“It is characteristic of fairy tales to state an existential dilemma briefly and pointedly. This permits the child to come to grips with the problem in its most essential form, where a more complex plot would confuse matters for him. The fairy tale simplifies all situations. Its figures are clearly drawn, and details, unless very important, are eliminated. All characters are typical rather than unique.”
This is a very important distinction between fairy tales and fiction for children. In fiction for children, characters are described with many nuanced details of biography and personality, giving them three-dimensional life. We feel that we know a friendly and cheerful little boy like Wilbur, the pig in Charlotte’s Web. Many of us have met a prickly and defensive kid on the wrong side of the child welfare groups, a Gilly from Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins. We know precociously wise girls like studious Hermione Granger, and good-natured, loyal goof-buddies like Ron Weasley, Harry Potter’s sidekicks. One of the reasons kids are attracted to these books is because they are attracted to the characters, who are particular people (even if sometimes they are animals) and as such could be people they might meet or come to know.
On the other hand, fairy tales offer not characters but situations, the existential dilemmas of the above Bettelheim excerpt. We don’t want real-seeming characters in them, because we want to inhabit them ourselves, for a while. The “characters” in fairy tales are more like masks that we can try on to see how it feels. We don’t really know much of anything about Cinderella’s personality, but we can try on what it feels like to be rejected and excluded and abused, and then rewarded.
“Today [1975!] children no longer grow up with the security of an extended family, or of a well-integrated community. Therefore, even more than at the time fairy tales were invented, it is important to provide the modern child with images of heroes who have to go out into the world all by themselves and who, although originally ignorant of the ultimate things, find secure places in the world by following their right way with deep inner confidence.”
After all, isn’t this what we mean when we talk about courage? Deep inner confidence is certainly what I wish for my child, when she sets off in the world to seek her fortune. She has already had to walk through a pretty dark forest to get this far, and will have more dangerous terrain ahead. I hope that all the many stories we’ve shared will help light her way. Is she, and are the rest of today’s children, more in need of fairy tales than 1975’s children? I don’t know; I just know that all children need them, just as they need good novels with individualized characters, and family stories, and heroes from history. We may be living in the 21st Century, but I believe we need to bring the fairy tales with us into the future. Einstein agreed, and who am I to argue with him?