Home > Lifestyle > Family > Features
Wednesday September 4, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Wednesday September 4, 2013 MYT 8:05:40 AM
by jon henley
Snow White is a perennial favourite.
Children love fairytales, and use them to make sense of the world. In fact, teaching them stories is more important than spelling and punctuation.
IF YOU want your children to be intelligent,” Albert Einstein once remarked, “read them fairytales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairytales.” It is a sentiment with which author Philip Pullman heartily agrees. Which is as well, because his latest bestseller is a highly acclaimed and high-voltage retelling of 50 Grimm brothers fairytales.
“Fairy stories,” Pullman says, sitting on the sofa in his farmhouse in Oxfordshire, South-East England, “loosen the chains of the imagination. They give you things to think with – images to think with – and the sense that all kinds of things are possible. While at the same time, being ridiculous or terrifying or consolatory. Or something else altogether, as well.”
Not everyone of a scientific bent would, he concedes, concur. The British scientist Richard Dawkins, for one, has said he is not at all sure of the effect on children of “bringing them up to believe in spells and wizards and magic wands and things turning into other things”. It is all “very unscientific”, Dawkins frets.
“Dawkins is wrong to be anxious,” he says. “Frogs don’t really turn into princes. That’s not what’s really happening. It’s ‘Let’s pretend’; ‘What if’; that kind of thing. It’s completely harmless. On the contrary, it’s helpful and encouraging to the imagination.”
We are talking, a couple of weeks before the release of the paperback edition of the author’s Grimm Tales For Young And Old, about fairy stories, and wondering just what it is about them that explains their enduring appeal for the young and the not-so-young. Later, the talk turns to stories in general, and why the reading and the telling of them is so extraordinarily important for children and their families. But first, fairytales. What makes them so special?
Whatever Dawkins may fear, it is not the magic, the supernatural. “That’s helpful in the technical sense, in that it helps you get things done quickly and without explanation,” Pullman says. “But it’s not actually necessary. Some of the best fairytales in this book, like The Robber Bridegroom, have no magic at all. It’s simply about getting on with the story: ‘Why is this frog talking?’ ‘Because he’s really a prince.’ ‘Ah, I see, it’s magic. OK then, on with the story.’”
And in a fairytale, getting on with the story is all. The modern novel, for adults or for children, attempts a degree of “psychological depth,” says Pullman. The fairytale isn’t in the business of psychological depth, it’s in the business of extraordinary event following extraordinary event. Anything else would just get in the way.”
There are, then, notes Pullman, very few fairytales – very few folk stories of any kind – in which characters’ feelings are explored in any meaningful sense: “In fact they might as well not have feelings. They might just as well not have thoughts. They just ... do things.”
Psychology, motivation, rounded character: those aren’t all that fairytales leave out. They also, more often than not, neglect to give you anything you might generally expect in the way of background, context or explanation.
“‘Once upon a time there was a farmer who had three sons,’” begins Pullman. “There you go: you’re off. That’s all you need. You don’t go into the backstory. You don’t say where this was because it doesn’t matter where it was. You don’t say what the sons were called, because that doesn’t matter either: the eldest son, the middle son, the youngest son.”
All of which means you can’t and – despite countless efforts to interpret them by everyone from Freudians to feminists – shouldn’t try to read a fairytale “in the way you read Middlemarch or Proust or whoever. A fairytale isn’t a text in the literary sense. It’s not made out of words so carefully chosen that no other word would do. It’s made out of events.”
Is that what appeals to children? The sheer, uncomplicated story-ness of the fairytale, its headlong rush to an ending, its complete absence of diversion, explanation or even emotion, its unquestioning cardboard cutout characters, their ever-astonishing deeds? In part, certainly, Pullman says. But the real attraction of the fairytale for children lies elsewhere, he believes.
“I think it’s to do with justice,” he says. “Children have a profound and unshakeable belief that things have got to be fair. They like stories in which the good people are rewarded, and the bad punished. And that’s a characteristic certainly of the Grimm tales, and of many other folk tales too.”
There is other stuff children love about them too, of course: “They like the golden hair coming down from the tower, they like the little girl being chased by the wolf, all of that. But if Little Red Riding Hood was eaten by the wolf and that was the end of the story, they wouldn’t like it. These stories have to take place in a moral universe that we recognise as being right and true and just.”
It doesn’t matter, though, that the punishments meted out to the bad people can be rather harsh. People have their heads chopped off or their eyes pecked out. “All that’s perfectly OK,” says Pullman. “Children know these things aren’t true in a literal sense, but true in a different sort of sense. Really, they’re just funny: ‘Ooh, bet that hurt. Serve them right!’”
Something else about fairytales: if they are not literary texts – and the more literary fairytales, those of Hans Christian Andersen or Oscar Wilde, Pullman “doesn’t care for at all” – that’s also because they are transcriptions of words that were originally spoken. Fairytales are oral; they beg to be told.
There is no reason why parents as well as teachers shouldn’t have a few stories tucked away in their head, Pullman reckons. Indeed it would be a very good thing. “It used to be grandmothers,” he says. “It was granny who had the stories. But you can build up your stock, your treasury, by looking at books. This one, or Katharine Briggs’s British Folk Tales And Legends – marvellous, just irreplaceable.”
You need to “get a little story in your head, and get it there well enough to tell it without making any big mistakes. Rehearse it. That’s what I used to do, out walking the dog. Then tell it. Doesn’t matter if it’s to a child or a grandchild [Pullman has four, aged from two to 11], to children at a party, or to children in the back of the car.”
Once a story is secure in your head, you can maybe start to embroider it. “That way, you find out what you’re good at,” says Pullman. “It might be, for example, that you’re very good at being funny, in which case your audiences will love you and beg you to carry on. I could never really do funny things. I did exciting things and dangerous things, but not funny things. But the way you learn that is by doing it.”
Important as storytelling should be, though, it should not replace the bedtime book, Pullman believes. “The book is just so important,” he says. “An important thing, a valuable thing. Just the sharing time, with the child and the book; and letting the book absorb the attention of the child, getting a bit scuffed, the pages being a bit ripped, scribbled on perhaps.”
When you read a storybook to a child: “Don’t skip the pictures. I’ve seen some parents race through a book, just reading the words, one eye on their watch. The way to do it is to talk about the pictures as well – ask questions.”
But why exactly are the storybook, and the story, so crucially important? Pullman is as eloquent and as fervent as you might hope on this. “I’m convinced,” he says, “that these –these and nursery rhymes – are the foundations of all subsequent language skills.
“These are the fundamental things, the real basics. Our politicians talk about ‘the basics’ all the time, but what they mean are things that you can correct at the last minute on your word processor: spelling, punctuation, that kind of thing. But the most basic thing of all is your attitude to language.
“If your attitude to language has been generated by a parent who enjoys it with you, who sits you on their lap and reads and tells stories and sings songs with you and talks about the story and asks you questions and answers your questions, then you will grow up with a basic sense that language is fun. Language is for talking and sharing things and enjoying rhymes and songs and riddles and things like that.”
So, read stories to your children, and tell them too, is Pullman’s plea. In the end, he says: “It’s the sense of sharing something. The sense of sharing a wonder. These are wonder tales. And if you don’t get all straight and anxious about them, if you let the wonder just flower and take root and enrich the child’s imagination and yours, you’ll be the better for it. And there we are.” – Guardian News & Media
Tags / Keywords:
Family & Community, Philip Pullman, children's author, stories, fairytales
Copyright © 1995-2013 Star Publications (M) Bhd (Co No 10894-D)