Fairy Tales: Awakening the Moral Imagination

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“I didn’t believe in Magic until today. I see now it’s real. Well, if it is, I suppose all the old fairy tales are more or less true. And you’re simply a wicked, cruel magician like the ones in the stories.
Well, I’ve never read a story in which people of that sort weren’t paid out in the end, and I bet you will be. And serve you right.”
– C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew

When my children were young, I questioned the wisdom of Charlotte Mason’s enthusiastic support of fairy tales. After all, they were often heartbreaking (Hans Christian Anderson) or grisly (The Arabian Nights). Some were heartbreaking and grisly (Grimm’s). Ultimately, it was my children who would trust her more than I, as they took me by the hand and led me farther up and further into their most cherished worlds of fantasy.

Certainly, Charlotte was right, in that fairy tales are infinitely more interesting than tired little Dick-and-Jane-type morality tales. She felt that they sparked imagination, and that such imagination was necessary for invention and innovation. Albert Einstein agreed. He attributed his accomplishments to his imaginative mind, having been cultivated by, of all things, fairy tales. He urged parents to read fairy tales to their children if they wanted them to be intelligent.

Charlotte also felt that fairy tales did far more than amuse the children, but had the power to awaken the moral imagination, and inspire children (and adults) to noble deeds. Anthony Esolen, in his fabulous book, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of your Child, finds the moral laws of fairyland to be important to the child’s proper inculcation of virtue: “And those characters [in a fairy tale] dwell in a moral world, whose laws are as clear as the law of gravity. .. In the folk tale, good is good and evil is evil, and the former will triumph and later will fail. This is not the result of the imaginative quest. It is rather its principle and foundation.”

Fred Rogers of PBS’ Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood understood that children are already quite aware of the fact that the world is full of evil. He had the ability to look through the television camera and speak directly to children’s fears. After the terrorist attacks of September 11th, he told parents that the best way to calm their children’s fears was to tell them to look for the helpers – the policemen, firemen, brave moms and dads who were helping the wounded. Children raised on fairy tales know there is always a helper who will come to the rescue. This is because the fairy tale, like all living tales, fits into the true “master story” which is revealed in the Bible. Peter J. Leithart wrote of this idea in his book, Heroes of the City of Man, saying: “All heroes may be compared to the true hero, Jesus Christ; all damsels in distress are comparable to Christ’s Bride, the church; all rescues are acts of salvation; all weddings anticipate the feast of the Lamb; and all villains, serpent-like, spread their several varieties of poison.”

The best part about fairy tales, is of course, they all live happily ever after, which serves as a glimpse at our own ever-after in Gloryland.


“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending; or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale — or otherworld — setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, Tolkien on Fairy-stories

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