On Fairy Tales and Fantasy

Wodwo or Wild Man of the Woods by Martin Schongauer 15th century engraving

Wodwo or “Wild Man of the Forest” by Martin Schongauer, 15th Century Engraving

“What am I? Nosing here, turning leaves over
Following a faint stain on the air to the river’s edge
I enter water. Who am I to split
The glassy grain of water looking upward I see the bed
Of the river above me upside down very clear
What am I doing here in mid-air?”

(beginning of the haunting poem “Wodwo” by Ted Hughes)

     What inspires and moves you? What makes you feel most alive? For me, I find inspiration in all of life, in the little details of the salad my daughter and I are tossing, or even in the way the light shines on our book shelves. I find beauty in my faith, in nature, and mostly, dear literature. My favorite fiction being fairy tales and fantasy. Something about these stories, echoes the faith I have that this world is not my real home. There is something waiting that is better and perfect. Now for clarity, I’m referring to older fairy tales, folktales, and the writings of fantasy giants like J.R.R. Tolkien and his buddy, Mr. Lewis. While fantasy, and all the sub-genres, are more readily available these days, and in some ways a bit more accepted as literature, I’m afraid I haven’t found much that I love and find value in, as I have from the classics. There seems to be a key ingredient missing in most modern fantasy, but what that is, I’m not sure I can pinpoint one main thing. I’ve been thinking about another small funny thing about my love of the fantastical. It has mainly been cultivated in my young adult and not-so-young adult years. That’s right. I’ve grown to love fairy tales and fantasy as an adult.  What may seem like a waste of time and an odd choice for an adult to be reading, has, in reality, been water to the parched soil of my imagination. Recently, I pulled off the shelf one of my most favorite books on family culture and home education, Bequest of Wings: A Family’s Pleasures With Books by Annis Duff. This book was published in 1944, but I find much of it strangely relevant for my life today. While Duff and I differ in our beliefs, I can pull out so many gems of glorious beauty.

In Chapter Fourteen, Mrs. Duff lays out a defense for fairy tales, and I found it fascinating. She is referring to the idea that many look upon the ideas in fairy tales or fantasy with what Anatole France described as, “looking upon the imagination with mistrust.”

Children do not as a rule make this mistake; they are not so rigidly habituated to the distinctions that grown-ups make between what is probable and possible and what is inconceivable and contrary to reason.  They still possess the faculty of imagination that makes room for miracles, perhaps because the marvelous novelty of the world and of living has not yet worn off. The trouble with grown-ups is that they take things too seriously. Where children read fairy tales-and they do read them-just for fun, grown-ups often tend to theorize about ethical, social and cultural values until all the juice is squeezed out.

I just love that last line. “Until all the juice is squeezed out”, indeed. As an adult, working backward through the mystery of fairy tales and fantasy, I’m finding a world in which I can make sense of life. I can untangle just a small fraction of the ugliness of reality in this world and partake of beauty not of this world. It makes sense to some inner sensibility in me as a part of the wonderful creation of God. It’s the stark, brutal, horrible world with its insane pace, unreasonable standards, and true falsity that seems strange to me.

Duff goes on to say the importance of truths about darkness seen at a slant in fairy tale:

It is not a particularly healthy thing for children to read about killing. Killing is not a healthy business. But it goes on just the same, and I think that reading about the matter-of-fact way that people have of disposing of their adversaries in fairy tales has perhaps helped to “condition” my daughter to withstand the shock of hearing and reading about the impassioned massacre that men indulge in nowadays. Children, after all, are a part of this world, and however little we and they like some aspects of it, it will not help to draw the veil over the unpleasant things. I know that with my own daughter there is no danger of developing a calloused point of view. Accepting a situation that you cannot do anything about for the moment is quite a different thing from absolving yourself of responsibility for the future, and it is possible that the knowledge that men from time immemorial have killed each other may be the basis of a practical method of discovering how to stop it. 

Fairy tales teach us about ourselves and others:

My impression is that people in fairy tales behave pretty much as people do in real life. Some live by high principles, some are given over to evil ways; some are kindly in disposition, others practice meanness and persecution. Some go adventuring, some stay at home…And in fairy tales each type, with the action that represents it, is brought to life objectively, emphatically and consistently. Fairy tales do not “condone” behavior that is contrary to ethical principle. They simple recognize the fact that it occurs.

Let’s read that again, because I love it so much.

Fairy tales do not “condone” behavior that is contrary to ethical principle. They simple recognize the fact that it occurs.

Duff goes on to talk about how the characters presented in fairy tales often give her daughter something to draw on, saying so-and-so is like a certain character, for good or for evil. This helps us to turn from that which we dislike and see as wrong and turn toward the good, beautiful, and true. Fantasy generally doesn’t tell us wrong from right, but shows us both sides, leaving us to choose, an important part of life.

Here she discusses, specifically the fairy tales of Hans Andersen, and I think it’s worth thinking about:

… the great beauty and enduring value of Hans Anderson’s Fairy Tales is that they show life as it is, birth at the beginning and death at the end, and a whimsical mixture of laughter and tears in between. I do not understand why it should be thought right or necessary to shield a child from the knowledge that death is the inevitable, the logical, the adventurous end to living…This idea must grow by slow and comfortable degrees, and I know of few things that show the way more simple and sweetly than Hans Anderson’s stories. He does not twist things away from their natural direction in order to bring about a happy ending, and I think that children feel the dignity and tranquility of his rounded episodes. Tragedy, in Andersen’s tales, is never shocking; he is gentle and patient in teaching children that life does not always have a happy face, and his sense of proportion is so delicate that he never overburdens his readers with sadness. The persuasive feeling of quiet confidence and conviction of the rightness of things as they happen flows steadily through Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales, and I know it is helping out daughter to form her philosophy of acceptance of the naturalness and inevitability of death and sorrow. 

Not all fairy tales and fantasy are created equal, as I touched on earlier, especially, unfortunately, the modern genre. However, even in the classics, my children and I have found stories that were too grim for us. Ironically, some of these were from Grimm’s fairy tales. Some of it might find its origins in myth and folktale that is contrary to our faith. Yet, beauty can be found everywhere. I might argue that true beauty is all from the same Source, no matter the conduit that it comes through. We use discernment, but we also don’t live by fear. All of it, everything we partake of, we hold lightly, snapping up the good, and setting aside what doesn’t resonate with us. As Duff says, the ideas in literature “must grow by slow and comfortable degrees”, and I can’t agree more.

What are you inspired by? Do you enjoy fairy tales and the fantasy genres in literature?

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December Reads

 

Happy Fourth Day of Christmas! We are getting snow currently, a beautiful curtain of white, and my feeders are full and hopping with feathered friends. We are finishing up some last minute gifts for our final Christmas gatherings of the year coming up this weekend, sipping hot drinks, and watching Narnia movies. Sigh. I thought I would share what I finished reading in December a few days early so I can work on one of my beloved posts, my favorite books of the year.

1. Many a Green Isle by Agnes Sligh Turnbull (*****) – I just loved the main character so much. Gavin McAllister is an English professor at a small town college and has a beautiful home with his wife and four children. Life is going smoothly, maybe too smoothly. A series of serious and life-altering events happen, shaking him to the core and challenging his old-fashioned values. This is set in small town America before the Vietnam War, the relationships between the characters are deep, meaningful, and beautiful. I came to care about these people and couldn’t put this book down. I found this book so refreshing in it’s tackling of hard issues with love and grace. Perhaps a bit too idyllic or sweet for some, I LOVED this look at a strong man who cares for his family and his neighbors with all of his being. Internally and privately, he deals with his thoughts, frustrations, and own faults, yet makes choices based on love. There are definitely some bows tied neatly in this story, and maybe some convenient answers, but my heart said, “YES” to the beauty of character throughout. Now to live this way myself. I also read The King’s Orchard by Turnbull way back in January and loved it so much, you can read my review here.

2. The Wood’s Edge by Lori Benton (***) I found this Christian fiction title interesting and well-written. It was, however, a predictable look at early American revolutionary times in New England.

3. The Austen Escape by Katherine Reay (****) – 3.5 stars. I loved the pace of this book (calm and meandering) and it’s Austen-drenched dialogue – the mental illness seemed a little far-fetched and the romance had some cheesy-ness . I loved the engineering aspect and the protagonist’s relationship with her father. Overall, a fun read if you like fan fiction-ish stuff.

4. Spanning Time: A Diary Keeper Becomes a Writer by Elizabeth Yates (*****) – I found this book of Elizabeth Yates diary entries spanning her life absolutely fascinating. I’m still thinking about it, but it covered so much history and just reading from a young girl growing to woman through the early 1900’s in Buffalo, NY, then WWI, the delicate and challenging part of being of a wealthy, upper class family, and the privileges yet heavy expectations on her. This follows her determination and grit to go out on her own when the pressure was super heavy from her family and naysayers not to follow her dream of writing. It goes on sharing about her long and sort of strange relationship with her future husband, Bill. Her loneliness at times and her love of animals helping assuage some of that loneliness. Her extensive travels and meeting so many interesting people. Her long standing friendship and working partnership with illustrator Nora Unwin was so heart-warming and fascinating. Her love of England and her experience of living there with Bill up until WWII. Bill’s blindness enters at the end, which can be read about more in depth in another of her fascinating books called The Lighted Heart. I found her search for her faith interesting and at times sad. Her persistence and dogged determination as she kept on writing and submitting through every rejection. I highly recommended this collection of diary entries!

5. The Midnight Folk by John Masefied (*****) – I found this title because I wanted to read a children’s classic for myself over Christmas. I was reading reviews on The Box of Delights and found out this was the first one in the series. I’m so glad I did! What an enchanting, magical British children’s story. This story follows the little boy Kay searching for a lost treasure rumored to be about and all the magical creatures that appear at night also in search of the treasure. This has a way about it that actually might make it a *wee* bit hard to read aloud, one has to pay close attention, but those that do are richly rewarded by lovely details. I can’t wait to read the second soon.

6. Dobry by Monica Shannon (*****) – I found this book while dipping into a favorite book of mine on reading with children called Bequest of Wings by Annis Duff. Mrs. Duff was mentioning great children’s books with food in them! I was intrigued and picked this one up as it won the Newberry. I found this book absolutely sweet and interesting about a peasant boy in Bulgaria who lives with his mother and grandfather. They bake and farm for a living, yet Dobry has an artist’s eye and a bent for noticing beauty in the ordinary. This book is very slow moving (which I loved, but some might dislike), following the agricultural seasons, traditions, a mix of religious, folk lore, and beliefs drive the whole community. There is very little plot to this book, just a general look at their day to day lives, and a gradual realization the Dobry is meant to be an artist. I loved it. Very unique, sparse-like illustrations.

7. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden (****) 3.5 stars – This is a modern title that I picked up after a lot of buzz.  Longer review here.

8. Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity by Ray Bradbury (*****) – I’ve read 7 or 8 books on writing or author memoirs this year and this was just about my favorite. Just so beautifully encouraging and so very inspiring. Bradbury is hard to explain, just sort of explosive is my word for him, I have commonplace quotes to think over, and I’m totally in love with his love of words.

9. The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien (*****) This was a reread for me and I loved it more if possible. I found so many beautiful quotes and poems to put down in my commonplace. So many things can be applied to this journey of life and battle between good and evil. I’m especially drawn this time to Aragorn’s character and also, as always, Gandalf. I also paid very close attention to the map of Middle Earth and am starting to get more of a picture in my mind of these unforgettable character’s travels.

The Holy Bible (*****) –  Mark, Luke, and John, and some of Psalms

If you want to look through my monthly books posts, take a peek at my Year in Books! I will be back soon with my Best of 2017!

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