Colleen Gillard wrote an article in The Atlantic discussing the difference between British and American children’s stories. The article (which might be mis-titled, since it’s not really about why British books are better, per say, but more about why British and American stories are what they are) addresses a few interesting topics.

Her basic thesis is that British children’s books tend more towards fantasy. Think Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, Wind in the Willows, etc. American children’s stories tend more towards moralism. American stories try to teach children what they ought and ought not do.

I have no standing to judge whether that interpretation is correct or not, but I do want to comment on her reasoning behind that interpretation. Gillard claims that American children’s books are moralistic because they came out of a culture founded by the Puritans and seeped in Christianity. The assumption being, of course, that Christianity de-emphasizes imagination and fantasy tales while elevating hard work. Or, as she says, speaking of why the British tell fantasies, “maybe a world not fixated on atonement and moral imperatives is more conducive to a rousing tale.” In an earlier part of the article, she points out several examples of the American tendency:

“Popular storytelling in the New World instead tended to celebrate in words and song the larger-than-life exploits of ordinary men and women: Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Calamity Jane, even a mule named Sal on the Erie Canal. Out of bragging contests in logging and mining camps came even greater exaggerations—Tall Tales—about the giant lumberjack Paul Bunyan, the twister-riding cowboy Pecos Bill, and that steel-driving man John Henry, who, born a slave, died with a hammer in his hand. All of these characters embodied the American promise: They earned their fame.”

Supposedly, this vision of the American promise is in some way due to the Christian influence on America.

Again, there may be a lot of truth there. I’m not a child psychologist nor am I a mythologist. Yet I do think there is a misrepresentation–however unintentional–of Christianity at play here. See, the Gospel is the exact opposite of what she calls the American promise. The American promise says that “they earned their fame.” The Gospel says that you can’t ever earn your own fame, and if you do it won’t last.

Gillard seems to counter this: “Further, each side has opposing views of naughtiness and children: Pagan babies are born innocent; Christian children are born in sin and need correcting.”

But the Gospel story is the story of a child whose humanity was no different than mine. Yes, the child was God Incarnate, but he was a human child nonetheless. A child saved the world. That sounds far more British than American. Gillard says something similar about British fairy tales:

“Pagan folktales are less about morality and more about characters like the trickster who triumphs through wit and skill: Bilbo Baggins outwits Gollum with a guessing game; the mouse in the The Gruffalo avoids being eaten by tricking a hungry owl and fox. Griswold calls tricksters the “Lords of Misrule” who appeal to a child’s natural desire to subvert authority and celebrate naughtiness: “Children embrace a logic more pagan than adult.” And yet Bateman says in pagan myth it’s the young who possess the qualities needed to confront evil.”

But I would question that conclusion. In British fairy tales, is it really the children who save the world? It certainly isn’t in The Chronicles of Narnia. The children help, but Aslan saves the world. Harry doesn’t defeat Voldemort, in the end. It’s love that defeats Voldemort, a power Harry can’t control, something beyond himself. It isn’t dwarf children who rally and save themselves from Smaug, the evil dragon in The Hobbit. It’s Bilbo, a small, overlooked member of the party who is certainly no child.

Are there exceptions? Of course. Peter Pan seems to follow Gillard’s observations, as do Alice in Wonderland and others.

But the point is this: Christianity, properly understood, might not be so opposed to fairly tales as Gillard seems to imply. In fact, it might be more a fairy tale than much of the American literature Gillard argues it inspired. For isn’t the Gospel the quintessential fairy tale? A child from a far away land comes to fight the dragon and save those trying to fight the dragon on their own. A prince from Somewhere Else arrives to win back his true love from the evil witch who has imprisoned her. A lion becomes a lamb and allows himself to be killed before roaring back to life, defeating evil in the process.

The Gospel is hardly anti-fairy tale because it can’t be. After all, isn’t the Gospel itself, from one perspective, all the greatest fairy tales come true?

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3 thoughts on “Are American Fairy Tales Moralistic? (And If So, Why?)

  1. I love your posts Chrisopher.
    I am considering to start a Literature blog. Is your blog hosted by any particular site? Which one? Are you happy with your blog?
    Murray

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    1. Hey Murray,

      I’m not 100 percent sure what you mean. My blog is hosted on WordPress. If you’re asking if my blog is part of another, bigger site (like an online magazine or news site) the answer is no. This is an independent blog I run by myself.

      Hope this helps!

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