My husband and I are raising our young children on a farm in an intentional community, and that has given us certain experiences that are new to me but normal to our children. For example, I was surprised at my five-year-old daughter’s enthusiasm when she watched a geese slaughter last fall. She was eager to participate in a scene of death that would’ve terrified me at that age, a city girl afraid of the dark. In the months following the geese butchering, because of this tangible connection to the realities of life and death, I was able to have some frank discussions with my daughter. Farm life has helped her approach challenging topics without fear.
Despite being the child of very loving parents, I grew up with a lot of fears. My mom even went so far as to take me to a psychologist at the age of three because I wouldn’t go to the bathroom by myself at home. When I was eight, I was still so afraid of going to sleep alone in my room that, in desperation, my mom decided to do an exorcism of sorts on the focus of my fears at that particular time: the closet door. As I remember clearly, when the lights were turned off, the wood grains turned to sinister faces, designed to terrify me.
In Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor describes similar childhood fears. She says that when her loving parents left her alone at night after all the bedtime routines had been performed, “then all the loose darkness in that room started to collect in the closet and under the bed, pulling itself together with such magnetic malevolence that I could not keep my mind away from it.” When Taylor’s parents would respond to her cries of fear, the solution for all of them seemed clear: turn on the light and “eliminate the darkness.”
Christians are often guilty of trying to eliminate the darkness for ourselves and for our children. We shy away from challenging topics, preferring instead to focus on happy retellings of nuanced Bible stories, to keep a sheen on a church life that doesn’t match the realities of home life, to follow the culture around us that tries to escape aging and death. As parents, grandparents, babysitters, and teachers, we try to sweep darkness into corners and vacuum it up until we imagine it’s gone. And what we have done to our lives we have also done to our literature.
In Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle tells a story of leading a writer’s conference. She says the same writers who wrote exceptional words for the workshops on poetry and adult novels dumbed their language down to cheery, boring fluff when it came to writing for children. L’Engle wonders how this happens. She says there is “no idea that is too difficult for children, as long as it underlies a good story and quality writing.” While it can certainly be argued that there are subjects too disturbing for young children, I think L’Engle’s point is a good one: adults often believe that children can’t handle beauty, darkness, or challenging subjects, even in the books they read.
L’Engle’s students aren’t the first writers to sanitize literature for children. We see in more recent manifestations and interpretations of old fairy tales a bowdlerization of the more unpleasant parts of the story. One might call these Disneyfied versions of the stories. In the Disneyfied version, Cinderella’s stepsisters don’t cut off their heels anymore, filling the glass slipper with blood, nor does the Little Mermaid die in the end because she refuses to kill the object of her affection. The sanitized endings are bloodless and perky and all wrapped neatly into a bow.
But not all fiction or fantasy seeks to eliminate the darkness. J. R. R. Tolkien wrote much about the importance of myth, fantasy, and fairy tales. Critics have often called Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and, indeed the whole genre of fantasy itself, pure escape. But in his essay “Sense and Nonsense: On the Reality of Fantasy,” Father James V. Schall, a Jesuit priest, claimed something different about Tolkien’s writing. He says that “the unsuspecting reader who thinks he is only reading ‘fantasy’ in reading Tolkien will suddenly find himself pondering the state of his own soul because he recognizes his own soul in each fairy-tale.” Joseph Pearce, commenting on Father Schall’s essay, writes that while other fantasy that is merely entertainment could provide “an escape from ourselves and a distancing of ourselves from the ‘real world’,” bold, moral fantasy like Tolkien’s can offer “an escape into ourselves, the quest to rediscover the essence of the self amidst life’s distractions.” This kind of fantasy brings with it a particular kind of longing for a home that is not yet arrived.
As a writer of fiction and lover of literature, I have often wondered how to navigate the landscape of my children’s imagination when we long to be real with them about life’s challenges but also send them into stories and narratives that stir their minds. How do my husband and I combine our determination to be straightforward about the daily realities of life and death on a farm, but then ask our children to approach the “unreal” in stories about fairies, far-off kingdoms, and talking animals?
I was fascinated recently when biologist and leading atheist Richard Dawkins suggested that fairy tales were actually dangerous to children. He told an audience at a science festival that, “it's rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism.” What I found interesting is that Dawkins actually believes that fairy tales do exactly what Tolkien though thtey should: fantastical literature can lead us to a deeper reality and therefore to the belief that there is more to this world than the natural. That is, fairy stories point to something beyond.
Children don’t have to be taught to imagine or to live in worlds that adults might define as “unreal.” They are also aware very early of the dichotomy of good and bad. From a young age, they play games with each other that hinge upon the group separating into good guys and bad guys. Their imaginative capacity to live with the real and unreal in close quarters is staggering. And their moral capacity to define good and evil is perhaps similarly staggering.
L’Engle says that when she was growing up during and after World War II, she was aware of the pain and chaos associated with war even at a young age. Her parents didn’t try to eliminate the darkness for her, and what she sensed about the realities of life gave her some fear. While her parents took a straightforward approach to teaching their daughter about a war that most people of my generation don’t understand, young Madeleine found solace in fiction and bedtime stories, stories that she says gave her “courage, stories which affirmed that ultimately love is stronger than hate.” Two paragraphs later in Walking on Water, L’Engle finishes this way: “It was in story that I found flashes of that truth which makes us free.”
There is a tension here that my husband and I find important as parents. As our life on a farm begins to mirror the lives of some of our ancestors who had closer connections to death, food, seasons, and the rhythm of days, our family has been given many opportunities to experience both a spiritual and a literal darkness that cannot be eliminated. We try not to shield our children from every hurt and pain. But we also encourage them in their imaginations, giving them a framework for hope and allowing them to “escape into” the longing for the not-yet that literature can bring.
L’Engle believed, like Dawkins and Tolkien, that fairy tales and fantasy could help one encounter the supernatural. But unlike Dawkins, L’Engle explains in Walking on Water how she believed that excluding fairy tales and fiction from a child’s life was harmful to them. She believed this not only because children need their imaginations to be sparked by the “unreal” but because these fantasies have truth in them that speaks to the world:
The well-intentioned mothers who don’t want their children polluted by fairy tales would not only deny them their childhood, with its high creativity, but they would have them conform to the secular world, with its dirty devices. The world of fairy tale, fantasy, myth, is inimical to the secular world, and in total opposition to it, for it is interested not in limited laboratory proofs but in truth.
I would love to teach my children what Madeleine L’Engle learned from a young age — that good fantasy and fairy tales aren’t at odds with the Christian faith but that they “belong to the same world” as stories of the Bible. For God is a master storyteller, and, again from L’Engle’s Walking on Water, the “world of the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, is the world of story, story which may be able to speak to us as a Word of God.”
Christiana N. Peterson grew up in Texas and received a PhD in creative writing from St. Andrews University in Scotland. She has published poetry at Catapult, The Curator, and Literary Mama, as well as articles on farm life at her.meneutics and Flourish.
She lives with her family in rural Illinois where she feels the daily call of farm life, folly, food, and occasionally fairies. You can find her blog and links to her other writing at thebeautyofthishour.wordpress.com or you can follow her on twitter @renewsustain.
Ian Johnston, “Richard Dawkins on Fairy Tales.” The Independent, June 5, 2014.
Madeline L’Engle, Walking on Water. New York: North Point Press, 2001.
Joseph Pearce, Tolkien: Man and Myth, a Literary Life. London: HarperCollins, 1998.
James V. Schall, “Sense and Nonsense: On the Reality of Fantasy.” Crisis Magazine, March 1, 1992.
Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark. New York: HaperCollins, 2014.