“Fairy tales are more than true—not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” – G.K. Chesterton
I grew up hearing my dad tell various stories, fables, and fairy tales that gradually became part of our everyday family vocabulary. If Dad needed help with a chore such as hand-cranking the ice cream and he found us kids reluctant to help, he’d ask, “Have I ever told you the story of the Little Red Hen?” Well, Dad had told us this story dozens of times! What he was actually saying was, “If you don’t help with preparing the ice cream, you won’t get to enjoy the finished product.” Point taken!
Another favorite phrase was, “Who’s that walking across my bridge?” This phrase comes from the story of The Three Billy Goats Gruff and was uttered by the mean troll who lived under the bridge. Dad would growl this phrase in a deep voice as we passed through his space. As a little guy, I’d feel a tinge of fear combined with a smile in thinking about the outcome of that story. (Spoiler alert: the two younger goats were allowed to pass without being eaten; when the largest goat came, he head-butted the troll into the stream and the troll was never heard from again.)
As I’ve grown older, I’ve wondered why parents tell their children some of these stories with such sinister characters and frightening story lines. Fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel contain some truly horrifying moments, especially for kids with vivid imaginations! For the record, I’m not against parents telling such stories to children as long as they are sensitive to their child’s age and emotional capacity.
There are many reasons that parents might tell scary stories to their children: they want to pass them on, they want to “toughen up” their kids, they want to share in the “fun” of being frightened together, there’s an object lesson to be learned, and so on. Underlying such rationales, I wonder about the above quote by Chesterton concerning dragons. Fairy tales with scary characters symbolize the existence of evil in our world and the reality of harmful hazards and lurking dangers (i.e., dragons). But the ultimate point is not to teach children to be fearful in a scary world. The point rather is that the world’s menacing dangers can be overcome, often by courage, teamwork, ingenuity, or loyalty.
I see parallels with Biblical characters such as Pharaoh, Goliath, Herod, Satan, or the Beast in Revelation. These characters are menacing, cruel, and intimidating, causing God’s people to quake in their boots. Yet in these stories, God provides a way to overcome them. The message is that such “dragons” can be beaten and that God’s people will ultimately be victorious. May we live with such trust and confidence!