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    Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagintion of Your Child: Method 4

    February 8, 2011 by Brandy Vencel

    Method Four is: Replace the fairy tale with political clichés and fads. If you are looking for a summary of the chapter, Mystie’s blog is probably the place to find it. I just want to deal with a couple things that came up while I was reading. I have grown to love real fairy tales as an adult, I agree with Esolen that “fairy tales…are for children and childlike people, not because they are little and inconsequential, but because they are as enormous as life itself.” I’ve defended princesses here before in a related discussion.

    What is the Value of a Fairy Tale?
    I’ve never really sat down and hammered out my thoughts on this. I simply believed, instinctively, that they had value, and I’ve seen them work their magic in my own home. The more of them we have read, the more I believe in the power of the fairy tale as an instructor in wisdom and virtue, as a tutor in the proper organization of the affections.

    Esolen had a few brilliant little thoughts on their value that I thought I’d share here. For instance, many in our culture will sneeringly declare fairy tales little more than stereotypes.

    It has been a great victory for the crushers of imagination to label such figures “stereotypes,” and add a sneer to it, as if people who used them in their stories were not very imaginative–or, sometimes, as if they were downright narrow-minded and wicked. The youth, the lonely maiden, the ineffective father, the doting mother, these are all types, because they are true to life; it is how they came to be types in the first place.

    If you are like me, you have known women who have grown up under a real, live wicked stepmother. I often wonder if such stories would offer comfort to little girls in the midst of their troubles, knowing that justice will prevail someday. Wicked stepmother stories were written for a reason, even though it is also true that not all stepmothers are wicked.

    Is there value in types and archetypes? Esolen says there is.

    Such characters are like a child’s palette of colors: bold blue, and green, and yellow, and red, and white. Of course they simplify: as the towering marble pillars of the Parthenon simplify, or as the tonic chord in a Bach chorale resolves all the preceding complexity into the perfectly expected and harmonious simplicity of the right ending.

    How would depriving children of fairy and folk stories help destroy the imagination of a child?

    If you do not want a child to paint, you take away his palette. If you do not want him to use his imagination to conceive of archetypal stories, you take away his narrative palette. You take away, or corrupt, or subvert all his types. That you will do most efficiently if you deprive him of folk tales.

    This has ramifications for the man the child becomes.

    [W]hen you starve your child of the folk tale, you not only cramp his imagination for the time being. You help to render vast realms of human art (not to mention human life) incomprehensible.


    If you don’t want your child to have a mind capable of falling in love with the music of Puccini or the poetry of Dante, you had better see to the folk tales.

    Just as nourishing the child’s body impacts the health of the man, so nourishing his mind and soul does likewise.

    An Axe to Grind
    I was totally with Esolen on the value of folk tales and fairy stories. We here read Aesop (sans the morals) because we think he is good for the soul.

    Esolen maps out for us a three-prong strategy for separating the child from fairy stories forever:

    1. Drown the stories, flattening them into homogeneity.
    2. Sneer at any connection to the timeless (right here and right now are all the matter).
    3. Turn all stories into “a bald, brazen sales pitch, preferably a political pitch.”

    Here is my disappointment: few, if any, of Esolen’s examples in this portion dealt with children’s tales. He himself has told us of the “broad bold colors” of the child’s palette, how the stories deal in types, and then his first example is from Sigrid Undset’s The Master of Hestviken. He himself explains that “none of the three characters…is wholly good.” Well, this is a cornerstone of fairy stories. They deal in exaggerations, with main characters often being wholly good or wholly wicked.

    Though I was intrigued by his explanation of how to change Undset’s work into “McNovel,” as he calls it, I was hoping for direct examples from fairy stories.

    For instance, Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is a delight for children, and it seems to take a number of elements from fairy tales and folk tales (for example, the father requiring one daughter to marry before the other). Esolen could easily have compared the merits of the play to the movie 10 Things I Hate About You. In this movie, the shrew, Kat, behaves badly because she is Cool and Jaded About Men. Bianca is sweet because she is naïve. Kat is tamed not as a horse is tamed by a husbandman (through weariness and lack of food), but when she realizes that Not All Men Are Bad.

    I happen to like the movie, but I realize it is a perversion of Shakespeare’s story, and that it changes all the lessons learned.

    I wish, moreover, that Esolen would have discussed what Disney has done to fairy stories.  I enjoyed reading his discussion of the film adaptation of The Scarlet Letter, but I have yet to meet a mother who’d read such a tale to her preschoolers before nap time.

    If you see what I mean.

    In All
    Read fairy tales, folk stories, and nursery rhymes to your children. They are good for the imagination, good for the soul.

    And, in my experience, they are also good for Mom.

    Read More:
    -Other book club entries are link over at Cindy’s blog
    Buy the book and join the conversation
    -JRR Tolkien’s essay On Fairy Stories

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  • Reply dawn February 13, 2011 at 11:47 pm

    I’d love to see one of you ladies who finished Norms and Nobility compare how types are used in these two books … are they saying same/similar things?

    I’ll finish it one of these days.

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts February 11, 2011 at 1:02 am

    The more I think about it, the more I think he set himself up for this criticism. His descriptions of fairy tales as being a “child’s palette” and akin to using nursery colors–the bold colors toddlers love so much….it set us up for wondering what he thought about the under-10 crowd.

    I keep trying to think of examples, but I’m coming up short (other than Disney Disney Disney), and I can’t help but think that’s because we (as a culture) have generally abandoned fairy tales for littles in favor of “real and relevant” stories. Many of the contemporary books we’ve been given feature children living in suburbia living “normal” lives. No mystery, no awe, no nothing.

    I was thinking that most tellings of Little Red Riding Hood are very sanitized–no cutting the wolf open, and grandma is usually locked in a closet rather than swallowed whole. I wonder: does that mean anything?

  • Reply Debra February 9, 2011 at 9:04 am

    It’s true that he really doesn’t deal with children’s literature in this chapter – I appreciated your comment about reading The Scarlet Letter to your children at naptime (not!). It’s never too late to nuture a person’s imagination, but if we’re talking about not destroying it in the first place then he examples are a bit – old.

  • Reply GretchenJoanna February 9, 2011 at 3:09 am

    If he’s really writing about destroying the imagination of teens…isn’t that a bit late?

  • Reply sara February 8, 2011 at 8:40 pm

    Yes, I noticed that, while he was extolling the virtues of fairy tales for children, he didn’t really use children’s examples. (The Handmaid’s Tale?)

  • Reply Go quickly and tell February 8, 2011 at 8:09 pm

    Having spent more time reviewing the selected bibliography this week, it is clear that Esolen is not writing for young children.

    More like the young adult aka teen.

    And, of course, for the adult (like I) who didnt read all of her summer reading or much Shakespeare.

    Therefore I wont be able to check many of these titles off the TBR list for a long time.

  • Reply Kelly February 8, 2011 at 7:37 pm

    Oh, and my 21yod were talking this morning about Romeo and Juliet and how modern adaptations compare to it, especially Summer of my German Soldier. They both have the same basic setup, but R&J suffer through their own fault. In SomGS, it’s all the blind, bigoted adults that are at fault and cause the sad ending. That’s one example of the flattening he was talking about, the reducing to cliche.

  • Reply Kelly February 8, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    Mike and the older kids and I have been reading King Lear aloud a couple evenings a week, and when I read this chapter it reminded me that KL always reminds me of “Cap of Rushes,” the daughter who tells her father that she loves him as fresh meat loves salt and gets kicked out for it. Of that, being a fairy tale, and not a Hans Christian Anderson one, ends happily.

    I wish too that he’d written more about children’s stories, since that’s the point, isn’t it?

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts February 8, 2011 at 7:17 pm

    Cindy, I think I was disappointed in his examples because I didn’t completely grasp some of the ideas–especially homogeneity. In my experience, we have replaced good stories with shallow, homogenized ones. But it sounded as if he thought we could homogenize a fairy tale, and I didn’t understand how that could be done.

    I hadn’t thought much about the application of a fairy tale being nuanced, but I will have to ponder that today. I think you’re right…

  • Reply Cindy February 8, 2011 at 7:00 pm

    I found myself wishing he zeroed in more on younger fairy tales. It is interesting how many adult fairy tales we find though.

    Also I wonder if he made the wrong distinction when discussion nuances. Obviously fairy tales are anything but nuanced but then again their applications very often are more nuanced.

    Perhaps the lack of nuance in ft prepares us for more nuanced reading later. We learn to recognize types even among the nuances or the goodness or badness of a character. If I were not totally overwhelmed right not I would try to explain this in more depth.

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