Once upon a time, parents would read stories to their children. Stories are medicine. They don't require a response but they are embedded with instructions to guide us through the complexities of life.
Stories fired up the imagination without video or sound track, and enabled a special family time. As parents become busier, or separated, and life becomes more frenetic, I fear that this is one of the rituals of growing up that we are losing.
From the folk stories of different cultures, to those of Hans Christian Anderson, the Brothers Grimm, to JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, fairy tales are wild, fantastic, with characters that are extravagantly good and others that are really horribly evil. After a lot of chaos, heartbreak and mayhem, good prevails.
Fairy tales and myths have an inestimable value for our children in establishing our world and allowing us to come to grips with contradictions in our lives. There are many elements common to fairy tales and myths:
Someone usually dies – sometimes it is early in the story and often it is the good mother, or some heroic person who by virtue of their goodness you would hope to live. Harsh. Often it becomes a nudge for us to grow up – not rely on someone to rescue us, but for us to do the rescuing.
Meeting death in the context of a fairy tale firstly removes it from our immediate experience but also provides a context in which to realize that death is not the end – life still goes on, successfully.
Fairy tales and myths often subtly convey the advantages of moral behaviour. In this way they help to knit the fabric of a society and culture and explain a common understanding of what is right and what is wrong.
Whether this be in the form of hardship, injustice, unfairness or downright malice, experiencing evil is part of life. The wicked stepmother cannot be ignored. This is present in each of us and needs to be confronted so we come to terms with it and with ourselves. It is nothing more than the sin (Romans Chapter 3 verse 23) which contaminates us.
Fairy tales and myths don't shy away from betrayal, unfair laws, evil motives, things not working out as they should, but they expose these things for what they are. In the exposing we are also shown strategies for dealing with it.
Fairy tales and myths do not need illustrations. They are meant to be read with the reader's imagination creating the world and the characters in ways that are far richer than the foregone conclusions of illustrations. Who knows what amazing graphic designers, artists, engineers emerged after imagining their world?
(The picture for this article doesn't show any mythical character – instead it shows a bridge in a dark forest, with a path that leads on...)
There seem to be two kinds of fear. One is fear of the unknown, which we need to recognise and do something about. Ultimately the unknown becomes knowable, thus robbing it of any power over us.
The other is fear of the monster that is real and ugly and there is a right place for fear when confronted by it. But fear does not have to paralyse us and render us helpless. The delightful thing about many fairy tales and myths is the wit and cleverness used to outsmart the monster and render it helpless.
Estes (1992) identifies a number of significant lessons through the process of doing the ordinary. Washing is linked to purifying, renewing. Clothing is the persona you adopt. Sweeping speaks to order and cleanliness. Cooking reflects creativity. Children reading these things can realize that chores are not just normal, but necessary and significant beyond the superficial.
How to know what you don't know! In this electronic age where they can Google anything, children are not trained to develop their intuition. In many ways this is listening to the Spirit of God. For children to see how this works in a fairy tale may pave the way for them to trust the prompting of the Holy Spirit for themselves.
The Bible as a Story Book
The Bible is a storybook. It is a love story between God and humanity; a book of faith which tells how to perceive life; a book of revelation that unveils a relationship with God; and a book of vocation which shows us how we ought to live.
It contains myth, in the sense that myths are true stories, for they are about God and they explain our world (Westerhoff, 1980). To claim that there are myths in the Bible is not to diminish the Bible at all, but to strengthen its claim on validating our world.
Modern Children's Literature
By contrast, many children's stories these days are shallow, seeking to entertain or convince about a particular ideology. There is no recourse to imagination or intuition – children are told what to believe or how to solve the problem.
Children are even told what is wrong and what is right, instead of gleaning it for themselves. "Safe" stories don't mention death or fears, and there's a widespread refusal to let children know that the source of much that goes wrong in life is due to their very own natures (Bettelheim, 1975).
Don't be afraid to read to your children. Read stories that are rich with life and mystery. Discard this ritual –leave it to the childcarer – at your peril. And be confident that you are "growing up children" who can take their place in life happily ever after.
Aira Chilcott B.Sc (Hons), M. Contemp Sci, Cert IV in Christian Ministry and Theology, Cert IV in Training and Evaluation, Grad Dip Ed., began her working life at the John Curtin School of Medical Research, investigating characteristics of cancer cells. Turning to teaching in the Christian school system provided opportunities to learn theology, more science, mission trips and explore the outdoors through bushwalking and other exploits. Now retired, Aira is a panelist for Young Writers and volunteers at a nature park. Aira is married to Bill and they have three adult sons.
Aira Chilcott's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/aira-chilcott.html