Thursday, October 25, 2007

Fairy Tales and Dragons

"What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon," G.K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles (1909).
A variation of the above quote closed "Seven Seconds," the most recent episode of Criminal Minds (the one about the 6-year-old girl who was abducted at a mall): " Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed."

It caught my attention because 1) I work with kids and want them to expand their imaginations; 2) I was a kid who loved fairy tales (still do); and 3) I write stories about kids, dragons, and heroes, and characters who are sometimes all three.

Oh, and 4) G.K. Chesterton is cool.

He's the guy who wrote things like this:

The truth is that Tolstoy, with his immense genius, with his colossal faith, with his vast fearlessness and vast knowledge of life, is deficient in one faculty and one faculty alone. He is not a mystic; and therefore he has a tendency to go mad. Men talk of the extravagances and frenzies that have been produced by mysticism; they are a mere drop in the bucket. In the main, and from the beginning of time, mysticism has kept men sane. The thing that has driven them mad was logic. ...The only thing that has kept the race of men from the mad extremes of the convent and the pirate-galley, the night-club and the lethal chamber, has been mysticism — the belief that logic is misleading, and that things are not what they seem. --Tolstoy (1903)

and this:

If you'd take your head home and boil it for a turnip it might be useful. I can't say. But it might. --The Man Who was Thursday (1908)

Deep and funny.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming...

There is a power in fairy tales that goes beyond mere entertainment. A child will listen to a story when he will not listen to a lecture or a lesson plan. I "heard" the truth more clearly in a book than I ever could from my parents. And then life, of course, with all its realities and hard edges, taught me even more. Those experiences sent me deeper into the escape of fiction.

Borrowing once more from Chesterton, "Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity."

I am not saying teachers and parents and other adults are not necessary. By all means, we are necessary! We shape character, spur dreams, spawn heroes--and we can do so more effectively, if we will but learn to tell stories.


Anonymous said...

Hey, I have been reading a book called "Jimmy", which is actually pretty good--if you discount a few times of over-emoting. It's about a "slow" boy who sees what he calls "Watchers"(angels)and who has a different way of relating to his world. Anyway, what you said about the child and the dragon ties in with the book--which I haven't finished yet--because everything in this kid's life, besides his family, seems out to get him. I want to see how the book ends. You brought up a new point I hadn't considered about fairy tales. You CAN give the baddie a beating!

Anonymous said...

What I think is remarkable about some of the older fairy tales is not that they introduce dragons, as much as they introduce the concept of bad people. And sometimes, those bad people are in your family. Maybe even your (step)parents. Wink, wink.

So the story can mean different things depending on who hears it. Especially if the child is saddled with a narcisstic or sociopath parent.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Anonymous is me- Adrian.


Hey, Adrian! I was wondering who that was...

I just spent a day (Saturday) with a parent and step-parent, and it was better than expected. Doesn't mean I'll start planning holidays or family vacations with them! But a good day is a good day. Not a dragon in sight.

Chattyb said...

I recently went to San Antonio to see my son and his family. His oldest child is a four year old son who is extremely inquisitive and bright. While his two year sister napped, we went for a walk around the neighborhood.

Knowing that he likes to pretend, I immediately turned to the street and exclaimed at how fast the water was running down the "creek." He turned to look up at me thinking that he had heard me wrong, so I repeated the statement and added a few more details regarding the canoers and the opportunities to fish this stream. It didn't take but two seconds for him to jump right in the middle of my fantasy. We fished the creek for several blocks using limbs that had fallen from trees, we splashed the water on each other, chased minnows, and returned to his house to sit on the curb with poles in the water just talking. It was a delicious afternoon.

After returning home I read my daughter-in-law's blog where she described how he took his father to the curb to fish. She took a picture and posted it also. I was thrilled.

The imagination transends reality. It offers occasional trips to places you cannot otherwise go.

I think imagination is a close cousin to ingenuity which can lead to discovery. It is probably one of the oldest forms of play.