Student Essay:
Fairy Tales and Civilization

By Clara Shoemaker

Far from being trivial entertainment, fairy tales water the roots of civilization.

Fairy tales are wonderful things, answering the grand and vivid yet hidden desires of men’s hearts. They are meant not only for children, but enter deeply into the hearts of adults and children alike. The inherent value of the fairy tale, though, is a precious quality much lost in postmodern culture. Much lack of honor and basic civility can, perhaps, be traced to neglect of them. Their function is to teach readers right from wrong. Without their moral aid, humankind loses the ingrained sense of decency necessary for functional civilization.

J. R. R. Tolkien states in On Fairy-stories that, although fairy tales are typically considered a childish amusement, they have a higher and better purpose. One of these purposes is to provide an escape from the “hunger, thirst, poverty, pain, sorrow, injustice, [and] death” attached so firmly to this world. Fairy stories are meant to clear the eyesight, refresh the mind, and erase the familiarity of the duller surroundings. It is like closing one’s eyes for a long time: when they are again opened, the world is bathed in brighter colors, and light pierces into the mind more deeply.

Besides this rejuvenation of spirit, the fairy tale is also meant to bolster the moral imagination with principles and affections. A good story of any kind attracts the reader and makes him care about something, whether it be a character or a principle demonstrated in the story. Fairy tales in particular present the reader with principles and morals that can lead him throughout his life, for good or evil, and that will shape his conscience and ideals, which in turn shape his sentiments and actions. The bedside stories of Grimm and Andersen and Perrault do exactly this. As the stories trace heroes and their adventures, virtues such as patience, honesty, and gentleness reward the hero with success and riches, to the audience’s joy. Conversely, the villain’s lies, murders, and other evils elicit outrage from the reader.  At the end of every story, justice is delivered to those wronged in the tale, and the villain is given a condign punishment for his crimes. Thus the love of justice is driven home to the heart.  

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

But what if these principles are never presented—if fairy stories are never told, but dismissed as foolish fantasy? In C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, the first chapter, “Men Without Chests” describes that possibility. Men without chests are people who have had sentiment and principle so excised from their being that all which remains is instinct and factual knowledge, the stomach and the brain. They are fashioned when a person is trained and brought up so that all emotion is treated as something to avoid. Good emotions have not been instilled in them, neither love, nor compassion, nor consideration, nor delight in anything that is beautiful. Instead they approach everything in the cold, hard light of logic alone, untempered by gentleness or care for fellow men.

But as Lewis points out, “It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.” Such men wander blind. Their principles are non-existent. They do only what seems to benefit them materially at that moment. Such men, in a healthy society, would be stopped from destruction one way or another at some point.

However, this is not a healthy society. Too many of these men without chests wander the world, twisting it to their advantage. Too many people are twisting it in too many different directions, breeding discontent, anger, and hatred. Chestless men cannot fix the lack of morality in the world. They do not want to and see no need to. But if children and adults read good stories again, the old and beautiful tales of virtue and of vice, and accept the principles they portray, maybe then society will return to the old, good ways of ubiquitous chivalry and courtesy.

Clara Shoemaker is a fifteen-year-old, homeschooled high school junior living in Rhode Island. She plans to double major in English and Computer Engineering, and enjoys artistic pursuits including music, drawing and painting, and poetry.

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If you enjoyed this essay, you may also like our series on “the Great Conversation,” covering ideas from astronomy to fate to God.

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