To those who complain fairy/folk tales are unrealistic

The point of folk/fairy tales isn’t to be  über-original, or show a balanced view of humans, in all their contradictions and shades of good and evil.

The point of these tales is to look at the good and the evil (as represented by the characters), and then to decide what to do with them.

Whether we will encounter evil in this life is not the question.  The question is, What will we do with the evil we find?  Will we fear it?  Flee it?  Fight it?  Surrender to it?

This is what these tales explore.

Leave the fine distinctions of good in the heart of goblins or evil wizards to those writing for a more “modern” purpose, and let the folk tales do what they’ve done for millennia: personify good and evil, and let us watch how they interact.

Two Recommended Picture Books

First, A Splendid Friend, Indeed by Suzanne Bloom.

As a mother who likes to read and write and think (the beleaguered polar bear’s interrupted activities), this book is wonderful means of conveying both my frustration at being interrupted and the value still attached to my relationship with the interrupter.

I found it a couple years ago, but it was just this year that I saw its perfectness for our house and bought it for Elisha’s 3rd birthday.  The goose is oblivious to the polar bear’s expressions of frustration, but my girls have noticed them and we are able to talk about things like polite interrupting and interpreting body language.

Second is the potentially-disturbing Heckedy Peg by Audrey Wood.

This was the answer for my (mentioned) desire for a wicked-witch story.

Hansel and Gretel will eventually be one, but I want to wait on that, being very careful about the stories I introduce to my children (and their timing).

For any newbies (or for a refresher) here is the progression I’m trying to use when teaching my children about evil:

  • Saint George and the Dragon: Evil exists and brave people must fight it.
  • Heckety Peg: Evil exists in human form, and can effect children
    • disobedience makes us more vulnerable
  • Hansel and Gretel: Evil exists in human form and sometimes children must deal with it.

This last step is something I’m waiting another two or three years for.  In the meantime, Heckedy Peg emphasizes some good things.

  • Hard work is both necessary, natural (rare in any children’s books) and rewarded
  • Disobedience is dangerous
  • Mother protects her children– both with warnings and action
    • In the end the rescue is effected by how well the mother knows the individualities of her brood (of seven!)
  • Mother won’t give up fighting for her children

For this stage the power and action of the mother is the most important. Most picture books and stories emphasize the autonomy and discoveries of the child(ren), but in this case the goal is not to put the onus on the child to do the saving.

It is utterly appropriate for children to depend on their mother for saving, and that natural expectation is fulfilled, reinforcing the security of the children snuggled in and listening.

Thinking in these terms now I see this is what I saw in Wiley and the Hairy Man, which I would place between Heckedy Peg and H&G in my progression: Wiley has to deal with the Hairy Man himself, but he also has the advice of his far-sighted mother to guide him and herself to (later) protect him.

No clever conclusion here, just the observation that these two books have been very useful beyond simply entertaining my kids.  It’s books like these that I love to discover.

People don’t understand fairy tales anymore

Here is yet another example of “fairy tales” being misunderstood.

From a local non-profit’s brochure:

If life were a fairy tale, no child would be abused.  The cold reality is that many children in Alaska are abused.

The team…helps provide the support and intervention the child victim and their family need in order… to have a chance to live happily ever after.

No offense intended to this well-meaning agency, but I don’t think anybody who knows traditional tales could claim that a fairy tale world is a safe place.  I’m always frustrated when I see this misconception perpetuated.

I don’t feel personally hurt so much as I feel these agencies (for example) and disillusioned individuals are closing the door on something that could be useful for the wounded children they are seeking to aid, or even themselves.

If humans are convinced they have to work without the power of Christ, I think they shouldn’t rule out any man-made help.  For all that the words of men will never substitute for the work of Christ, I think we can all agree there are words with greater and lesser usefulness. (If only because we have all encountered the less-effective stuff.)

To constantly mock and degrade the concept of fairy tale neutralizes its potential effectiveness.

Where is the harm in letting a beaten or neglected child see herself in the story of Cinderella?  Yes, there is the out-of-vogue reference to being rescued by a male consort, but viewed in the larger circle of folklore one could learn it is relationship, along with faithfulness and perseverance working as the means of freedom– not just finding the “right” guy or being the sweet milksop.

Aren’t those noble elements what we wish for our wounded self or wounded others?  Aren’t those the healthy elements we delight to see the wounded learn?

Eventually I will finish Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment and learn if he’s got an actually useful suggestion for using traditional tales in therapy (it will take someone less-controversial than him, but more dedicated than me to create something systematically usable and coherent).

Tomorrow I’ll share an example of a fairy tale giving me just what I needed.

Images of Evil

One thing I struggle with as a writer is how much evil to show.  Yeah, I’m someone who wants your skin to crawl with the right image of evil, but I don’t feel gore is the means to that end.

And it’s not my intent to be merely creepy.

So I’ve been trying to remember times when I reacted intensely to a character and thought of two examples:

  • The mother in the His Dark Materials series (though not the focus of this post), especially
    • Her first appearance in The Golden Compass and
    • her calm torturing scene (in the second book, I think it is)
  • Zohak (an early king from an Iranian epic poem), and how he became evil
    • This I wanted to present here (almost in the old TT format) because it’s so striking and I guess there are reletively few who’ve heard it.


There was not yet any meat-eating in the world, and a demon spirit wanted to change that.  In disguise he became Zohak’s cook, and began to cook him eggs, until Zohak was so enamored with the specialty he would eat nothing else.

The glib cook brushed off the praise and insisted he had even better things to offer if the king wished it, and began serving him a new dish each day: quail and pheasant, lamb and chicken, then veal, cooked in wine and spices.

After greedily devouring this last meal Zohak bade the demon ask a favor.  Still in his disguise the demon asked permision to kiss the young king on his two shoulders, which the king granted.  The demon vanished as soon as he had kissed the young man.

[Zohak] had barely recovered his wits after the astonishment of seeing his cook disappear… when he became aware of an unaccustomed sensation on his shoulders.  He looked, and there, on either shoulder, where the demon’s lips had touched his skin, the heads of two black serpents were appearing.  Zohak watched, appalled, as the serpents grew larger and larger until each was the size a large snake would have been if its tail and half its length had been hidden within the flesh and bones of his shoulder.  Then, at last, the black bodies ceased to grow and remained, swaying gently from side to side, hissing and darting forked tongues in and out.

From Tales of Ancient Persia retold by Barbara Leonie Picard

Nothing would remove the serpents, and cutting them off did not keep them from re-growing.  Eventually the demon returned in another guise to offer counsel.  He suggested that if the serpents were fed according to their desire, they may grow satiated and fall asleep, leaving Zohak to live his own life.

When asked, the demon informed the young king that the serpents each required the brain of a strong man daily.  In this way the workers of evil ensured there would be two less men in the world each day.

From then on, with each day that passed, as the black serpents grew stronger, nourished by their ghastly food, so Zohak grew ever more hardened, becoming more cruel and ambitious.

The Wicked Step-Mother

Can’t remember if I’ve said here before, but I’ve long thought that the “point” of the wicked step-mothers in so many stories was to be a warning all around:

  • To husbands: that they might think about how it affects their child(ren) when they remarry
  • To the women: that they would grow an antipathy for the injustice they hear in the stories
  • To the young girls: so they would understand that things could always be worse than with the mother they were born to.

Disney vs. The Real Stories

I have never heard anyone with an opinion on the matter take my view when comparing these famous cartoons with the “originals.”

I think they’re just fine.

Many are too intense for young children, and I don’t let my kids see those, but that’s because their source material wasn’t cultivated with pre-schoolers in mind.  And, yes, I know (perhaps better than many), how far some movies deviate from their stories of origin.

But as stories they are perfectly valid.

The things people complain about: the “weak” role models, the watering down of intense or bloody moments (Hi, you want more violence?), or the “changing” of endings or motivations; these are all things that shouldn’t (in themselves) bother you if they aren’t the only tales you’re consuming.


Most of my reason for defending the cartoons isn’t because I like them so much, but because they are merely the next retelling in a centuries-long chain.  It has always been the storyteller’s prerogative to take and change and enhance where they find something interesting or perceive a chance to emphasize a message that is important to them.

The difficulty comes when we allow one version to become authoritative.

When my children started treating the Disney Cinderella as “cannon,” I realized I’d neglected their education, and set about rectifying.  My girls now proudly own (as in, are familiar with) six versions:

And this has become useful as we interact with peoples of different belief systems.  We use it as a contrast between the Bible and “other old stories.”  There are (more than!) six different ways to tell “Cinderella,” but there is only one *true* account of Jesus (okay, four, if you want to list Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), and the Bible is not negotiable.

Stories are good and contain truth, but we can tell them any way we want; we adjust them to suit our preferences.  The Bible is Truth, and we adjust our preferences to fit it, not the other way ’round.

~ ~ ~

Marc made an observation about movie adaptations of books that I think is applicable to fairy tales and other stories as well: “Admittedly ego-centric” as the idea is, we approve or call a variant good if we like it.

That simple.

Many fairy tales (Disneyized or not) are rejected outright by some people because those people dislike a message they perceive.

Some tales come down to a surrender of the will to *other,* and even more emphasize a dependence on the help of *other* that many modern minds wish to reject.  The insufficiency of self is a scary reality that many who scorn “happily ever after” also reject.

The next time you hear a woman castigated as “weak,” evaluate whether it’s because she is actively incompetent or merely subject to the limitations of individuality that the rest of us are.

Can you hear a personal pet-peeve coming out?

I will admit by their very pervasiveness the Disney version of some stories do feel a bit threatening at times, but on that level I don’t feel they’re very much different from Rugrats or Sponge Bob in popular culture:  Yes, it’s frustrating, and I use my influence to shape my children’s perception of them, but so far I can still say I’d rather America’s children have Disney fairy tales then none at all.

For centuries these tales have been basic education about good and evil:

  • That good is beautiful (even if the reverse is not necessarily true)
  • That evil is to be resisted, even when it’s scary, or painful
  • That resistance may have to begin alone, but one is never expected to triumph without some kind of help
  • That help always comes

Especially for those individuals who don’t yet have the truth of the gospel, these “lighter shadows among the shade” have the potential both to help develop a conscience and (at times) to point seekers to the deeper truths the stories hint at.

The Canonical Dozen

I’ve used this phrase so many times in the last year and a half, I’ve decided to sit down and make a real list.

The reason for doing it now is at least partly because I’m kicking around the idea of telling stories occasionally in a 4th-6th grade classroom this fall, and I decided I wanted to start with the basics.

It’s inevitable that fewer and fewer people will be hearing these old stories, even those that are referenced continually in literary allusions.   I figured I might do what I can to spread (what I consider) this basic literacy of folk and fairy tales.

For your perusing and debating pleasure (in no particular order):

The Canonical Dozen

  1. Cinderella
  2. Rumpelstiltskin
  3. Rapunzel
  4. Sleeping beauty
  5. Jack and the Beanstalk
  6. Snow White
  7. The Princess and the Pea
  8. Aladdin and his Lamp
  9. The Ugly Duckling
  10. Beauty and the Beast
  11. Hansel and Gretal
  12. Little Red Riding hood
  13. Puss in Boots

This was trickier than I thought, and I slowed to a stop after #6. (Meaning I had to get up and actually look at my shelves.)

To understand why I picked these it helps to look at this list from a literary standpoint, rather than what we’ve personally read/heard the most.

Every one of these 12 I have seen referenced or alluded to (in a way that was supposed to be metaphorical or enlightening) in an utterly unrelated setting (e.g. “breadcrumbs” in a variety of roles).

Without these stories, modern readers could actually be missing the point of anything from a textbook anecdote to an AP article in their local paper.

Perhaps for the next several weeks I will break from my initial goal of Tuesday Tales and review these basics, mentioning at that point my favorite version of each.

Can We Show Them More Evil, Please?

This is going to be a odd ramble since I recently wrote that “Sheltering” post, but perhaps it acknowledges some of the issues of Sheltering’s opponents.

I’m hoping someone will converse with me over the latest story I posted. I picked “The Snake’s Savior” to start this conversation because of the reaction of some boys when I told it once. There were several variations on,

“I would have saved him until he was almost warm, then tossed him away from me reallyquick!”

And I began to wonder if we (our culture’s) storytellers, in our admirable efforts to teach our children to be accepting of many different peoples, we are somehow teaching them to be “as innocent as doves” and leaving out the “wise as serpents” part.

So this enlightened generation automatically assumes the best of anyone who acts sincere, but what happens when these poor, molded children (heaven forbid!) meet real evil?

Call me cold and unfeeling, but I believe there are times when people simply are evil.

I am one who believes there are enough people that overcome (say) rejection and isolation without (say) shooting up a classroom, that those who act that way shouldn’t be excused or their evil be explained away because of the way they were treated.

Those who pretend it’s possible (or even necessary) are reversing the already faulty “the end justifies the means” to say “the means justify the end.”

It doesn’t become more right when turned on it’s head.


My quote on the side bar (about dragons and witches— and yes, it was inspired by a similar but different quote of Chesterton’s) is what made me first think about this problem.

I’ve come across very few stories about scary dragons or evil witches.

The majority of stories I see describe how misunderstood are peaceful dinosaurs and old women.

Continue reading »

Heroism Speech

Seeing as I loved it, I’m linking it.  Since a number of you seem to find my interests intriuging enough to look into as well, I offer Heroes in Storytelling by Barbara Nicoloski.

It is the outline of a speech given by a Catholic scriptwriter (Nicoloski).  Good stuff and some good writing prompts– especially when you get down to sections 8 (“The world needs from us:”) and… 8 (“Let’s create a hero story”).

Definitely got me thinking some more.  I appreciated her thoughts greatly.

Taking a Lesson from Saint George

(Excerpts from the excellent book Saint George and the Dragon, that I’ve mentioned before.)

After the tremendous battle to slay the dragon, the king says to George (not yet Saint):

“Never did living man sail through such a sea of deadly dangers. Since you are now safely come to shore, stay here and live happily ever after. You have earned your rest.”

How many times a day do we hear– or think– that? You’ve earned it!

Usually we hear it from people who want something from us. Mostly advertisers. Isn’t is sad we desire that “truth” so much we’ll even take it from those we know are seeking to manipulate us?

Do we ever stop to ask ourselves what we have done that’s so exceptional? Worked hard? Made some sacrifice (by which we usually mean we did something unpleasant, not that we gave our best)? Did more than someone else?

I always feel convicted when I read this bit in Luke 17, that ends with Jesus saying,

So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’ “

What others are or are not doing should make no difference to us and our rating of our work. That depends on my assignment– which will be different from anyone else’s. So what if I’m sometimes more hospitable, my husband more generous, than someone else? This makes us merely obedient, not exceptional or worthy of notice.

George could not, indeed had no reason to, deny the magnitude of what he’d done by freeing a kingdom. But even he would not accept the fairytale ending, because he knew his life was not his own.

“No, my lord, [he told the king] I have sworn to give knight’s service to the Fairy Queen for six years. Until then, I cannot rest.”

Any deed, no matter how great, will not change who we’ve bound ourselves to.

In the same way that there is nothing I can do to earn God’s love, there is nothing I can do to pay back my debt. Once I surrendered to Christ he doubly owns my life: not only by creating it, but by buying it back from where I sold myself to sin.

My time of service is my whole life– not measured just by the six years, or my parenting years, or my “office” years. Our lives are meant to be full of work. We’ve been given work, and somehow we are even offered the chance to joy in it.

(The concept of retirement— especially of retirement in the way we use it in America– doesn’t have much foundation in scripture. The ending of this season of work should merely mark the shift to a new season, and a different work.)

I pray we have the perseverance to get past merely what we want to hear, or do, and live our lives as they are: bound in the service of the one who gave his life for ours.

For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.