Thursday, October 11, 2012

Saved by Fiction [and Fairy Tales] by Deborah Smith Douglas

Live Book

I enjoyed this article and its valuation of fairy tales, especially for children. Douglas comes down heavily in the "children need fairy tales" camp with a Christian perspective. From Saved by fiction: Reading as a Christian practice by Deborah Smith Douglas at Christian Century:

By the time I was ten, I needed that life raft. That year, my mother suffered major head injury in a catastrophic car wreck. Despite surgery and extensive rehabilitation, the irreversible brain trauma caused radical changes in her personality and led to what is called (with no apparent irony) “progressive” dementia.

From that day forward, I had lost her—and would continue inexorably to lose her for the next 40 years that she survived. My father, unable to acknowledge or cope with his own tremendous loss, retreated into work and alcohol. Our lives began to unravel.

Reading became not just a pleasure but a way to survive— and not only a means of escaping a painful reality, but a way to find meaning in it. The paper nautilus my mother built, in which she carried me to the light, was for me a means of grace.

All those fairy tales came to my assistance: I knew that children could be thrown without warning into dark forests or dungeons, that they would have to be brave and clever to find their way out. Mothers disappeared. Chasms opened unexpectedly. Somehow the children I had met in fairy tales kept me company in those bewildering days. Their stories enabled me to hope, kept me from despair when my own mother seemed to be replaced by a sharp-tongued stranger, when all familiar landmarks seemed gone forever. Like those other children I might feel alone in the dark, but like them I came to trust that I would somehow be led to the right path. I had learned what child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment believed that all children will learn from fairy tales if we let them: terrible things may happen, but help and guidance will be given when needed.

In response to a woman who declared that fairy tales were bad for children because they frighten them, G. K. Chesterton sensibly pointed out that children are already frightened. Children know there are dragons in the world; what fairy tales give them is someone to kill the dragon. “At the four corners of a child’s bed stand Perseus and Roland, Sigurd and St. George.” Withdrawing that guard of heroes will only leave the child to fight her battles alone. Chesterton knew that fairy tales reassure children that “these limitless terrors have 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 fear.”

J. R. R. Tolkien described the elemental functions of traditional fairy stories as recovery (from blindness, sickness or despair), escape (from danger or captivity), and consolation (a fleeting glimpse of “joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief”).


Even reading detective novels can be a spiritual discipline. The mysteries I read voraciously now—like the fairy tales I read as a child—remind me to pay attention, seek the truth, watch for what lies hidden beneath the surface.

Both detective fiction and fairy tales offer escape from captivity, but never flight from responsibility. What matters is not security but encounter, revelation, transformation, risk, participation in mystery, commitment to great ends, allegiance to a side. The children in Narnia have been called there for a purpose; they have work to do on Aslan’s side.

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