Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.
I’ve loved this internet-ubiquitous quote, typically attributed to G.K. Chesterton, for a long time. To me it conjures images of golden capes, wooden swords, and bringing light to the fears that lie snarling in the caves of our hearts.
When I looked up the words to verify them for this post, I found something even better. The above line is actually the work of author Neil Gaiman, paraphrasing the longer Chesterton passage.
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. Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.
When my children first started Waldorf education, like most new Waldorf parents, their dad and I felt like we had wandered into a foreign country. One of the most baffling things was this Michaelmas deal. I knew the word from my obsessive reading of old English mystery novels, but I’d heard it in reference to university terms, and couldn’t figure out what that had to do with kids and dragons. Internet research wasn’t any more help. Something to do with the story of St. George? Okay, but who was this Michael guy? And why did my second grade daughter need a peasant costume and how was I supposed to do this in a couple of weeks?
Over the years, Michaelmas has become one of my favorite Waldorf festivals – as Gaiman would say, not because the dragon exists, but because it can be beaten.
Modern parenting seems to dictate that we should protect our children from the bogey and even from knowledge of its existence. But “it is in the world already.” Children know the terrors that lurk under the bed, in the dark, and in the whispers of grownups.
With fairy tales and golden capes and wooden swords and songs, we stop lying to them. When we show them the monsters and evil hiding in the stories, and help them shape their weapons, when we give them the words to “conquer fear and wrath,” we validate what they already know – that there are dragons.
Instead of closing the closet door and saying, “Don’t worry honey, there’s nothing bad in the night” as we lock and bar our windows and doors, we give them a light to shine into the shadows. We acknowledge the monster, show them its dimensions and limits, and give them the tools to rescue themselves.
My children are well beyond the years of wooden swords. The oldest is going into 10th grade – her second year of public school. My son was part of his class dragon last year; this school year he will turn 13. And our youngest daughter is in the between-land of village and dragon, heading into 4th grade. Their dad and I don’t worry much anymore about the effects of cartoon violence or “scary stories.” Our dragons take the form of traffic and strangers as our children head independently into the world. Their monsters lurk in the caves of peer pressure and college choices.
But each of them has been at some point a knight of Michael. And they know that dragons can be beaten.