The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Fairy Tales.

By S. Douglas Wilson.
Volume 13, 1902, pg. 347-356

Down through the dim and mysterious avenues of the past have come to us some few relics of the philosophy, beliefs, works and amusements of primitive man. On lonely moor or spreading plain we see here and there monoliths and mounds, works of man's hand. Our museums shew us the flint and bone weapons of bygone days; the rude stone axe with which our ancestors cleared the ground or laboriously fashioned the canoe; stone querns for grinding corn; flakes of flint deftly sharpened and manipulated to serve so many purposes, all of which lift up a small corner of the veil of the past, and recall a time beyond the records of history.

Deeply interesting as these relics are to us, they but too often show us the physical side, and the physical is the smaller part of a man's nature. The greater and more important is the mental side, and the witnesses which throw a new light over a dark landscape, giving us glimpses and evidences of the higher phases of our progenitors, unveiling the past of the human race, and disclosing something of its inward struggles, its crude beliefs, its simple manners and customs, are the myths and fables and fairy tales, which have come down to us from those far-off times.

Every nation has its own fairy tales, and just as the flint and bone weapons, mounds and monoliths, of rude races in all parts of the world show a marked resemblance, so these old, old stories show close affinity to each other in their bold flights of fancy, and show us how ineffectually, yet how fervently, our forefathers tried to grasp and understand all the mysteries they felt and saw around.

Many people look upon fairy tales as utter nonsense, but there are others, and among our great scholars, who have not disdained to make them a serious object of research, and with good results. From this seemingly waste material has been distilled much reliable knowledge of the physical, mental and moral struggles of our forefathers, which struggles show that underlying all of us is the same common human nature, linking the savage to the civilized, and making the whole world kin.

Nursery tales, "waifs and strays from the mythical lore of the past," have tramped on their journeys through successive generations, buffeted on all sides, exposed in turn to harsh or generous treatment, gathering new thoughts here, fresh colour there, losing worn-out threads and weaving new strands in their place, until the whole resembles a rich tapestry mellowed by time, every strand of which represents a step of progression or retrogression in the human mind.

In some of the stories we notice the attempt to explain natural phenomena, by clothing the facts with a human form; in others we see rude efforts to enforce moral teaching, while in others, again, the imagination is given loose reins, and goes off on its own sweet will whithersoever it chooses. In these last there is no attempt to pretend that the incidents are true, the object is simply amusement. Yet even the most extravagant of these stories were not at their birth deliberate fiction, but held and still hold germs of real historical value. Sir Walter Scott says, "The mythology of one period appears to pass into the romance of the next, and that into the nursery tales of subsequent ages."

The story of Red Riding Hood is as great a favourite now as when we ourselves were children, and, in fact, had won its way to the public heart centuries before our time. The pathetic little story, old as it is, is ever new, and hidden among and mingled with its pathos are said to linger the remnants of a solar myth. The birth of a story is veiled in the past, yet from analogy we can trace it back step by step, until we see our simple forefathers watching with awe the setting sun, their faces puzzled to understand the why and the wherefore of many things. Their reasoning must have been immature and similar to that of childish or savage nations nowadays.

The sun gave life and light; nothing could exist if cut off from its rays, therefore to them it was the Giver of Life, the Great Spirit. Our forefathers saw, as we still see, the sun making its pathway across the heavens from the east, to sink like a huge red ball into west, and then to disappear into the darkness of night. Where did the sun go to? What happened after the sun sank out of sight? How was it that it reappeared the next morning on the opposite side of the world?

How wildly these mysteries must have agitated their child-like minds, at a time when the visible creation was all the library they had. How gladly any sort of answer must have been received, as dictated by their poetic and vivid imagination. It is small wonder that night with its darkness and chill clouds, its thunder and lightning, was to them some terrible creature which devoured the sun every evening, although forced by some means to disgorge its prisoner the following morning.

Through the romance of time this fearsome monster, night, took the form of the most dreaded animal of the age--the wolf; while the fiery ball of the setting sun became the little girl in her red cloak, going to visit her grandmother. In the story, when the wolf is cut open, the little girl is freed, unhurt, just as night cut open by the dawn, gives us the day.

The incident of the grandmother gives us a grave historical truth. There is little grief shewn at her sad fate, because in the dark and struggling ages old people's lives were held of little account. Veneration for age is one of the products of civilization since, for in days gone by, the aged were set aside as useless, and in many cases actually put out of the way. Time has not worn away from the story this excrescence of fact, one which has been verified in our own day by customs that still survive among some savage nations.

Another favourite story is the "Sleeping Beauty," and in this again we can detect the deep thought of child-like students of nature, and their simple way of explaining the marvels around them. The sun has many phases. Sometimes, as in the summer, his beams are hot and fiery, in autumn they fade and as winter approaches the rays are wan and deathlike.

Spring returns, the sun regains his former vigour, his seeming lethargy is thrown aside and he becomes "the giant rejoicing to run his course," "the bridegroom coming out of his chamber." The time for rejoicing had come, and to welcome the sun back to earth our forefathers lighted yule logs and bonfires, and decorated the trees with gleaming lights. Our illuminated Christmas trees of today are a survival of the sun's welcome after the winter solstice.

During his wan winter sleep, the sun suggested no giant, but a pale princess in a long, long repose, finally kissed by the prince and awakened to all life's loveliness, just as pale winter is kissed by the spring, and life is aroused on the earth.*

* We have it, by the way, on the authority of Max Muller (Science of Language; First Series) that in all Teutonic languages the sun was feminine, the moon masculine. I believe it was also the case in Egypt, the cradle of so much of the world's romance.

The mental growth of nations as of children is very slow, and it has taken all these ages for our minds to advance beyond fairy tales, yet we find in primitive villages in our own land today some childlike superstitions surviving from what we know as the dark ages, and there is scarcely a person living who is not a slave to some such superstition, unconsciously inherited from his forefathers.

Some fairy tales now told in our nurseries are common to the whole world. Probably many were carried to our shores by the various races who have from time to time held supremacy in our land; others may be traced to trade and commerce. Naturally, stories would be left behind just as words have been, to be finally adopted and made current coin of the realm. "Cinderella," "The Man in the Moon," "The Hunchback," and many others seem to belong to every nation. "Jack the Giant Killer" and "Jack and the Bean-stalk" are as well known in Norway, Lapland, Russia, and India as they are to us, and so with most fairy stories.

The universal fairy stories, when they took root in any land, took their colour from the national character of the people, and now these stories have acquired a certain identity of their own. Among the Hindoos the story is embroidered and garlanded in a most gorgeous manner; the Arabians drape their tales elegantly and poetically; the Italians love sunny, dazzling stories to match their brilliant cloudless skies; German tales are rich in elemental touches and abstractions: Norse stories effervesce with sly humour, but are always healthy and invigorating. To face the foe and make the best of everything is as characteristic of their stories as of the Norse people themselves.

Notwithstanding all these differences, races are one in their love of fairy stories, because the wonderful, the beautiful and the grotesque appeal to their imagination. Our forefathers were great nature students, and their simple way of living, free from the trammels of society, afforded them so close and loving an observation of animals that in fairy tales we get true accounts of animal ways, told with the belief that the creatures were endowed with human intelligence, and on a level with man. To kill a robin or a wren has ever been considered a crime or a misfortune. A special providence was supposed to guard these birds, for as an old couplet tells us--

    "The robins and wrens
    Are God's cocks and hens."

The dog seldom appears in our fairy tales, because the cringing, currish nature of the canine race generally had from very early times made "dog" and "hound" terms of contempt and disgust. He was not as now, the trusted friend of man, and when he does appear in a story it is generally as a bad character.

Cats and foxes were dreaded as uncanny animals, more than a match in cuteness and slyness for the wily bear, the king of beasts.

The wolf had the character of being stupid, spiteful, greedy and cruel, and indeed with all animals except the horse, who was believed to be gifted with the power of divine knowledge, there was supposed to be an undercurrent of deceit and fraud. The continual fights for existence which our forefathers saw all around, showed that among animals cunning and craft succeeded best, and so in animal stories, cruelty, cunning and lying triumph over the weak, the truthful, and the trusting, but in animal stories only. "Brer Fox" and "Brer Rabbit" of "Uncle Remus" are examples all are familiar with, and the conquest of Brer Rabbit over Brer Fox will ever be a source of keen enjoyment to children old and young, even though this was gained by the hypocritical pleading, "Whatever you do, Brer Fox, don't frow me into the briar patch."

In fairy tales of men and women, a great moral truth is insisted on, that right triumphs in the end and wrong comes to grief.

Giants, and it may be noticed they are nearly always evil-doers, triumph at first, but are discomfited and over-thrown in the end. They are made to dwell in the depths of woods, or among inaccessible rocks and hills, and doubtless in them linger memories of some "troublous power of the earth" encountered and overcome, of some great evil gradually but unsuccessfully blotted out, or of a prolonged resistance to some hostile race conquered in the end.

The question arises--Are fairy tales good and wholesome as a mental food for children? It is said that they create fear and terror, because they tell about people being killed, and about witches and giants which do not exist, and that they make children untruthful because in them animals talk like human beings. We must not fail to realise that there are fairy tales and fairy tales. As the savage tribes of long ago left their arrow-heads, so periods of savage fancy left savage ideas, and while most of these have become softened and humanised by Christianity and other influences, others there are which still retain their old uncouth dress. We do not allow our children the free use of the pantry, although there may be a cupboard from which they may help themselves under certain conditions. In the same way there should be a children's bookshelf, and a parent's judgment can surely be trusted to purge this shelf from all that is undesirable.

Maria Edgeworth's father had a particular dislike to fairy tales. "Why," he asked, "should the mind be filled with fantastic visions? Why should so much valuable time be lost? Why should we vitiate their taste and spoil their appetites by suffering them to live on sweetmeats?" The old saying that "Nature abhors a vacuum" is as true in the mental as in the physical world. There is the same craving for something to think about as for something to do, and that food for thought must be as digestible as food for the body.

Herbert Spencer shews in his essay on "Education" that the intense longing a child has for sweets proves the necessity of them for his physical welfare. † But even to a child, the continual feeding on sweets would mean a very painful death.

The craving for a story, by the same reasoning, proves a mental want, but here, too, overdosing must be avoided. The quality and quantity must be diminished in proportion to the child's mental capacity, as the amount of sweets, for the sake of his physical welfare.

Stories written for children nowadays are often failures, simply because the writer cannot come down to the child's mental level.

"Nature is full of freaks, and now puts an old head on young shoulders, and then a young heart beating under fourscore winters," but these are exceptions.

Few people like Hans Andersen retain the child and the man at one and the same time. However, fairy tales are really stories told by children, told as easily as a bird weaves its nest by children with grown-up bodies, but with simple child-like minds and child-like ideas, and to children is given to see and hear much that is denied to those of older growth.

The grasp of ideas children have is small and their reasoning is not deep. In no case can we compel them to believe more than they wish to believe, yet their flights of imagination are startling at times. Perfection has no charm for them; it is the ugly battered doll or the crippled wooden horse upon which their love is showered, and for which the daintiest doll or the most wonderful mechanical toy is set aside and neglected.

Bright primary colours delight them far more than soft neutral tints, and anything in the nature of the marvellous, odd and grotesque, charms them beyond measure. This is because their imagination predominates over reason, as it did with their counterparts, our ancient forefathers.

The land of stories and especially the delightful Kingdom of Fairyland, is a lawful inheritance of children, and the open sesame to all its glories is "Once upon a time."

The delight of children listening to a good story baffles description. Take away their fairy tales and you starve the imagination--the greatest faculty bestowed upon human beings. Crush the imagination of a child and you cripple aspirations and deaden all the most beautiful branches of the mind, for where would sympathy, admiration or reverence find a footing without this great superhuman gift?

In Fairyland the imagination is first brought into play, for there the ugliest doll becomes a lovely princess, and a broken-down chair a fiery steed. Children's imagination runs riot at a very early age, and it must not be too soon nor too harshly repressed. A child's mind cannot, like a room, be denuded of one kind of furniture and immediately be refurnished with totally different articles. The imagination requires feeding, curbing and diverting into proper channels, and a proper use of the old, old stories gives tone and strength to children's ideas.

We do not always remember that amazement, fear, horror, dread, are part of our natures, just as much as are admiration, joy and hope, and the one range of feeling requires training and cultivating, curbing or expanding, quite as much as the other.

Charles Lamb says that it is not book or picture, or the stories of foolish servants, which create terrors in children, though these may give them a direction, and he mentions parents who disbelieved in the use of fairy tales, and kept all stories of goblins and giants from their child. He was scarcely allowed to hear of bad men or a distressing story, and yet this little fellow used to wake up at nights in perfect terror at he knew not what, and lie for hours trembling at nothing. ‡ Fairy tales cannot be blamed in this case anyhow. Indeed it is more than probable that had this little boy been made familiar with the child stories, the matter-of-fact and the imaginative would have balanced themselves one against the other in his mind, and his distress of mind would have been minimised.

In respect to one other charge, that fairy tales make children untruthful by inciting them to exaggerate. Is this charge warranted by results? Think of our great men who revelled in fairies, goblins and giants. Did Shakespeare, Scott, Lamb, Tennyson, Browning, Kingsley or Ruskin ever forget that "Truth is the very essence of all the virtues"?

How much we owe to Mary Arden for whispering the old old stories to her little son William, the world can never say, we only know we have our Shakespeare for all time and that must suffice. Should we now be rejoicing in the glorious legacy of Scott's romances if the delicate cripple child at Sandy Knowe had had no opportunity of revelling in all the wild legendary lore of the border countries? Southey, you remember, was so fond of fairy tales that he had to write one himself--"The Three Bears"--and by this little story, founded upon those he had loved as a child, will Southey be known when his other works are mouldered and forgotten. **

After all, fairy tales are their own best testimonial. Time, the great leveller, obliterates all that does not deserve to live, be the work in words, or stone, or bronze. But fairy tales have lived, lived on their own merits, because they not only embody beautiful ideas, but because these ideas are in a worthy setting, from which grains of gold sparkle still, after the rough and tumble usage of centuries. The stories have lost none of their old fire, they are simple, direct, attractive, vivid and yet they shew a total absence of mawkish sentimentalism. Then, again, the lessons they teach are so healthy and good; they teach unconsciously, without parading the moral so irritating to children. It is the boy who is good and brave, who is courteous to his parents and kind to animals, who is the hero, and who after many trials comes out best in the end.

Poor Cinderella is sneered at and despised by her spoiled, overbearing sisters; but humility and modesty triumph at last. True womanliness stands out and bears the glare of the sunlight in "The Two Stepsisters," while idleness, selfishness and vanity are overshadowed and disgraced. In "East of the Sun and West of the Moon," we love the heroine, because she is bright, utterly unselfish and anxious to help others. "Jack the Giant Killer," and "Jack and the Beanstalk" excite admiration, because they show the small and weak able to overcome the cruel and strong. To the mature mind, there are many inconsistencies in these stories, and yet these have no part in children's ideas.

Children do not see the blemishes we see because their minds are, happily, not alive to them. Too often one blot spoils a whole set of these charming fairy tales. I allude to the gruesome and revolting pictures with which some are illustrated. Why do we tolerate them? Good pictures, or none at all (and many of our great artists have not disdained to use pencil and brush on behalf of the fairies) should be insisted on. Children will illustrate and clothe every fairy, or goblin, or giant, in their own quiet and innocent fashion, and very beautifully, too, without any pictures; yet good pictures always delight the eyes of our little ones. There comes a day when children get beyond fairy tales, as their views of life get larger, and their thinking powers develop under the influence of facts crowding upon them from outside. Then is the time for parents to see that healthy literature, and not "pen poison," helps to fill the place of the old, old stories, for in the same measure that their imagination has been trained and developed will children accept the world later on.

Every age has its dangers and its rocks ahead. Past ages we know; of the future we can but conjecture, and it is quite possible that we are almost too near the picture to see the merits or demerits of the age in which we live, but were I asked to place my finger on the faults of this period, it would not be on the inattention of the age, nor on the general pottering and dabbling in subjects, but on the hard, materialistic trend, and superficial, matter-of-fact way of treating everything. The danger is only too obvious in such an age that children become men and women before their time.

Let us keep adverse winds from the saplings in the nursery until such time as they can be planted out to become noble and fruitful trees in the orchard or the forest. Let us surround them with some little halo of the romance that was ours once. Let us give them that insight which, once acquired as children, will last them till they are old and grey, by fencing them in unconsciously with the poetic fairy tales which have been woven through countless centuries.

["Consider the ordinary tastes and the ordinary treatment of children. The love of sweets is conspicuous and almost universal among them. Probably ninety-nine people in a hundred presume that there is nothing more in this than gratification of the palate; and that, in common with other sensual desires, it should be discouraged. The physiologist, however, whose discoveries lead him to an ever-increasing reverence for the arrangements of things, suspects something more in this love of sweets than is currently supposed; and inquiry confirms the suspicion. He finds that sugar plays an important part in the vital processes. Both saccharine and fatty matters are eventually oxidised in the body; and there is an accompanying evolution of heat. Sugar is the form to which sundry other compounds have to be reduced before they are available as heat-making food; and this formation of sugar is carried on in the body. Not only is starch changed into sugar in the course of digestion, but it has been proved by M. Claude Bernard that the liver is a factory in which other constituents of food are transformed into sugar: the need for sugar being so imperative that it is even thus produced from nitrogenous substances when no others are given. Now, when to the fact that children have a marked desire for this valuable heat-food, we join the fact that they have usually a marked dislike to that food which gives out the greatest amount of heat during oxidation (namely, fat), we have reason for thinking that excess of the one compensates for defect of the other--that the organism demands more sugar because it cannot deal with much fat." from Essays on Education and Kindred Subjects by Herbert Spencer, 1861.]

["It is not book, or picture, or the stories of foolish servants, which create these terrors in children. They can at most but give them a direction. Dear little T.N. who of all children has been brought up with the most scrupulous exclusion of every taint of superstition -- who was never allowed to hear of goblin or apparition, or scarcely to be told of bad men, or to read or hear of any distressing story -- finds all this world of fear, from which he has been so rigidly excluded ab extra, in his own 'thick-coming fancies;' and from his little midnight pillow, this nurse-child of optimism will start at shapes, unborrowed of tradition, in sweats to which the reveries of the cell-damned murderer are tranquillity." from Witches and Other Night Fears, by Charles Lamb, 1823.]

** [Robert Southey was the first to publish "The Three Bears" in his collection of four essays called "The Doctor" in 1837, though the story had been around before then. His version begins, "Once upon a time there were three Bears, who lived together in a house of their own in a wood. One of them was a Little, Small, Wee Bear; and one was a Middle-sized Bear, and the other was a Great, Huge Bear. They had each a pot for their porridge, a little pot for the Little, Small, Wee Bear; and a middle-sized pot for the Middle Bear; and a great pot for the Great, Huge Bear. And they had each a chair to sit in: a little chair for the Little, Small, Wee Bear; and a middle-sized chair for the Middle Bear; and a great chair for the Great, Huge Bear. And they had each a bed to sleep in: a little bed for the Little, Small, Wee Bear; and a middle-sized bed for the Middle Bear; and a great bed for the Great, Huge Bear. One day, after they had made the porridge for their breakfast and poured it into their porridge pots, they walked out into the wood while the porridge was cooling, that they might not burn their mouths by beginning too soon to eat it. And while they were walking a little old woman came to the house. She could not have been a good, honest, old woman; for, first, she looked in at the window, and then she peeped in at the keyhole, and, seeing nobody in the house, she lifted the latch. The door was not fastened, because the bears were good bears, who did nobody any harm, and never suspected that anybody would harm them." You can read all of it here.]

Typed by happi, Apr 2020; Proofread by LNL, Apr 2020