Why Read Fairy Tales
Updated: Nov 20, 2019
Reading Fairy Tales to Children
Some people say that you should read fairy tales, especially to children, because it helps them to overcome fears, but others say that they actually cause kids to become afraid of things and even give them nightmares.
It's true that there are some scary images in fairy tales, but what's wrong with that?
There are two prominent psychologists that strongly encourage people to read fairy tales, even to children:
Bruno Bettelheim was a child psychologist, and wrote about the use of fairy tales in his book, The Uses of Enchantment. His perspective on stories comes from his background in psychology, and is based on the philosophy and writings of Sigmund Freud. As a child psychologist, he was very interested in the impact that fairy tales had on children.
Jordan Peterson's approach to interpreting fairy tales is largely based on Carl Jung's archetypes. He's also interested in the role they can play in our development based on the actions of the individual characters, the archetypes they represent, and the overall arc of stories.
Both of them are (or were, Bettelheim passed away in 1990) interested in the psychological effects of fairy tales and the importance of fairy tales for children. Both of them see that the scary parts of fairy tales (and other good stories) can actually play an important role in helping people of all ages to overcome and conquer their fears.
I find them both very interesting, and there are a many other ways that people interpret fairy tales, but my primary interest in reading fairy tales, or any other stories, is from a perspective of faith.
Specifically, from a Catholic perspective.
I love fairy tales, and always have. When I was little and before I could read, my parents read them to my brothers and me along with Aesop’s Fables, Dr. Seuss, and a lot of other stories.
Our family was given two books one year for Christmas by my aunt and uncle. They seemed huge, but I was definitely game for getting through them!
Both were books about fairy tales.
One was by the Brothers Grimm, and the other was by Hans Christian Andersen. I was in fourth grade so it took me a while, but I read all the way through both of them. I liked some of the stories but not others, but if you asked me about them all I could tell you was what happened.
I had no idea about the virtues in them, or even what a virtue was! I just thought they were entertaining enough that I kept reading them.
Reading Fairy Tales as an Adult
When I re-read them as an adult, there were two things that really surprised me. First, how short the stories were, and second, how little detail there was in the stories!
My memories of the stories were of epic sagas, with lots of vibrant colors and larger-than-life characters. I couldn’t believe how simplistic the stories themselves actually were! How did that happen?
Flannery O’Connor said that a good story should grow in your mind over time.
As you remember it and consider it—what happened? Why did that happen?—the story itself expands and you see the deeper meanings and the consequences of actions.
That was my experience when re-reading fairy tales.
I remembered the stories, but I'd also thought about them a lot—especially when other authors referred to characters, settings, or events from those fairy tales.
I'd also grown in knowledge and experience since I was a child, and had certainly read a lot more stories! So of course all of that was incorporated into how I viewed the world around me.
That's why, when I read the old fairy tales again, they took on new meanings for me.
The first time you read a story, you should just enjoy it as a good story that’s well-told. If it’s not one you enjoy then you’re really not going to care about the deeper meanings, the motivations, the consequences, the symbols, etc.
There are 2 stories that I honestly can’t stand even though so many other people love them: Rebecca and Wuthering Heights.
I honestly hate both of them.
They’re supposed to be stories that are soooo wonderful, meaningful, etc.
When friends told me that I was wrong, that they were wonderful for many reasons, I did honestly try to like them.
It was possible that I was at the wrong stage in life for reading them, and misinterpreted some of the events and characters in the story, so I re-read Wuthering Heights.
Nope, I still hated it. I’m glad other people find redeeming qualities in it, but I still hate it and I doubt that I’ll ever change my mind—especially since I have no intention of reading it again.
This is why I understand if people honestly don’t like fairy tales even though I still love them.
Liking a story is not the same thing as evaluating the “goodness” of a story.
My intense dislike of Wuthering Heights and Rebecca is my subjective opinion, but I can still acknowledge that the stories may be good in themselves, and this is what I would say to those who don’t like the older fairy tales.
You don’t have to like them, although you may like them, and even love them because they are still very good stories.
Why Are They Good Stories?
Good stories help to form us as human beings.
We struggle with truth and goodness, but that struggle is necessary for our spiritual growth.
I very often prefer to make choices based on what I like or want, even if they’re not truly good for me and are just what I like in that moment.
Good stories work on us at a deeper level than we realize.
We identify with a character in the story, and internalize that character’s actions and reactions. At the end of the story, we have two outcomes:
We celebrate overcoming the obstacles that we’ve conquered along with “our” character in the story
We suffer the consequences of failure along with “our” character
In either situation, we have the potential to grow in virtue.
Good choices are ones that help us to orient ourselves towards what is truly good—the classic virtues—because it’s so much easier to choose momentary pleasures and vices instead of what is truly good.
Characters that suffer from choosing pleasure and vice instead of what is truly good end up suffering a lot more in the end, while the characters who struggle but eventually choose what is good end up happy in the end.
Good stories are the ones that allow us to suffer the consequences of choosing self-centeredness and momentary pleasure along with the characters without having to make that mistake in real life so that we will make a better choice when we’re faced with a challenge in real life.
List of Posts in the "Fairy Tale Friday" Series
Check out the rest of the posts in this series:
Why Read Fairy Tales? (this post)