of one another's convictions and not to attempt to dissuade others to change their mind, or to to feel guilty for their convictions. (Gal. 5:13, 2 Cor. 3:17, 1 Cor. 10:29, 1 Cor. 8:9)

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