Are Fairy Stories Only for the Young?

Sometimes I encounter the perception that fairy tales and fantasy belong to children and teens, and those of a more mature outlook want “realistic” fare. These adults say they want books that delve into real life issues, a perspective that ignores the concepts of life, death, and morality explored in fantasy literature. As writers of fantasy and scholars, Chesterton, Tolkien, and Lewis all wrote articulate rebuttals to the concept that fantasy belongs only to the young. I don’t intend to retake territory they’ve already covered, rather, I’d like to highlight the historical role of fantastic stories.

Through many centuries, fairy tales and fantasy stories were the province of adults, not children. Ancient civilizations passed down epics and sagas, stories permeated with the supernatural that still dealt with the realities of life. They spoke to the culture in which they were formed, but retained a timeless quality that allows many of them to have an audience today.

So also the fables of old, exploring concepts of morality in a fantastic framework and attributed to men such as Aesop, were primarily fare for adult dialogue. It wasn’t until the 17th century, when John Locke and others suggested that they were well-suited to entertain and inform children that a new focus emerged and illustrated versions targeted at children became more common.

Like the epic fantasy tales of ancient and medieval lore and the fables passed down over many centuries, many famous fairy tales took their first written forms as stories penned for adults in the 17th and 18th centuries. Though they borrowed from earlier oral variants, these stories took on many of their distinctive elements during this era and explored the social realities of their day. Villenueve’s Beauty and The Beast is an excellent example of this, but many of the early written tales and collections of tales across cultures aimed to reach adults.

Thus the earliest fantastic tales explored varying perspectives of life and eternity, morals and virtue, but not in a manner aimed at children. Rather they primarily reached an adult audience, and today they can accomplish both. Perhaps Lewis expressed it best when he said, “The Fantastic or Mythical is a Mode available at all ages for some readers; for others, at none. At all ages, if it is well used by the author and meets the right reader, it has the same power: to generalise while remaining concrete, to present in palpable form not concepts or even experiences but whole classes of experience and to throw off irrelevancies. But at is best it an do more; it can give us experiences we have never had and thus, instead of ‘commenting on life,’ can add to it.”

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10 Responses to Are Fairy Stories Only for the Young?

  1. Mirriam says:

    I agree. I think fairy tales are important for all ages. There is something strongly spiritual about them; and even the ones that are ‘just plain fun’ have something for everyone.

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      Yes, exactly. These sorts of tales contain layers of meaning, and I think that’s why fantasy stories can hold significance for so many ages. You perceive different elements of the story at different stages of life, and in all you’re enriched by them (providing the story has a sound moral core).

  2. TheQuietPen says:

    I agree as well. Fairy tales are wasted on the young. There is so much they can do to broaden our horizons. I think perhaps the concept that adults are “only interested in adult things” is a cultural construct that is subtly encouraged by the people who insist on this artificial idea of maturity.
    The thing is though, I’ve also seen instances when authors try to “reclaim” fairy tales for adults, which means adding more violence, a lot more sexuality, and a complete loss of moral values. This isn’t the greatest option either.
    Can anyone name any examples of really good, recently-published fairy tales?

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      Great point about artificial constructs of maturity. It isn’t somehow a hallmark of maturity to leave imagination behind and focus only on the practicalities of life. Such a notion would mean trading the wondrous for the mundane in ways we were never intended to do. Of course, contemporary fiction can capture eternal realities also, it’s just that fantasy lends itself so naturally to the exploration of spiritual matters that it saddens me to see it dismissed as for children only.

      I’ve observed the unfortunate pattern you describe in fairy tales retold for adults, and I’ve had a hard time finding retold fairy tales that I’m comfortable reading. Graphic sexuality and violence do not equal maturity, regardless of the trends. As far as suggestions, the first one that comes to mind is Robin McKinley’s excellent version of Beauty and the Beast, simply titled Beauty. Although it isn’t recent, it’s well worth reading, if you haven’t already. And a few years back, in Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow, Jessica Day George gave a good, clean retelling of East Of the Sun, West of the Moon.

      Of course, both those books were written for a YA audience, so that might explain the lack of “adult” content.

      More recently, I enjoyed Veiled Rose, which I reviewed here. It doesn’t find its inspiration in any one fairy tale, but rests strongly in the fairy tale genre. I hope some others chime in with suggestions, because I’d like to add some new reads to my retold fairy tale list as well.

  3. Linda says:

    I think fantasy and fairy stories are important for both children and adults. A child raised on these stories has, in my opionion, a richer experience of childhood than one who is only allowed to read realistic books. I say this not only from my own experience but from observing my own seven children and their friends. Furthermore, a young person whose life and imagination have been enriched by fantasy during his/her growing up years is going to be much more likely to seek it out as an adult and continue to read and enjoy speculative fiction. (Again, speaking from experience.)

    It is a little discouraging for me, as a middle-aged speculative fiction writer, to realize that in my vast worldwide acquaintance, I can think of only one woman of my own generation who reads and enjoys speculative fiction. Many of my women friends thinks it’s downright evil. If and when I succeed in getting published, none of my friends will share in my joy because they don’t think that what I write is worthwhile. However, I think it will be very different for my daughters’ generation. If they continue to write speculative fiction, I think they will have a much broader audience consisting of women like themselves who have been steeped in fairy stories and fantasy fiction from early childhood.

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      Thanks for sharing, Linda! Fantasy stories definitely play a significant role for all ages. As I mentioned to Mirriam, I think the stories impact us in different ways as we grow older and we’re able to perceive more of the meaning interwoven. I know I benefited from being exposed to Tolkien and Lewis at an early age, and it sounds like you also have plenty of experience to back up that notion!

      I’m sorry to hear of your situation. It must be difficult not to feel support or understanding from those closest to you. I hope you’re able to connect with other writers to help celebrate eventual publication with you. And perhaps your books will eventually bring about a change in the perceptions of your friends. There are a number of misconceptions about speculative fiction, but I’ve found that if people will give it a try, they’re pleasantly surprised most times. I’ve encountered quite a few middle-aged female fans of speculative fiction than one would expect, but certainly younger generations have accepted speculative fiction on a wider scale. And I think it does have something to do with exposure to the fantastic at a young age.

  4. Roisin Bonucchi says:

    fairytales were admittedly never meant for a child’s imagination, but after years of creation and hard work, they have managed to creep into the reach of children. The attractiveness of the unknown world of fairytales pulls children towards it, because the worls seems ‘perfect’ and that good always overcomes evil. From this, they get a false impression of the world and of society, of the modern day.

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      Fairy tales certainly have evolved over time, and I don’t think versions targeted toward children are problematic–it’s just that there’s so much for adults to connect with also, especially in the early versions of the stories.

      I agree with you that there’s an attraction to worlds unknown, but I don’t think the notion that good always overcomes evil is a false impression. Yes, we suffer and we encounter situations where evil seems to have the upper hand, but I believe in the end, good wins. 🙂

  5. Roisin-Cailtin Bonucchi says:

    I still think fairytales Give off a false impression of life. For instance – the portrayal Of women in fairytales is very negatively bias in most instances. For examPle, in the fairytale of Cinderella – the stepmother is portrayed as evil,oherp

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      I can understand your perspective, Roisin. Looking at the specific example you gave of a negative bias against women that’s reflected most often in the evil stepmother figure, I would agree that sometimes that is the case. And yet there’s a distinct male counterpart–the deficient or cruel father–which I blogged about here.

      It doesn’t change the fact that evil stepmothers exist in fairy tales, but it does suggest that the portrayal of family dynamics in fairy tales can be complex, and at times it’s hard on mothers, fathers, and siblings alike.

      Over the years, scholars have analyzed these stories and come to different conclusions about their meanings, which suggests to me that fairy tales have some depth…and also that life perspectives will shape interpretations of these stories. We may never fully agree, but I appreciate you sharing your thoughts!

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