Teaching Fairy Tales and Personal Knowledge

I am continually amazed at the power of fairy tales to enliven a boy’s childhood. Fairy tales might be the place where the folly and harm of impersonal knowledge is most easily seen. Here’ Bruno Bettelheim in his magnificent book The Uses of Enchantment:

Like all great art, fairy tales both delight and instruct; their special genius is that they do so in terms which speak directly to children. At the age when these stories are most meaningful to the child, his major problem is to bring some order into the inner chaos of is mind so that he can understand himself better–a necessary preliminary for achieving some congruence between his perceptions and the external world.

“True” stories about the “real” world may provide some interesting and often useful information. but the way these stories unfold is as alien to the way the prepubertal child’s mind functions as the supernatural events of the fairy tale are to the way the mature intellect comprehends the world.

Strictly realistic stories run counter to the child’s inner experiences; he will listen to them and maybe get something out of them, but he cannot extract much personal meaning from them that transcends obvius content. These stories inform wihtout enriching, as is unfortunately also true of much learning in school. Factual knowledge profits the total personality only when it is turned into “personal knowledge.”… A fare of realistic stories only is barren.

Do you see the significance of fairy tales for your children? So often we want common sense to rule the nursery. Well, that common sense is not something that enables the child to manage his world. Heck, it doesn’t even work for us. When I use my common sense, I know that my trials are going to continue, that no fairy godmother is going to come to my rescue, that I’m on my own. I become hopeless. But the fairy tale tells me my fairy godmother is looking out for me.

And that seems like a valuable piece of news. No wonder materialist culture, Christians who take their common sense too far and their anxieties even farther, and rationalists tend to oppose fairy tales.

The great thing about teaching fairy tales is that all you have to do is tell them – or, if necessary, read them. The child’s soul will do the work. If they want them retold, retell them. Over and over, if necessary. They are the means by which we can tend the heart of virtue, to use the title of Vigen Guroian’s fine book on this subject.

Fairy tales are an instance of poetic or personal knowledge, of living ideas.