Old Enough to Read Fairy Tales Again

The following was a college essay written by Abigail Thomas. It has been edited and approved by Ariel Hobbs. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

By Abigail Thomas

Fairytales are most commonly thought of as children’s stories – the theme of rescue so often present appeals to children because of its daring and exciting nature, and because they are often the ones in need of rescuing. A child reads legends like Robin Hood, which inspire them and give them the courage to fight evil and stand up for the underprivileged. Fairytales like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast teach a child of sacrificial love, as well as generosity of spirit. These are lessons that can apply to adults because as children grow into adults, they take on more responsibilities. After maturing into adulthood, children must return to fairy tales so they may understand the hidden lessons, including that the rescuer sometimes needs to be rescued, in these fantastical children’s stories.

There are many reasons as to why children love fairy tales. Depending on the gender of the child, he or she could love the adventure, the handsome prince or beautiful princess, the daring risks of the heroes, an inevitable wedding between characters – the list is extensive. There is one common thread connecting all these aspects of fairy tales that children love: rescue. The idea of rescue appeals to children because, while they are young, they need rescuing. They need role models to help shape their lives. If these role models do not exist in their current lives, they turn to their beloved fairytale characters. Bruto Bettelheim states this concept perfectly in his book The Uses of Enchantment: “It is important to provide the modern child with images of heroes that go out into the world all by themselves and who, although originally ignorant of the ultimate things, find secure places in the world.”[1] Children are drawn to the heroic qualities of a rescuer because the hero’s actions lend them the belief that they can become rescuers themselves someday.

An extremely attractive quality of a hero, and one that children always wish to possess in greater quantities, is courage. By reading fairy tales and legends such as The Little Mermaid and Robin Hood, a child is introduced to all different types of courage, and in turn, the different types of heroes they could become. In The Little Mermaid, the title character rescues a prince from a shipwreck in a horrible storm, putting herself in danger to save the life of another. According to the story, “she dived deeply under the dark waters, rising and falling with the waves, till at length she managed to reach the young prince…she held his head above the water, and let the waves drift them where they would.”[2] The drama of this rescue draws children and allows them  to imagine when they could be as courageous and heroic as the little mermaid by saving someone in peril. The legend of Robin Hood lends itself to a different kind of courage, one that involves continuous risk-taking rather than a one-time daring rescue. In order to rescue the poor from the unfair taxation by the Sheriff of Nottingham, Robin continually robs the rich to provide food for the poor people of Nottingham. He thwarts the law again and again so the poor may have a better chance of survival. He does this all with a merry attitude, living deep within Sherwood Forest as he and his merry men retain a positive outlook on life in the midst of great danger because of their thievery[3]. His cheerful temperament and courageous desire to help the less fortunate inspire a sense of adventure in children as they learn to take on daunting and possibly dangerous tasks with the same courage and jollity. Children not only learn to imitate the courage that they read in fairytales but also the other qualities like kindness and sacrificial love.

The portrayal of sacrifice runs throughout fairytales, and especially that of sacrificial love. Part of what makes a hero someone that children adore and aspire to imitate are the sacrifices the heroes make, whether it be their life or their comfort or their material possessions. The little mermaid is an exemplary depiction of this heroic quality as she bears terrible pain and eventually sacrifices her life, all for the prince. As part of the exchange of getting human legs from the sea witch, she must promise to endure the feeling of walking upon sharp knives every time she walks on her legs.[4] Later in the tale, she gives her life in exchange for the prince’s, having been ordered by the sea witch to kill him, and she tosses herself overboard rather than harm him. While she does end up gaining the immortal soul that she originally desired, the action of jumping overboard to save the prince came from a completely selfless and sacrificial part of her heart. In Beauty and the Beast, Beauty sacrifices herself for her father in exchange for his life and gives herself over to the Beast’s rage. Because of her kind and courageous temperament, she claims she is happy to do this: “…for my father shall not suffer upon my account…I will deliver myself up to all his fury, and I am very happy in thinking that my death will save my father’s life, and be a proof of my tender love for him.”[5]  This sacrifice and complete surrender of her life exemplifies the qualities of the rescuers that children love to read about in fairytales. It lends an idyllic sense to the perfect hero, one who will give even the ultimate sacrifice to protect those they love.

A final quality that children are drawn to, and strive to imitate based on their favorite heroes, is that of kindness and generosity of spirit. All three heroes previously discussed possess this characteristic and are genuinely kind and generous people who care greatly for the people around them. Robin Hood uses his talents and his courage to steal from the rich to help the poor survive – rather than take all the riches for himself, he distributes the bounty and lives a humble life in the woods. Beauty is a lovable heroine, adored by everyone. According to the tale, Beauty “was such a caring, sweet tempered creature, spoke so kindly to poor people, and was of such an affable, obliging behavior.”[6] She is generous with everything she has, willing to give her life for her father. Finally, the little mermaid, in all her sweetness and innocence, is generous with everything she has for the sake of love, taking on unbelievable pain and emotional torture watching her prince love another. These characteristics of kindness and courage and the ability to sacrifice oneself unconditionally are qualities that gravitate children toward fairytales. The stories provide role models for children to imitate, and help them to grow in these virtues because once adults, they will become the heroes responsible for a good deal of the rescuing.

Many consider fairytales to be specifically for children, and that reading fairy tales at any age besides a small child is inappropriate. However, adults must read fairy tales because they help gain a new perspective because they now have a different worldview and are perhaps more learned than the first time they read the stories. As Jeff Henderson states with his discussion of fairy tales in “The Children’s Stories,” “they possess ample humor of the absurdly incongruous type…to appeal to younger children, they are also filled with pearls of wit, irony, and “philosophical abstraction” suited for precocious, older, or even adult readers.”[7]Adults can relate to fairy tales far more, because while the adults become more based in reality as they mature, they can begin to understand the moral of the stories, rather than become caught up in the fantastical or romantic nature of the tales. With the theme of love and sacrifice in the Little Mermaid, a more mature adult will understand the true difficulty of sacrificing for loved ones, whereas a child might only pay attention to the romance between a mermaid and a handsome prince. A final conception of adulthood that must be banished is, not only that reading fairy tales must be strictly reserved for children, but any adult who reads a fairytale must not be fully mature and remains stuck in adolescence. As C.S. Lewis notes, “to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the mark of childhood and adolescence…now that I am fifty, I read fairy tales openly.”[8] The notion that adults cannot read and enjoy fairytales simply because they have passed the society-deemed appropriate age of reading the stories is an adolescent idea. There are many deeper life lessons entrenched in these fairytales that sometimes children are too young to notice and intended purely for adults.

As the child matures into an adult, and the adolescent in need of rescuing becomes the one responsible for rescuing, adults can use them to be rescued as well. In his well-beloved book The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis writes a dedication to his goddaughter, Lucy, where he tells her that “you are already too old for fairytales…but someday you will be old enough to read fairytales again.”[9] This dedication must remind adults that after imitating the qualities of heroes in fairy tales to mature from childhood into adulthood, it is completely allowable to return to these fairytales and continue to use them to grow as virtuous adults. Fairytales can also continue rescuing adults because they allow adults to escape reality for a few minutes. They enter into a fantastical world where they read of others’ struggles in a harsh world, and how a happy ending results was possible for the characters. By giving adults hope and ways to cope with the responsibilities that were not present during childhood, fairytales prove themselves to be both for children and adults, and are truly essential to the virtuous formation of human beings of all ages. 

Works Cited

Hans Christian Andersen, “The Little Mermaid” in Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales ed. J.H Stickney (Boston, MA; Ginn and Company, 1955), 124-170.

Jeanne-Marie lePrince de Beaumont, “Beauty and the Beast” in Tales of Passed Times ed. Master Charles Perreault (London, England; J.M. Dent & Company, 1900), 109-133.

Howard Pyle, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, 1883.

Henderson, Jeff. “The Children’s Stories.” John Gardner: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne Publishers, 1990, pp. 44-61. Twayne’s Studies in Short Fiction 15. Gale eBooks, (Accessed 3 Nov. 2019).

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment : The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Vintage books ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

C.S. Lewis, “On 3 Ways of Writing for Children” in Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories. First Harvest, 1975, pg 34.

C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. New York, NY: HarperTrophy, 1994, pg 1.

Edited By: Ariel Hobbs


[1]           Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment : The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Vintage books ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

[2]           Hans Christian Andersen, “The Little Mermaid” in Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales ed. J.H. Stickney (Boston, MA; Ginn and Company, 1955), 124-170.

[3]           Howard Pyle, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, 1883.

[4]           Hans Christian Andersen, “The Little Mermaid” in Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales ed. J.H. Stickney (Boston, MA; Ginn and Company, 1955)..

[5]           Jeanne-Marie lePrince de Beaumont, “Beauty and the Beast” in Tales of Passed Times ed. Master Charles Perreault (London, England; J.M. Dent & Company, 1900), 109-133.

[6]           Jeanne-Marie lePrince de Beaumont, “Beauty and the Beast” in Tales of Passed Times ed. Master Charles Perreault (London, England; J.M. Dent & Company, 1900), 109-133.

[7]           Henderson, Jeff. “The Children’s Stories.” John Gardner: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne Publishers, 1990, pp. 44-61. Twayne’s Studies in Short Fiction 15.

[8]           C.S. Lewis, “On 3 Ways of Writing for Children” in Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories. First Harvest, 1975, pg 34.

[9]           C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. New York, NY: HarperTrophy, 1994, pg 1.

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