Sunday, 12 September 2010

Realism and Fairytales

When I was ten or so, my brother and I would sometimes bemoan our bad luck in never having any adventures. We were both big fans of Enid Blyton, in whose books groups of children from nice safe middleclass backgrounds not too dissimilar from our own, ran into amazing adventures every single holiday. Every single Christmas or Eastertime, the circus would arrive and the bad-tempered clown would turn out to be an international jewel thief; or the tutor hired as a Latin coach would be a spy. Those lights flashing out to sea beyond the ruined castle were signalling to enemy submarines. The strange noises in the empty house came from smugglers’ barges gliding along the underground river gurgling beneath the trapdoor in the cellar.

Though these adventures were, in one sense, clear fantasy, they were presented with a veneer of realism which could deceive our inexperience. I loved to read of dragons and flying horses, but never expected to meet one. The dilapidated old barn, however, a mile up in the fields near the edge of the woods, with the shotgun cartridges scattered around the doorway – surely that was something which we ought to investigate? So we did, and got shouted at and chased by the farmer for walking over his crops.

Well, we should have known better. Enid Blyton is hardly a realistic writer. Maybe not. But what about some more recent ‘realistic’ books for children – say, Jacqueline Wilson’s nitty-gritty tussles with all sorts of issues? Her heroines live in children’s homes, or have totally unreliable parents, or big stepbrothers who bully them, or are young carers themselves, or try shoplifting and smoking to impress the glamorous ‘bad’ best friend… Isn’t this realism?

Um, not quite. I have the utmost admiration for Jacqueline Wilson’s books, which my own daughters loved – but actually, they are fairytales. Wilson’s stories chime so with young girls, because everyone loves a good dose of misery followed by a happy ending. (Look at Frances Hodgson Burnett’s ‘A Little Princess.’) Aged about ten, my younger daughter and her friends were writing stories at school that were essentially Jacqueline Wilson fan-lit: first-person accounts of an imaginary home life in which Dad got drunk, blacked their eyes and wept, while feckless Mum went out with the empties and came back in with another tattoo. Of course there are such homes, far too many of them. But the reason I claim Wilson’s books are really fairytales, is because her young heroines who go through so much, always end up wiser, happier, and in a better place than they started from. They are fairytale endings. I say this with no shadow of disparagement – but realistic, they’re not.

Alison Lurie, in her brilliant set of essays on children’s literature ‘Don’t Tell the Grownups’ (Bloomsbury 1990), recounts how at the age of five she was given ‘The Here and Now Story Book’ by a writer named Lucy Sprague Mitchell – whose credo was that fairytales delayed ‘a child’s rationalising of the world’ and left him ‘longer than is desirable without the beginnings of scientific standards’. Lurie writes:

Inside, I could read about The Grocery Man (“This is John’s Mother. Good morning, Mr Grocery Man”) … The children and parents in these stories were exactly like the ones I knew, only more boring. They never did anything really wrong, and nothing dangerous or surprising ever happened to them – no more than it did to Dick and Jane, whom I and my friends were soon to meet in first grade.

Learning to read in the early sixties, I also encountered such children: the ‘Janet and John’ readers, and the safe, sunny, pedestrian world of the Ladybird books – where all families were made up of a Mummy who stayed at home and baked, a Daddy who went to work carrying a briefcase, a little boy in shorts, a little girl in a frilly dress, and a spaniel. Plots would revolve around picnics, kite-flying, the collection of tadpoles in jam-jars, and the making and icing of fairycakes.

Lurie continues with devastating truth:

After we grew up, of course, we found out how unrealistic these stories had been. The simple, pleasant adult society they had prepared us for did not exist. As we suspected, the fairy tales had been right all along – the world was full of hostile, stupid giants and perilous castles and people who abandoned their children in the nearest forest.

To succeed in this world you needed some special skill or patronage, plus remarkable luck, and it didn’t hurt to be very good-looking. The other qualities that counted were wit, boldness, stubborn persistence, and an eye for the main chance. Kindness to those in trouble was also advisable – you never knew who might be useful to you later on.

And this still seems to me the best argument against those who still think that fairytales are unreal; or at least more unreal than books set in the everyday here and now. How much do we need to be taught, in Lucy Sprague Mitchell’s phrase, to ‘rationalise the world’? Do we really need protection from the obviously fantastic? My brother and I, as children, could imagine ourselves into an Enid Blyton-style adventure – and, so doing, explored potentially dangerous deserted barns and houses – because her books contained no obvious impossibilities. But fiction is fiction is fiction.

Stories are real and not-real at the same time. What we really need in life, it seems to me, is encouragement. Plenty of fiction will take you from A – Z on the direct route, but you may possibly learn more on the scenic way. We need to allow ourselves and our children to discover the power of metaphor to transform experience. I would put my money on the basic stuff of fairytales being far more likely to happen to the average child than the chance of capturing an enemy spy or discovering a nest of coiners. Your parents may abandon you, or die, or abuse you; you may be ignored and disregarded; later in life your lover may forget you; you may have to work hard for little or no reward.

Though at first glance fairytales may seem simple or childish with their pre-industrial characters and settings, they offer a rich harvest of archetypes, of metaphors for life, of delight in the beautiful world and of resignation in the face of death. Fairytales we have read as children often stay with us forever. Some are frightening, of course… for the land of faerie is a dangerous place… but so is this world, and we do children no favours by pretending otherwise. Fairytales – real fairytales – don’t pull punches. They tell us life often looks overwhelming - impossible. You may have to travel to the back of the north wind, ride over seven miles of steel thistles, weave shirts out of nettles, suffer insults in silence, scale a glass mountain – but ‘pack courage, leave fear at home’, and you will find a way.


  1. "As we suspected, the fairy tales had been right all along – the world was full of hostile, stupid giants and perilous castles and people who abandoned their children in the nearest forest." <- That is fantastic.

    I grew up in the 1990s with Enid Blyton (through her books, to clarify, not through some oddly necromantic experiment) and I'm fairly sure she did me no harm!

    Enjoyed this post a lot. Fairytales are too often maligned as troublesome wisps of times gone by that permeate without invitation into the modern world.

  2. What a great point. Fairy tales are much more realistic, than, for example Nancy Drew :)

  3. What a wonderful post! Thanks Katherine.

  4. I was so in love with Enid Blyton's tales of children solving mysteries that I remember at the age of eleven dressing up as a man (five o'clock shadow, trousers, jacket and I think a bowler hat) and shadowing a neighbor as he innocently walked his dog, endeavoring to find out if there was anything criminal going on in the neighborhood. Holidays always fell flat -there being no jewelry heist or smuggling that I could discover, but still I hoped.

  5. Elizabeth, it's such a wonderful and insightful essay by Alison Lurie - I feel rather like a magpie stealing the shiny bits from other writers' nests, but it rang so very true to me.

    Amy and Claire, thanks -

    Jo - brilliant! there must be so many of us who longed to solve mysteries.Of course I also longed to get into Narnia; but I knew I never would.


  6. Fascinating, not least because a young friend asked me something this past weekend which relates closely to this and I putting out a blog request for her. Of course, if we really had the Enid Blyton sort of adventure, it would not be a pleasant experience at all.

  7. Thanks for the wonderful post and the idea of reading Alison Lurie, which I haven't done. I am a firm believer in fairy tale power. My childhood would have been bereft of hope were it not for fairy tales and my old maid aunt who, and I'm still not sure she wasn't, seemed like a fairy godmother to me. She taught me stories, poems and songs. She gave me a safe place to be when she could, and even her house was an enchanted place to me. To this day I can't read Beatrix Potter without thinking that my long dead aunt knew Peter Rabbit personally. Stories, especially of the fairy tale kind, are essential to human health and happiness.
    I'm getting off my soapbox now.

  8. Cathrin, that's a moving and a wonderful tribute to your aunt. People who make the world enchanted for us deserve such accolades. Thankyou for sharing your memories of her with us.

    Cassandra, thanks - and Catdownunder, I quite agree!

  9. I'm with Cassandra! A terrific post...

  10. Wonderful post! I love Alison Lurie's essays on fiarytales in Don't Tell the Grown-ups and that one especially but yours almost as good.

  11. In Tolkein's essay "on fairytales" he notes that few if any of what we consider fairy tales contain either fairies or any other beings of similar status (elves, sprites, pixies, boggles, hobs, etc). What they share is a mix of a morality tale with a fantastic element or unexpected premise.

    My strongest connection to "fairy tales" was actually through Ladybird books, not the Peter and Jane type, but the fairy tales with their beautiful and quite realistic looking pictures. I still have a good number and although they are in a poor condition they are still regularly read to my kids, the favourites being the maagic porridge pot and of course the three billy goats gruff.

    I was also influenced by "The Folk Tales of Northumberland and Durham", a beautiful book that I can thank my mother for. Both my brother and I sneaked it out of her book shelf and read it without the other knowing, so it was a surprise to us to find out that we each knew the same stories! I think Mum knew that we were borrowing it, although we were both very goo at putting it back when we were finished with it.

    Here the stories definitely were fairy stories, peopled with malignant elves, duergar and the like as well as witches and wyrms (to true dragons in the North Country, but a good number of wyrms!)

    Loved Troll Fell btw; sorry to say that I've not read your other books. Troll Fell was bought for one of my teenaged children, unfortunately I don't think they ever read it. Kind of the reverse situation of the above - I'm sneaking books away from my kids now!

  12. Thanks for your comments and kind words! It's interesting to hear about the old book that influenced you so. The French and German fairytales are so well known to to British children, but the stories of our own isles are relatively unfamiliar to them. I have a number of wonderful nineteenth century collections of British fairytales, but most of them haven't found their way into popular children's culture. When I was small, it was still fairly common to read about Jack the Giant Killer, and Ainsel, and Dame Habbetrot, but I doubt if that is still the case.

  13. Loved this post Katherine. You have a wonderful way with words and have managed to capture the magic of stories and the inspiration and imagination they provided us in childhood and beyond).

    I remember we had a few big wardrobes in our house when I was a child. I remember hoping and checking and checking again, just in case I could find the way into Narnia.