On Reading Fairy Tales

One of the main characters of That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis is Mark Studdock, who was a sociologist but his true passion was being a part of the so called “inner circle.” He wanted to belong to the elite that would bestow glory and power. On the other hand, he never was a very self-confident person and so the only way to make a career was to please the people who could help him. To make a career, Mark had to push any moral consideration out of his head, which was not very hard to do, since he had never been very much concerned with ethics.

Because of his lack of moral compass Mark was easily seduced by Whiter and Frost, two leading figures at the N.I.C.E. headquarters. A part of his initiation was a process of “objectification.” It took place in the Objectivity Room, which was not only ill-proportioned but also filled with strange objects of art, like a picture of a woman with her mouth open and hair growing in her mouth, or a picture of the Last Supper with beetles under the table. Later the process included “the eating of abominable food, the dabbling in dirt and blood, the ritual performances of calculated obscenities.”

But the name of the process should not fool us. Its goal was not to help Mark to think and feel in conformity with objective norms but to the contrary: The goal of the process was to kill any sense of order, of right and wrong.

But the plan failed. When Frost told Mark to trample a wooden crucifix, some new emotions aroused in his heart, even though he had never been a religious person. “To insult even a carved image of such agony seemed abominable.” It was the “defenselessness of the figure [that] deterred him.” Mark realized that if he did not follow Frost’s command, he would lose any chance of leaving alive. And then he felt “as helpless as the wooden Christ”:

“As he thought this, he found himself looking at the crucifix in a new way -neither as a piece of wood nor a monument of superstition but as a bit of history. Christianity was nonsense, but one did not doubt that the man had lived and had been executed thus by the Belbury of those days. And that, as he suddenly saw, explained why this image, though not itself an image of the Straight or Normal, was yet in opposition to crooked Belbury. It was a picture of what happened when the Crooked met the Straight-what would happen to him if he remained straight. It was, in a more emphatic sense than he had understood, a cross.”

Frost started pushing him harder, and that put Studdock in a quandary: “Mark was thinking, and thinking hard. Christianity was a fable. It would be ridiculous to die for a religion one did not believe. This Man himself, on that very cross, had discovered it to be a fable, and had died complaining that the God in whom he trusted had forsaken him – had, in fact, found the universe a cheat. But this raised a question that Mark had never thought of before. Was that the moment at which to turn against the Man? If the universe was a cheat, was that a good reason for joining its side? Supposing the Straight was utterly powerless, always and everywhere certain to be mocked, tortured, and finally killed by the Crooked, what then? Why not go down with the ship? He began to be frightened by the very fact that his fears seemed to have vanished. They had been a safeguard . . . they had prevented him, all his life, from making mad decisions like that which he was now making as he turned to Frost and said, ‘It’s all bloody nonsense, and I’m damned if I do any such thing’.”

This was a moment of Mark’s conversion. Frost wanted to make Mark think that there was no right or wrong, but Mark realized that removing a strict distinction between right and wrong equaled unleashing the hell.

After the destruction of Belbury, Mark stopped in a countryside hotel, where he started reading “children’s stories which he had begun to read as a child, but abandoned because his tenth birthday came when he was half-way through it and he was ashamed to read it after that.”

As Peter J. Schakel in Imagination and the Arts in C.S. Lewis noticed, C.S. Lewis included this short and inconspicuous episode to connect That Hideous Strength with his Abolition of Man. And the connection between these two works is clearly stated at the very beginning of the introduction to That Hideous Strength. According to Schakel, C.S. Lewis “raises . . . the problem of imaginative impoverishment. The educational system has misread the need of the moment: fearing that young people will be swept away by emotional propaganda, educators have decided the best thing they can do for children is to fortify their minds against imagination and emotion by teaching them to dissect all things by rigorous intellectual analysis.”

But this approach proves to be wrong in later life especially in critical moments where we have to evaluate and judge situations and people, because those who have not internalized moral standards and appropriate responses do not know how to react to evil. “Intellectual apprehension of abstract principles is not enough,” says Schakel. “When child is tempted to steal a sweater that appeals to him or her greatly, the goal is not to have a child intellectually weigh the moral issues at stake; the child must ‘feel’ that stealing is not only wrong but repugnant, feel it through ‘trained emotions.’ ‘Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism’” (quoting from Abolition of Man).

C.S. Lewis called these trained emotions “practical reason,” which mediates between head and belly, i.e. the spiritual and the animal in a human being. People without the practical reason are “men without chests.” They have developed knowledge and intellect but are emotionally and imaginatively impoverished. An example of such a person would be Eustace from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Mark Studdock was a man without a chest, too. When he faced the seductive people of the N.I.C.E., he should have instinctively recognized their wickedness and felt abhorred by their intrigues, but instead he was attracted by the promise of glory and power.

This is why, according to C.S. Lewis, children should be exposed to good fairy tales, so that they internalize what is normal and what is crooked. By this exposition children acquire practical reason, moral imagination, and can instinctively react to evil the right way without having to conduct a thorough analysis of the situation.

In The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim describes how the training of emotions works by use of fairy tales: “It is not that the evildoer is punished at the story’s end which makes immersing oneself in fairy stories an experience in moral education, although this is part of it. In fairy tales, as in life, punishment or fear of it is only a limited deterrent to crime. The conviction that crime does not pay is a much more effective deterrent, and that is why in fairy tales the bad person always loses out. It is not the fact that virtue wins out at the end which promotes morality, but that the hero is most attractive to the child, who identifies with the hero in all his struggles. Because of this identification the child imagines that he suffers with the hero his trials and tribulations, and triumphs with him as virtue is victorious. The child makes such identifications all on his own, and the inner and outer struggles of the hero imprint morality on him.”

“The figures in fairy tales,” continues Bettelheim, “are not ambivalent – not good and bad at the same time, as we all are in reality. But since polarization dominates the child’s mind, it also dominates fairy tales. A person is either good or bad, nothing in between. One brother is stupid, the other is clever. One sister is virtuous and industrious, the others are vile and lazy. One is beautiful, the others are ugly. One parent is good, the other evil. The juxtaposition of opposite characters is not for the purpose of stressing right behavior, as would be true for cautionary tales. (There are some amoral fairy tales where goodness or badness, beauty or ugliness play no role at all.) Presenting the polarities of character permits the child to comprehend easily the difference between the two, which he could not do as readily were the figures drawn more true to life, with all the complexities that characterize real people. Ambiguities must wait until a relatively firm personality has been established on the basis of positive identifications. Then the child has a basis for understanding that there are great differences between people, and that therefore one has to make choices about who one wants to be. This basic decision, on which all later personality development will build, is facilitated by the polarizations of the fairy tale.”

Bettelheim agrees with C.S. Lewis also in his criticism of modern education and especially modern stories written for children: “Modern stories written for children mainly avoid . . . existential problems, although they are crucial issues for all of us. The child needs mot particularly to be given suggestions in symbolic form about how he may deal with these issues and grow safely into maturity. ‘Safe’ stories mention neither death nor aging, the limits of our existence, nor the wish for eternal life. The fairy tale, by contrast, confronts the child squarely with the basic human predicaments.”

Even though they claim to be rational and realistic, both modern schools and modern literature fail to prepare the child for real-life situations. They fail, first of all, to help children learn to choose between good and evil.

This is what happened to Mark Studdock, when he stopped reading fairy tales at the age of ten. He never had an opportunity to develop moral imagination, i.e. practical reason, and so he did not recognize the wickedness of the N.I.C.E. neither the danger represented by it. Had he read the right stories, he would have known that one should not enter a dragon’s den unprepared.

Fortunately for Mark, at the crucial moment, when he had to trample the crucifix, “perhaps through the remaining memory of some childhood training not specified in the story [not necessarily, C.S. Lewis states that Mark read fairy tales till he was ten], perhaps through innate impulses not totally squelched by his modern education, Mark is able to escape the clutches of the N.I.C.E. But his moral imagination is badly undernourished and in need of sustenance” (Peter J. Schakel).

This is why C.S. Lewis had him go to the country hotel and read some fairy tales that he had not finished in his childhood. On the other hand, Jane, Mark’s wife, was never attracted by the people from the N.I.C.E. Probably because she enjoyed Shakespeare and Jane Austen what indicates that even though she, at first, was hesitant about Ransom, eventually she had enough moral imagination to choose the good side.

Bogumil Jarmulak is pastor of Evangelical Reformed Church (CREC) in Poznan, Poland. His PhD is from Christian Theological Academy in Warsaw, Poland.

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