Fairy tales

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. – Einstein

I just adore this quote.  Putting aside for a minute my essential belief that raw intelligence is innate, I agree with everything that Einstein means with this single beautiful sentence.  Why?  For lots of reasons.

Fairy tales are where the archetypes live.  They are where we learn about courage and love, about family, loyalty, and betrayal, about tests and triumph.  They are where we learn the most essential stories of humanity, the stories that go on repeating themselves over and over again in our lives and in our literature, as we grow into adulthood.

Fairy tales exist firmly in the realm of the imagination, and they allow children to dream of a world unrestricted by the boundaries of reality as they know it.  In fairy tales, magic can truly happen, and I think a commitment to the power of that which lies beyond reason and logic is fundamental to both intelligence and creativity.  How else can enormous leaps of the imagination come about, without this capacity?

More basically, stories are how you learn about the world.  I love that someone as aligned with the rigorous worlds of science and math as Einstein celebrates the power of the story.  I agree with him.  This reminds me of what I’ve written about my father: that he has a master’s degree in Physics, a PhD in Engineering, and an abiding trust in the ability of science, logic, and measurement to explain the world. At the same time, he has a deep fascination with European history and culture, often manifested in a love of the continent’s cathedrals, those embodiments of religious fervor, of all that is not scientific, logical, or measurable. His unshakeable faith in the life of the rational mind is matched by his profound wonder at the power of the ineffable, the territory of religious belief and cultural experience, that which is beyond the intellect.

I grew up in the space between those two worlds, believing that they are in fact as mutually enriching as they appear paradoxical.  I’d like to provide the same powerful learning for Grace and Whit.  As I help Grace learn the multiplication tables and how to touch type, may I remember to teach her also about dragons and princesses, about the hero’s journey, about spells which change the world, and about the fierce bonds of love.

19 thoughts on “Fairy tales”

  1. Oh, Lindsey – I so agree with this.

    There is so much to learn on the more factual, technical side, but I believe grace and beauty, maybe life itself, lives in the fairy tale, in the world of art, in fable and myth.

    Thank you for this beautiful reminder.


  2. Not to break out my super dork, but I can’t help it. Have you read any of Maria Tatar’s books on fairy tales? She often gives public talks in Cam as well. I think you would enjoy!

  3. I have not! Familiar with Bruno Bettelheim (sp?) but not her. Will check out. PS my inner dork digs your inner dork.

  4. When I was in college my all-time favorite class was a Folklore Studies. It was lodging in the Scandinavian Studies department, and I loved that class so much that for a brief time I considered becoming a Scandinavian Studies major. Looking back, I see what drew me to it is listening to and studying stories that transcend time and culture. I fervently believe that we are all storytelling beings by nature, that stories are how we connect to ourselves and make sense of the world around us.

    On another note, I see a real turn in science toward what could be regarded as magical or mystical. The stuff coming out of the world of modern physics on string theory? Whoa…

  5. lindsey,
    i stumbled across your blog years ago and drop in occassionally … mostly because whit reminds me so so much of my brother matt as a child! demeanor, temperament, smirk, etc …
    i am writing with a book for your stack after reading yesterday’s and today’s posts back-to-back. the book of lost things by john connolly. quick read and absolutely worth pulling an ‘all nighter’ for … enjoy!

  6. Lindsey,

    What a wonderful post! I taught Classical Myth in college years ago, and my students were always struck with how “true” were the stories they read, how much they touched their own lives.

    I’m a faithful reader of your blog, but don’t comment as often as I’m inclined. Thank you for this post and so very many others that have touched me to the core.

  7. Perfect timing Lindsey – thank you! I’ve been thinking about fairy tales and princesses, happily ever after and evil witches a lot lately as Ada has begun a fascination with the Disney princess stories. I cringe often reading them, and do some selective editing, but unlike some of the moms I spend time with, I don’t want to keep them from her altogether. I haven’t been able to articulate exactly why and here you are with the words for me. My hope is that this will be the entree into a world of magic and imagination. If she’s anything like me, she’ll be an unstoppable reader as she grows.
    If you (or anyone) knows of fairy tale books for 4-5 year olds that don’t have images of miniscule waists and massive doe eyes, please let me know.
    (P.S. The Paperbag Princess by Robert Munsch is one of my faves for that age)

  8. Hi,

    This is one of my favourite books on folklore. “Fearless Girls, Wise Women, & Beloved Sisters: Heroines in Folktales from Around the World.” Kathleen Ragan It’s an excellent anthology!

  9. Paper Bag Princess has been one of y favorites since my dorm parent gave to me at boarding school graduation. Also, Princess Smartypants.

  10. Intellect is interesting territory to spelunk in, no? My father went to Yale because he thought it would be more fun than MIT. I’m pretty sure he was right. Same father who became Mormon when I was in High School. And later was a PhD candidate in Information Science at 53.

  11. Oh this is so great! This year in kindergarten (waldorf) Oliver is doing fairy tales and I am just now learning about the archetypes in fairy tales through Caroline Myss’ books (Sacred Contracts). Fascinating!!

  12. Such great timing! We just returned from four truly magical days in Disney World. I have since been consumed with wonder about how this all plays out in the minds of my children. The joy my daughter experienced having breakfast at the royal castle was truly breathtaking. Who exactly does she think these princesses are? What is it about the Disney stories and characters that are so captivating for so many kids through so many generations? I’m not sure, but I still can’t stop smiling from just how magical those four days in that fairytale world really was — and the smiles on my kids’ faces told me very clearly that it is a good thing.

  13. Any fairy tales illustrated by Paul O Zelinsky are guaranteed to be full of depth with NO doe-eyed princesses or impossible waists. I’ve heard good things about some fairy tale retellings by Ruth Manning-Sanders, but I’ve never read any myself.

    We have a book called The Classic Fairy Tale Treasury, a collection of fairy tales retold by Samantha Easton, Jennifer Greenway, and Fiona Black. Illustrations by Ruth Sanderson, Richard Bernal, Robyn Officer, and many more. All beautifully done!

  14. This GK Chesterton quote sums up much of my thinking regarding fairy tales: “Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

    This is why I write YA and MG fantasy. As Lloyd Alexander put it, fairy tales and fantasy are not an escape from reality, but a way to understand it.

  15. This should really belong to your reading list post. But it was also about Einstein’s work, I think I can write it here. Last night, on PBS there was a show called “The Fabric of Cosmos”. Have you seen it? It reminded me of your posts about passage of time. It was not a show I can easily follow. A theory about how past, present and future all exist at the same time. And Einstein’s theory about how we can slow the passage of time. Really interesting. I kept thinking about you!
    Apparently, there is a book by a same name too.

  16. This one, too, I love:
    Fairy tales, are more than true. Not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be defeated.
    – Neil Gaiman

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