For the most part, if you want to find fairy tales and folk tales and myths and legends, if you want to use enchantment, you must go to the children’s room of the library, or the children’s section of the bookstore. This has created the false impression that these stories are intended only for children. It wasn’t always that way.
In the generations before blogs, before video on demand, before t.v., before radio, before books, even, entertainment in the form of oral storytelling was just about the only game in town. For all the centuries before the industrial age, labor meant repetitive tasks over many tedious hours, hours that were relieved by telling stories. Spinning and weaving, for example, are sedentary and monotonous, and played such a huge role in the tradition of storytelling that spinning a yarn and weaving a tale are now synonymous with the art of the story. We fabricate our own stories or follow the thread of someone else’s adventures. Text and textile both come from the same Latin word, texere, to weave. Everyone shared the stories while they worked, young and old, even when it was R-rated and even X-rated — I suspect covering the children’s ears happened sometimes, but not always!
It wasn’t until the great collectors of folklore in the 18th and 19th centuries that the “wonder tales” were written down systematically, and then found their way into the nurseries and school rooms of the literate classes. Suddenly, the bawdy stories that had provided laughs for laboring grown-ups were deemed immoral and unsuitable for children, and new editions were printed with a young audience in mind. Scholars have traced the banishment of many stories from the later editions of the Grimms’ collections that had appeared in the earliest, for example. Eventually it came to seem that the principal audience for the stories was and always had been children, and such tales became “childish.” So began, I believe, the steady exile to the children’s room of all traditional stories, be they myths, legends, fables or fairy tales. It’s as if a stern voice said, “Go to your room!”
Now, I don’t mean to take these stories away from children, obviously. However, the problem arises when older kids take the view that they are too old to hear stories, or when adults think there’s nothing on those shelves to share with teens and tweens. Listen well: there is more than enough to fill the heart and mind for them as well as for their parents! What a treat there is if you look! These are “messages from our ancestors.” Let’s keep our ears open for those messages, for there is much wisdom in them.
The beautiful children’s room of our public library is in the lower level, and the approach down the stairs is painted with friendly beasts and characters from well-loved classics. If my daughter gets to be too cool to go downstairs there where the little chairs are, I’ll keep going there for her to get the books to share. Hopefully, she won’t get to be too cool. Hopefully she’ll always have the social courage to ask for these stories herself.