The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Fairy Stories as a Help or Hindrance in Education

by Miss Claudia Davidson (Ex-Student, House of Education)
Volume 27, no. 10, October 16, 1916

"A primrose by a river's brim
A yellow primrose was to him—
And it was nothing more."

I think if Peter Bell had been a "P.N.E.U. child" the primrose would have been something more to him—because fairy stories would have formed part of his education.

Fairy tales are of the greatest importance in the early education of both the imaginative and unimaginative child. In the case of the first they supply food for the child's eager fancy, in the case of the second they bring to life a very necessary quality.

The child who has a very active imagination is in possession of a wonderful though dangerous gift. Its dangers are not far to seek. Everyone knows the child whose sense of accuracy and truth seem to remain undeveloped—who cannot recount an incident without exaggeration, or describe an object without embroidering the original so as to make it quite unrecognisable to his listeners. This tendency, unchecked, becomes a habit and the child grows into the man or woman whose statements must be "taken with a grain of salt." These people, without any evil intentions, do incalculable harm. They spread untrue and mischievous tales, and their word is never to be depended upon, lies come more readily to them than truth. Yet they are scarcely to be blamed, for they have altogether lost the power of distinguishing between truth and fiction, and it has all arisen from an unchecked tendency in childhood.

Imagination in a child is not the imagination of the adult. It is something more fantastic and utterly untrammeled by knowledge, wandering with delight in an impossible world that is peculiarly the children's. Imagination is, properly speaking, a deeper and more powerful faculty than the exquisite and agile fancy of children. This gift of fancy demands food and work and determinedly obtains both at any cost. The child possessed of it is carried beyond his immediate surroundings by a mental energy we "grown-ups" frequently misunderstand. The young imagination, in its search for material, seizes upon what it can find and draws into itself the incidents of everyday life, weaving out of them wonderful fancies. The child goes for a walk through a field of placid cows and returning home recounts his terrible adventure with loads of wild beasts which attacked him. The cows and the wild animals of which he has heard furnish his imagination with the food it craves, and the result is this wonderful tale. His "grown ups" in wrath accuse him of telling lies, which he certainly does, though he has no desire to be deceitful. Punishment does not cure the sinner, unless it crushes out of him one of his most precious gifts; it is quite likely to lead to deliberate falsehood in support of his disbelieved adventure. Yet, if left unhindered, this tendency grows into the habit of exaggeration and inaccuracy. We solve the problem by taking the child into a wonderful world of unfettered fancy, where he meets gnomes and goblins, mermaids and fairies, brave princes and terrible dragons, beautiful princesses and horrible witches—a world in which good is never unrewarded and wrong is never unpunished. In it he learns that the dewdrop in the leaves of the rose is a fairy's tear, and the gaunt tree waving its branches so wildly a wicked witch being punished for her sins, that every thicket may hold a beautiful princess to whose rescue a fearless prince is riding. All the wonderful people in fairy-land are there and his imagination is busy and happy living their lives, sharing their adventures. It is a land from which most of us are exiled when we are "grown ups," as the children know, but I think that every man and woman who, in childhood, lived in fairy-land is the richer for it, and has, because of it, a deeper and more tender vision into each minute centre of the life of nature.

In this fairy world every craving of the child's restless fancy is satisfied, and it is free to create what it will. That peculiar love of the terrible and adventurous which is characteristic of children finds ample scope for its activities in fairy-land. It is often argued that the giants and ogres of fairy stories frighten nervous children. I think it will always be found that the child who lies trembling in the dark, in case Bluebeard should slay him or a dragon devour him, has been frightened by the silly stories of some ignorant nurse. Fairylore has a soothing effect on the excitable child which no other form of story or legend can produce. The ogres of fairy-land satisfy a hunger in the childish imagination where horrors belonging more nearly to reality haunt and terrify. If in any instance a fairy- tale is likely to prey upon the child's mind, let it be omitted; there are enough and to spare which can in no way injure the most sensitive disposition. Miss Mason, in School Education, reminds us that Wordsworth, when a little boy, witnessed the recovery of the body of a suicide from Esthwaite Lake, and referring to the incident he says:

    Yet no soul debasing fear,
    Young as I was—a child not nine years old—
    Possessed me, for my inner eye had seen
    Such sights before amongst the shining streams
    Of fairyland, the forests of romance.
    Their spirit hallowed the sad spectacle
    With decoration of ideal grace.
    A dignity, a smoothness like the works
    Of Grecian art and purest poesy.

If fairy lore forms thus a natural shield to the children, surely for that reason alone it is of the utmost importance in every child's education.

But there are children who know nothing of the restless activity of imagination, and they, too, will have their consequent failings. All are agreed that sympathy and intuition are essential to every person wishing to be of help in the world. Many an intended kindness is just the reverse, owing to the lack of true sympathy or quick intuition. Both these qualities spring from imagination. It is not only the capacity for feeling for others, but the power of feeling with them, which constitutes sympathy. And we can only feel with others in so far as we can exercise sufficient imagination to enable us to live through their sorrows as if they were our own. Intuition, too, is the outcome of a delicately balanced imagination, which is quick to appreciate the position of others. The unimaginative child, therefore, must not remain so, and fairy stories form the first step towards his cure. There is that in fairy tales which appeals to some extent to every child, and once introduced to them, he is forced to exercise imagination. As fairies and the world they live in are entirely products of the fancy, the child in visualising them uses that faculty. He must be encouraged to speak and to think about the inhabitants of his fairy book until he comes to make them his friends. For such children the play of Peter Pan must be a great stimulus, helping them to learn how to live in a world peopled with those whom they do not meet in everyday life.

Probably his land of fancy will never be as vivid to him as to the naturally imaginative child, yet channels of thought and new powers of mind will be awakened in him. No amount of care could be too great to expend on this use of fairy-stories. Many children who read fairy tales grow up unimaginative, but this is because they have never been encouraged to really live with the fairy people and have never felt around them the atmosphere of response to the calls of the fairy world. If this habit of exercising the imagination is not formed in young children, how are they to reap any benefit from their reading in later years? How are they to live the lives of the heroes in their history books, if they have never learned to visualise the stories they have heard?

But those who have made the creatures of their own creative power their friends will enter equipped into the more strenuous kingdom and know how to live and strive beside the great dead of their country and of the world.

To the influence of fairy-stories we owe much of our power to appreciate poetry. Had they not taught us to quicken our imagination and to live vividly in realms our eyes could never see, we would often fail to follow the poet's mind or even vaguely grasp his meaning. The intellectual enjoyment of poetry and of all art is a poor thing if imagination does not accompany intellect to bring us into tune and sympathy with the artist's soul. Fairy-tales form in themselves a very beautiful branch of literature, and to know them and love them is the child's first step in the realms of the world's art.

I have heard it argued that fairy-stories are a hindrance in education because they serve to keep the child too young and that, therefore, they should remain unknown to the little ones or be forbidden after a certain age. I think there is very little danger of their keeping any child too young. Fairy-tales are suited to the mind of the young child in every essential, and when his intellect and character have developed he will pass naturally from them to other and more earnest forms of tales.

Fairy-land is the children's kingdom to whatever nation or time they may belong, and it is a wonderful thought that the little ones of so many nationalities have for centuries shared the same friends. Fairy-land has been their common property for more years than we know and they have a just claim to it by right of their childhood's gifts. Only they can discover its hidden treasures. It fills their early days with never failing joy; it forms the foundation stone of that great power of after-life—imagination. It is a wonderful world, and nothing else could ever take its place—why should we deny the children entrance?

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, July 2008