Many Christians believe that pagan myths and fairy tales are detrimental to Christian children. They fear that children will be lead astray from their upbringing, but really myths and fairy tales provide a foundation from which to build a Christian education. I was questioned myself by a well-meaning, Catholic relative, who had been asked by my children to read from D’aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths. My six year old, whom we home school, responded to questioning about the myths versus Scripture that the myths were created by people who “did not know about the real God.”
Part of my daughter’s confidence in this comes from the different contexts in which she hears stories and in which she learns about her Christian faith. The ancient myths, for my children, fall into the same category of fairy tales, the Chronicles of Narnia, or the Legends of King Arthur. They would love to be in the same world that these things are true, but they know that they are not and will never be. When it comes to their Christian faith, they know (already) that the Eucharist is Jesus Christ, they talk about becoming nuns, they willingly pray for people, and have devotions to their favorite saints. My four year old preaches to the monsters that she believes are under the bed, “Jesus died so that we can go to Heaven.” But they do not confuse the imaginative world of nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and myths with the revealed truths in Scripture.
Beyond the fact that they do not take away from a child’s faith, myths and fairy tales are an essential part of early education because they provide a basis for conservative and traditional thinking and ultimately point to Christianity. Part of living conservatism is giving children a conservative education, and that must begin with what tradition has passed down to us, for the traditions that have been preserved by society over time are good and necessary for a flourishing human life. Myths and fairy tales encompass our common human desires and experiences, and human desire is ultimately fulfilled in Christianity. Grounding children in these tales, grounds them in Christianity.
The earliest exposure children have to Western thought comes through what we read to them. And while authors like Sandra Boynton and Dr. Seuss are fun, they lack the depth of tradition. When it comes to literary education, nursery rhymes are the place where I start. Children’s minds are formed by the words and concepts embodied in the rhymes, and they learn how to cleverly use language. The content of the nursery rhymes ranges from extremely practical, to moral life lessons, to imaginative characters. As children hear nursery rhymes, they start to memorize them, applying them to themselves and to the world around them. The nursery rhymes they hear are inherently conservative, teach them that there is right and wrong, and demonstrate to them that the world has a certain order.
Following from nursery rhymes are fairy tales. There is something about the strange twists and turns of the world of fairies, princesses, and giants that draws in a child’s imagination. Children are drawn up into the story and then they act them out. They know that the fairy tales are not actually part of real life, but they love to think about them and imagine with them. The stories also often contain great moral value, teaching children a lesson about how to be virtuous, good manners, or simply what makes a person good or bad. Fairy tales do this better then a modern tale, since they tend to not water down consequences, but exaggerate them to make the point more clear. Children love this. Fairy tales have been passed down through the generations, first orally, and later committed to writing. These tales are rooted in history and tradition as they tie us to those who came before. When children learn the stories, they are learning to conserve and know about the past. They care about what happened “once upon a time.” The fairy tales draw them into the community that is all of humanity.
And beyond this, as J.R.R. Tolkien says in his essay On Fairy Stories, fairy tales are not uniquely for children, but they are important for all of humanity. We need these tales, which are outside of our normal life, to teach us about ourselves. And when we learn about ourselves we can see that fairy tales are all fulfilled in Christianity, for as Tolkien says,
The Gospels contain a fairystory, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.
My children love to imagine that they are in fairy tales, have found the way into “princess land,” or that the imagined wardrobe in the wall will take them to Narnia. But they are really longing for Heaven, and in desiring the magical, imagined land, they are exhibiting their desire for fulfillment in union with God.
While most nursery rhymes and fairy tales in the Western tradition come from a Christian era, the ancient myths of most cultures do not. The myths of a society come from a cultures’ attempt to explain the basic questions of human origin, morality, and the supernatural. I was part of a Great Books program in college, and while I learned a lot about Western thought, I know that if I had been familiar with the ancient mythology, I would have understood the ancient works much more clearly. Shakespeare, when I studied it in high school, would have made more sense. I would have understood more of the Chronicles of Narnia when I was a child. I wish that myths had been a part of my earliest education. My children are getting these myths in their pre-school education. They can read them again and again until they really know them. And they will be ready to learn the rest of the Western tradition.
It will also help them in their understanding of the Christian tradition, which for Roman Catholics is inseparable from the Western tradition. G.K. Chesterton says in the Everlasting Man:
But in reality the rivers mythology and philosophy run parallel and do not mingle till they meet in the sea of Christendom. Simple secularists still talk as if the Church had introduced a sort of schism between reason and religion. The truth is that the Church was actually the first thing that ever tried to combine reason and religion. There had never before been any such union of the priests and the philosophers.
Chesterton is correct in his assessment of the Church combining religion and reason, but it may not be the first to do so. The myths are an attempt at using reason to explain the phenomenon humans encountered in the world. Those who created myths looked at the world, saw their unfulfilled desires, saw the problem of evil, saw immorality, and longed for something more. They tried to explain human experience, and did it in the best way that they could. And ultimately they knew that the only explanation for the human condition was something beyond humans themselves.
For children as well, the imaginative world they create based on the myths and fairy stories they hear gives credit to the truth of Christianity. Christianity, the acts of the true God, are in line with reason, they fit with science, and they, while often baffling, ultimately make sense when we look at what humanity is ultimately striving for. The desire of Orpheus to be with his dead wife is fulfilled in Christ. The evils spread throughout the world makes more sense when seen as the sinful act of our first parents as opposed to evil placed into the hands of a insatiably curious woman by the Greek god Zeus out for vengeance against humanity created by the lesser god Prometheus. The unfulfilled desires of the people in the myths are not attractive to someone seeking ultimate fulfillment, but we see that only Christianity can fulfill the deepest desires of humanity.
Myths and fairy tales alone will not give children the whole of Western thought or lead them to Christianity, but they will create a foundation of conservative and Christian thought. They will give children a place for their imaginations to flourish and for reasonable desires to form. These things paired with good catechesis, the Sacraments, and models of faith, will prepare them to live full Christian lives.
This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Crisis Magazine.