Last time, in looking at J. R. R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories,” I introduced the idea that fairy stories are not primarily for children. The Master of Fantasy suggested that the appeal of fantasy was innate and actually grew stronger as one aged. My focus in Part 2 centered on that idea of “innate-ness,” but this week I’d like to look a little more deeply at the idea that fairy tales are not primarily for children.
Contrasting his own experiences and beliefs about fairy stories with that of Andrew Lang, the author of “the twelve books of the twelve colors,” Tolkien concludes
it will be plain that in my opinion fairy-stories should not be specially associated with children. They are associated with them: naturally, because children are human and fairy-stories are a natural human taste (though not necessarily a universal one) … unnaturally, because of erroneous sentiment about children
This “sentiment about children,” he believed, led to some delightful stories, but also to some attempts at sanitizing fiction for children that were less than desirable:
It has also produced a dreadful undergrowth of stories written or adapted to what was or is conceived to be the measure of children’s minds and needs. The old stories are mollified or bowdlerized, instead of being reserved; the imitations are often merely silly … or patronizing; or (deadliest of all) covertly sniggering, with an eye on the other grown-ups present. I will not accuse Andrew Lang of sniggering, but certainly he smiled to himself, and certainly too often he had an eye on the faces of other clever people over the heads of his child-audience…
I couldn’t help but think of the Shrek movies which certainly do allow adults to snigger over the heads of the child-audience. But in what way can fairytales be adult stories, if not for “insider” lines that allow adults to take away more meaning from the story than do children with less experience or understanding?
Tolkien, in fact, believed adults will and should take away more but that stories should not reshape Truth. He gave one particular instance of a story in which a character died in what author Andrew Lang called a “fair fight,” apparently the only means he felt to be justified for children to experience death since he hated cruelty. Tolkien responded,
Yet it is not clear that “fair fight” is less cruel than “fair judgement”; or that piercing a dwarf with a sword is more just than the execution of wicked kings and evil stepmothers — which Lang abjures: he sends the criminals (as he boasts) to retirement on ample pensions. That is mercy untempered by justice.
In many ways Tolkien separated himself from Christian parents today because he stated bluntly that children aren’t to be protected from reality though they can and should retain the guileless wonder of childhood:
Children are meant to grow up, and not to become Peter Pans. Not to lose innocence and wonder, but to proceed on the appointed journey: that journey upon which it is certainly not better to travel hopefully than to arrive, though we must travel hopefully if we are to arrive. But it is one of the lessons of fairy-stories (if we can speak of the lessons of things that do not lecture) that on callow, lumpish, and selfish youth peril, sorrow, and the shadow of death can bestow dignity, and even sometimes wisdom.
Contrast this to what author Brock Eastman (Taken, P&R Publishing) said about his work:
death is portrayed so lightly these days on television and in other media, so I set out to write a book where no one would die, or if someone did, it would not be taken lightly. As a Christian, I recognize that death should not be glossed over (quoted in “Fantasy Friday – Introducing Brock D. Eastman”)
Tolkien’s thinking was that there should not be two classes of people — adults and children — with each having “their” kind of literature. But the natural question that followed was, What value do fairy stories have for adults? To which he answered
First of all: if written with art, the prime value of fairy-stories will simply be that value which, as literature, they share with other literary forms. But fairy-stories offer also, in a peculiar degree or mode, these things: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation, all things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people.
A little over a year ago, author and blogger Mike Duran decried the fact that so much of Christian speculative fiction is written for young adults. He concluded his post “Why is Christian Spec-fic Mostly YA?” with this:
It’s bad enough that speculative fiction is under-represented in Christian bookstores. What’s worse is that the stuff that IS there, is mostly for kids.
It seems to me Mike is saying today’s Christian speculative fiction, aimed mostly at youth, does what Tolkien saw in Lang’s work. This leads me to ask, Shouldn’t Christians write stories that are truthful and exciting for readers across generational boundaries? Why shouldn’t adults enjoy stories about the Pevensie children or about a fifty-year-old hobbit? Why must we buy into the “their stories, our stories” divide? Is it inevitable in the current publishing climate that stories with youthful protagonists will automatically be categorized as for youth?
I challenge the notion that I’ve written YA fiction. These may be useful marketing terms, but I think they’re sometimes a bit arbitrary and unhelpful, not to mention inaccurate, since I probably have as many adults who enjoy my series as teens. I don’t like the idea of “dumbing down” for the youth market. I simply have young protagonists. It’s fantasy fiction, period…packaged as YA.
How about you? Do you think there should be adult fantasy and children’s fantasy because adults want a little more “bite” than stories with “lots of dragons, elves, and swordsmiths” can give?