Not Suitable for Children: Tolkien on Fairy-Stories

I am currently reading The Tolkien Reader, which contains an essay by J.R.R. Tolkien entitled, “On Fairy-Stories.”  In it, he discusses how “fairy-stories” often have no fairies in them, how they have come to encompass everything from Thor to The Brothers Grimm to Alice in Wonderland.  He also discusses how the term “fairy” has wrongly come to describe a small, winged creature who dresses in flower petals and can be found in the back of an English garden, rather than a being that lives in the realm of Faerie.

However, the most interesting section in this essay was, to me, the section entitled “Children.”

Tolkien writes:  “In describing a fairy-story which they think adults might possibly read for their own entertainment, reviewers frequently indulge in such waggeries as: ‘this book is for children from the ages of six to sixty’ … Is there any essential connection between children and fairy-stories?  Is there any call for comment, if an adult reads them for himself?  Reads them as tales, that is, not studies them as curios.”

If adults enjoy reading fantasy, who is to judge them for that?  Because, as Tolkien goes on to discuss, fairy-stories have evolved into “children’s stories.”  However, fantasy can often be more complicated than children can understand.  The question is, who exactly decided that fairy-stories are for children, not adults?

Tolkien says:  “Among those who still have enough wisdom not to think fairy-stories are pernicious, the common opinion seems to be that there is a natural connection between the minds of children and fairy-stories, of the same order as the connection between children’s bodies and milk. I think this is an error; at best an error of false sentiment, and one that is therefore most often made by those who, for whatever private reason (such as childlessness), tend to think of children as a special kind of creature, almost a different race, rather than normal, if immature, members of a particular family, and of the human family at large.”

I absolutely agree with him, that children are somehow considered “special”, and that when adults feel that they should be too old for things like fairy-stories, they often relegate those things to the “that’s for children” realm.  For instance, cartoons are almost always viewed as a form of entertainment for children, yet many animated shows like Aqua Teen Hunger Force, The Simpsons, Futurama, and anime are generally not targeted towards children.  Even Spongebob Squarepants often makes references that only an adult audience would understand and appreciate.

However, I do disagree that it is the childless who consider children to be “almost a different race,” as Tolkien puts it.  Perhaps that is how it was in 1964 when Tolkien wrote this essay, but in today’s culture, it is dominantly parents who put children up on a pedestal.  How many of the childless look on in horror as parents force children to watch condescending television, read books that give little chance for the child to actually grow, or give toys that, with so many lights and sounds, leave nothing to the imagination?

He goes on to say:

“Actually, the association of children and fairy-stories is an accident of our domestic history … It is not the choice of the children which decides this.  Children as a class – except in a common lack of experience they are not one – neither like fairy-tales more, nor understand them better than adults do; and no more than they like other things.  They are young and growing, and normally have keen appetites, so the fairy-stories as a rule go down well enough.  But in fact only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them; and when they have it, it is not exclusive, nor even necessarily dominant.”

This is true in so many aspects.  Adults are the ones who decide what children should like.  Adults are the ones who make the distinction between what is childish and what is “grown-up” material.  Who actually asks the children what they like?  Adults designate certain literature or television for children, but is it something that the child would choose for himself?

Tolkien also writes:

“It is true that the age of childhood-sentiment has produced some delightful books (especially charming, however, to adults) of the fairy kind or near to it; but 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, Pigwiggenry without even the intrigue; or patronizing; or (deadliest of all) covertly sniggering … “

Essentially, Tolkien is expressing disgust in the trend to either “dumb it down” for kids, or to remove the aspects of “fairy-stories” that adults do not desire to inflict upon children.  For instance, Disney gives a tamer twist to all of their movies based on Brothers Grimm tales.  While they do give the stepsisters comically large feet that don’t fit into the glass slipper, they omit the original details of the sisters cutting off parts of their feet in order to fit.  Tales that were originally told as satire, or to serve as a warning, become distorted in order to make it more “kid-friendly.”

“The appearance [that children enjoy fairy-stories] is often, I think, an adult illusion produced by children’s humility, their lack of critical experience and vocabulary, and their voracity (proper to their rapid growth).  They like or try to like what is given to them:  if they do not like it, they cannot well express their dislike or give reasons for it (and so may conceal it); and they like a great mass of things indiscriminately, without troubling to analyse the planes of their belief.”

Tolkien would argue that by deciding what is best for children, by taking away the right for them to decide for themselves, adults are doing the next generation a great disservice.  They don’t need to be patronized, they need to be recognized as human beings who can understand the difference between fantasy and reality.  They are people who have the right to develop their own tastes, not to be force-fed Disney-fied crap.  And, because children are told that they should like Dr. Seuss (or Twilight,) they often may be only giving the appearance that they like it.  I’ve even heard parents tell their children, “you don’t like that.  You like this!”  It is surprising to me that, in this day and age when children are practically given free rein, so many parents still judge and control their children’s interests.

For instance, remember when Sesame Street was good?  When the adults talked to the kids as if they could actually understand the conversation?  In recent years, that has been abandoned for an increasingly dominating Elmo’s World.  Elmo speaks in incomplete baby talk sentences;  how that can be considered educational is beyond me.  If children are only surrounded by what adults think children should like, they do not have a chance to develop their own preferences.  And this is exactly what Tolkien is talking about, even if he is discussing fantasy and not children’s television.

Tolkien also discusses the “willing suspension of disbelief.”  He argues that if someone really likes what they are reading, they don’t suspend disbelief – they do believe, in a sense.  How many people, after finishing Jurassic Park, actually believe that it is possible for scientists to create dinosaurs out of million-year-old DNA?  How many people have secretly peeked into a wardrobe, just in case Narnia lay beyond the moth-eaten coats?

The bottom line?  Tolkien is giving us permission to enjoy fantasy.  It’s not just for children.  In fact, he argues that fantasy is NOT for children, or at least, it shouldn’t necessarily be directed at children.  Children should be encouraged to read what they like, not to be told that fairy-stories are for them.  Children cannot fully appreciate all that fantasy entails.  There is no reason for adults to feel ashamed if they enjoy reading fantasy stories.  You don’t need to hide your battered copy of The Goblet of Fire behind The New York Times any longer.

Except, again, this article was written in 1964.  Thanks to Hollywood, we now embrace books like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, though there is still a bit of a “geek” stigma attached to the fantasy genre.  However, Tolkien’s theory still applies.   So turn off CSI: Miami and pick up The Brothers Grimm.  Or Matilda.  Reread your favorite stories now that you’re an adult.  When you start catching references you never understood before when you were a child and were “supposed” to read those books.  You may be surprised that, now you’re an adult and therefore not supposed to enjoy fantasy, you enjoy them more than ever.

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