Fairy Tales and imaginative stories, it seems, are not allowed in many of the nursery schools created by the government to look after the children of defense workers. Here is a victory indeed for a whole group of educators, parents, teachers, psychiatrists, who have crusaded for years against fairy tales, talking animals, nonsense yarns, all of which they consider undesirable for children.
Some of these people say that only “real” stories should be presented to children. “Real” is a vague term. If pressed they say: “Stories scientifically true.” “Or, true to life.” Or, “verifiable by the senses.” They would banish imaginative stories on the ground that they are not “true.” “And what do you mean by true?” “Just that. There are no fairies. Animals do not talk. One should not tell lies to children.” Imaginative tales, we are informed, are dangerous. Children do not realize what is possible or impossible in our material world. They might try to sail out of the window on a carpet, or try to climb a beanstalk . . . .
Most of these objections are hoary chestnuts in the history of literary criticism, wherein they have been applied by moralists to every creation of human fancy. Plato seems to have started it; for most of us, the debate was closed long since and no better last word on the subject exists than Sir Philip Sidney's “Defense of Poesie."
It amounts, therefore, to this: imaginative tales do not prepare children for life as it is. They are misleading. That they are misleading I have found to be true only of adults. They are the ones who lose all sense of proportion. The “belief” children have in imaginative tales is different from what a grown-up usually means by “belief.” That is one of the reasons why children can stand a great deal of horror in fairy tales. It does not affect them the way it does us. Thus they do not associate killing with suffering, as we do. Above all, children instinctively make a difference between the “real” and the “actual.” Certain things can be real which are not actual. There never was, so far as we know, a pill which would make an Alice so small she could slip into a rabbit hole, but many people remember imagining, some few still can imagine, that such a thing could happen to them. And who has not made a mettlesome steed out of an old chair, who has not embarked on the most wonderful journeys in a hammock? The steed is real and so is the ship, but children are not foolish enough to think that they are actual. It is the adult who may make that blunder, and wise men and children will think him ridiculous, will be properly disgusted and lose all confidence in him.
For such fancies act as a springboard to the imagination of man. They are so instinctive that were we able to do away with all imaginative tales, our children would re-invent them. Consider the phenomenon of animism. It is instinctive for the savage, and so it is for the child. They both feel that material objects are “animated.” “But what an inferior state! We should do away with it!” Thank God, I do not think we can! Imagination is in man. It is true that I have come across parents who proudly told me that their children never read imaginative stories. And I have wondered what would happen if a whole race were brought up that way, all natural fancy starved or crushed out. Would we not turn into some sort of ghastly utilitarian monsters? After a few generations of that treatment, not only would we have no painting, sculpture or music, but we would have no scientists because we would have no poets. And the worst is that probably we should have evolved a noxious substitute, a devastating creation like "Superman." It is interesting that authorities of Soviet atheist societies have discovered and admitted that suppression of Orthodoxy, with its vivid pageantry, leads to a vast increase of superstition and magic.
Of course in all things there must be reasonable measure, whether it be in food for the body or for the mind. So here is no question of stuffing the child with fanciful tales. But by the same token, such are healthy food if taken in right proportion.
Folk tales are folk wisdom coming down to us. Some of them are myths related to the cosmos, others deal with relationships between people, or between us and God. Others are sheer fun, play of words, firecrackers of the imagination. It is of course important that the person who tells a tale, or gives it to a child to read, should himself have a proper understanding of it, or, at least, respect for it. I have noticed that some children do not like imaginative tales because the adults around them secretly despise them, or because they display an affected belief in the “actualness” of the tale which irritates the child. We must always meditate upon the creations of, the fancy that we may extract from them the “substantifique moelle,” handle them with fitting reverence. A great deal is hidden in fanciful tales, and their excellence lies in the fact that you do not have to explain them to the child. Just tell the story, it would be like planting a seed. Later in life it will reveal itself in many an unexpected way, whether its import and significance unfold themselves consciously, or whether they remain hidden in the toils of the imagination. The tale will always, then, mean richness in store, one way or another, and a chance at a more complete life. For a wishful thinker or a day dreamer is, contrary to common belief, a person who lacks imagination. To live fully requires a great deal of it.
Were it possible for us to give up imaginative tales, as a nation, not only would we in time rob ourselves as creators, but we would evolve an entirely different way of life. For no one can deny that to accomplish this would put us in danger of losing all sense of mystery. And here I refuse the answer: “All the better.” There are too many things in this world which cannot be explained. We may hope that purely physical phenomena will in time be explained. But we shall still be faced with the mystery of suffering and death. A steady improvement in material conditions or, if possible, in the will of man, will never abolish it. As Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, we must surely know that. And as such, we partake also in a great mystery.
Systematically to strip early life of all imaginative tales will bring with it a changed attitude toward all mysteries, even toward the Greatest of them all. Some may say, what matter? We can do away with miracles, parables , the meeting of Jesus with the Devil, the Visit of the Angel to the Holy Virgin. “All this is unnecessary,” say they. “Only the teachings of Jesus are needed.” Alas! we all know where this leads—to a sterile morality. And, as Claudel has said: “Surely we love Jesus Christ; but nothing on earth could make us love morality.” Who would dare say that Jesus died for morality? And if He did not, we are faced with the Mystery of Redemption, the very mystery of human existence.” Everything, indeed, however much our senses can tell us about it, or we can read and learn about it, remains in the end a mystery,” says Walter de la Mare in his introduction to “Animal Stories,” and in defense of the imaginative tale. Were we able to bring up an entire generation free of mystery, we would not only create insufferable pedants, but we would also turn our back on our Christian heritage and build a civilization whose methods and handling of the problems of life would probably emulate the nazis.
That is why any ban against imaginative tales is more serious than it looks at first. Not only does it rob children of their rightful heritage, not only does it crush or maim or, worst of all, deform the imaginative power without which there is no creation, not only does it sever men from a perennial and lasting source of enjoyment and wisdom, but it induces them to reject all mysteries, or to accept debased and vile mysteries. Let us not attempt to bar access to the world of mystery lest we become a nation with the fate of Lot’s wife.