J R R Tolkien wrote: “If a fairy story as a kind is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults.  They will, of course, put more in and get more out than children can.”

Tolkien believed, and I agree with him, that not all children or adults like fairy stories, just as not all of them like science or mathematics.  He believed that children were accidentally associated with fairy stories because their reading matter was selected for them by the lower class servants, attendants and nurses.  These fairy stories were the written form of the oral folk tales that were told amongst the lower class adults.

Though the peasants were excluded in the formation of this literary tradition, it was their material, tone, style, and beliefs that were in corporated into the new genre.” (Zipes, J. (1991) p. xii)

Of course, this does not apply to more recent times, when fairy stories were specifically written for children.

Both children and adults have the ability to suspend disbelief, and to believe in the World of the sub-creator/storyteller.

Fairy-stories offer . . . . Fantasy, Recovery, Escape and Consolation, all things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people.  (Tolkien, J R R (1975 ed.) p. 44)

When reading or listening to fairy stories, children relate to the Fantasy, and to the Consolation elements of the story.  They are interested in the plot of the narrative, in the characters and their fate, in justice and fair-play which must be seen to be done, and in the resolution of the tale with, preferably, a happy ending (Consolation), unless a sad one is justified.

The fairy story communicates to the child an intuitive, subconscious understanding of his own nature . . . .[he] feels understood in his most tender longings, his most ardent wishes, his most severe anxieties and feelings of misery, as well as in his highest hopes. (Bettelheim, B. 1976) pp. 155 & 154)

Adults, as well as seeing all these elements, usually on a more profound level, also derive more from the story by way of historical relevance, moral and ethical values and issues, irony and justice, with an awareness of symbolism and the language used by the author to convey not only the plot, but also all of these nuances.  Adults recognise the element of Escape as a means to leave behind their daily worries for a brief time, and the Recovery element – “a recovery of perspective” (Isaacs & Zimbardo, (1970 ed.) p.144) – as that which leaves them feeling spiritually healed for having read the story.  They relate to their own experiences with fairy tales during their formative years.

Tolkien knew, none better, that no audience can long feel sympathy or interest for persons or things in which they cannot recognize a good deal of themselves and the world of their everyday experience.” (Kocher, P. (1972) p. 1)

The stories, JACK AND THE BEANSTALK, RUMPELSTILTSKIN, and THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES, taken from Virginia Haviland’s collection THE FAIRY TALE TREASURY, incorporate these levels of comprehension, of both adults and children.

In JACK AND THE BEANSTALK by Joseph Jacobs, children’s perception of the story would focus on Jack with whom they could relate.  After all most children have done ‘silly’ things for which they have been punished, in their eyes often unfairly, and by parents who do not always apologise when proven wrong.  Children would not dwell on the fact that Jack stole – rather that the ogre, who ate little boys for breakfast, deserved to be tricked.  Although Jack lied to the ogre’s wife, who was shown as kindly, then curious, the children could easily ignore the lies because she lost their sympathy by turning on Jack on his third visit.

Repetitious patterns, which most children find enjoyable, were used by the author to depict height and distance.          

So Jack climbed, and he climbed, and he climbed, and he climbed, and he climbed, and he climbed,till at last he reached the sky [and] . . . . he walked along and he walked along and he walked along . . . (Jacobs in Haviland, p. 80)

with a “Fee fi fo fum” thrown in, would be aurally pleasing to children.  Just as their sense of justice would be satisfied when Jack was proven right about the beans, so would their need for a happy ending (consolation) be satisfied, (after a little dose of fear) when

Jack and his mother became very rich, and he married a great princess and they lived happy ever after.” (Jacobs in Haviland, p. 85)

Adults reading this story would not only take in these elements of the story, but would also see, for example, that Jack, by being sent to sell the family cow, an adult task in our society, was seen as the ‘man of the house’, indicating not only the father’s absence in the story, but that the age in which the original folk tale was told was much different from our age.  Children were not cosseted and protected then, but were considered as chattels, as extra pairs of hands, who had to earn their keep by running messages and cutting wood, and were punished physically for any misdemeanor.

According to Bettelheim, and taking the psychological view, this task also represents the beginning of Jack’s journey towards manhood – from the onset of puberty to the completion of the journey when he chops down the beanstalk, not only to save his life, but also to indicate that he no longer needs to rely on ‘magic’ to assist him to make his way in life.  Bettelheim comments that when Jack steals the bag of gold which soon runs out he realises that he must go back, this time knowing he is risking his life, to take something (the hen that lays the golden eggs) that will continue to provide financial security.  He says that

it is not necessity which motivates Jack’s last trip, but the desire for daring and adventure – the wish to find something better than material goods. . . .the golden harp, which symbolizes beauty, art, [and] the higher things in life. (Bettelheim, B. (1976) p. 191)

Adults would acknowledge the repetition of phrases as a clever device used by the author to indicate to the children that Jack had indeed climbed a long way up, and walked a long distance.  They would note that Jack told lies and that he stole, and that this was part of the out-witting of the ogre by a small boy - symbolic of the little people out-witting the social giants of this world.  They would become aware that its historical relevance was that the lower class peasants could get the better of their rich upper-class masters, or at the very least could mock them in folk tales.

In RUMPELSTILSKIN by the brothers Grimm, children are confronted immediately by two characters, a very poor miller and his very beautiful daughter, with whom to associate.  They would understand that the King was an important man (be subconsciously aware of his power), and that the poor miller would try to make his daughter appear special –  after all, the track record of most fairy tales would be of the poor beautiful girl who marries the rich prince or King.  But children would also be saddened when the daughter was locked up to do an impossible task – just as they would be glad when the little man came to save her.  Their sense of fair-play would see that she should give him something in exchange for not only spinning all that straw, but for actually saving her life – a necklace and a ring would seem to be fair rewards.

When the daughter was locked up the second time, there would be less concern when she wept, for children can predict fairy stories by their pattern – they would know that the little man would come again.  Meanwhile their dislike of the King would be growing.  Children would feel a shock when the little man asked for her first-born child – that would seem unthinkable, and a betrayal by a mother.  But children also understand an ultimatum, though they would not know that the concept had a name – it would be obvious that she had no choice.

Children would enjoy the name game introduced into the story to give the now-Queen a means of keeping her child – the more names listed the better they’d like it.  While they would not be aware of their religious (in the first instance) and their peasant (in the second instance) origins, still the intricacies of the names would be aurally pleasing, and visually also if they could read.  Their delight when the Queen discovered his real name and told him would be eucatastrophic, especially as he stamped his foot through the floor – the just deserts for losing his temper!

The relevance of [this] fairy story to reality lies in this [eucatastrophic] gleam, which is a ‘sudden glimpse of the underlying reality of truth'” (Isaacs & Zimbardo, (1970 ed.) p. 148)

Eucatastrophe is defined by Tolkien as “the joy of a happy ending” and as that which

gives the reader ‘a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears …’ [and] a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire. (Isaacs & Zimbardo (1970 ed.) pp. 147 – 148)

Adults would be immediately aware of the patriarchal nature of the setting of the story – the daughter would be representative of the typical, passive, physically beautiful female whose fate was at the mercy of and in the hands of males – not only her father, but also the King, who, because of Noblesse Oblige, could take any commoner’s daughter. Adults would recognise the miller’s bragging and the King’s greed as the cause of the daughter’s hopeless plight.  They would empathise with the little man’s demands for a reward for his services – after all, in today’s society, doing something for nothing does not lead to success and wealth in life.  However he was not without compassion, demonstrated when “[t]he Queen began to weep, so that the little man felt sorry for her.” (Haviland, V. p. 160)  But he was another male to subjugate the daughter, who remained passive throughout the story.  Even when she had become Queen, she could only use her position of power to send someone else to search the countryside for the little man.

Once again adults would be aware of the subliminal message that life is a journey (this time for a female) through trials which are often dangerous and life-threatening.  The resolution of the troubles, often through another person (usually an aggressive male) are clearly made obvious by the ending, with its implication (although not actually stated) of the Queen living happily ever after with her King and her baby (the consolation).

In THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES by Hans Christian Andersen, from the outset the readers, whether adults or children, are included in the joke or trick being played on the emperor.  They are informed that two swindlers, who arrive in town, are weavers of

the most beautiful stuffs imaginable.  Not only were the colours and patterns unusually fine, but the clothes that were made of the stuffs had the peculiar quality of becoming invisible to every person who was not fit for the office he held, or if he was impossibly dull. (Haviland, V. p.174)

This basically is the crux of the story, which centres around not only the self-esteem (pride and vanity) of the emperor and his staff, but also the need for people not to appear foolish in public, and their need to believe in themselves and the fitness for their chosen (whether by self or superiors) careers.

Children would see this story on a superficial level, seeing the vain emperor pretending to see what was not there so as to avoid appearing foolish, yet by so doing, being tricked into looking even more foolish – there are surely few things worse than parading in public with no clothes on!  They would relate to the desire not to be singled out as stupid before their peers, while their subconscious need for security would evoke their sympathy for the emperor even as they laughed at him.

The fact that the swindlers were not only stealing the threads supplied to them, but were also rewarded with knighthoods for their non-existent work (and thus for their swindling) would seem to children to be part of the swindle, and an example of the emperor’s gullibility.  Children would happily associate themselves with the child who saw and said that the emperor had no clothes on, and would feel proud that it took a child to expose the swindlers who exposed the emperor.  Finally, I believe that children would be impressed by the courage shown by the emperor, who, when exposed as naked and foolish, continued his parade regally with his head held high, as an emperor should.

The class distinctions are very obvious in this story – the fact that the emperor thought nothing of spending all his money on his clothes, instead of on the army or the theatre, is made immediately apparent in the opening paragraph:

Instead of saying as one does about any other king or emperor, ‘He is in his council chamber,’ here one always said, ‘The emperor is in his dressing-room.’ (Haviland, V. p.174)

An adult reader would realise that this story is mocking the thoughtless behaviour of the rich, showing that the lower classes were well aware of the inequity, and were ready to ridicule the upper classes if the opportunity arose.

The moral of this story is clearly that pride (and vanity) always comes before a fall, as adult readers would immediately see, and children could be taught to understand.  The emperor’s need to delegate would appear logical to an adult – he was a man of power and thus needed to safeguard his high position.

[The emperor] felt a little queer when he reflected that anyone who was stupid or unfit for his post would not be able to see it. . . . he need have no fears for himself, but still he thought he would send somebody else first. (Haviland, V. p. 175)

He consequently selected his “faithful old minister . . . [as] he is a clever man and no one fulfils his duties better than he does.” (Haviland, V. p. 175)

This story offers adults escape with humour – a chance to watch another’s dilemma unfold and be resolved with the consolation that the emperor was exposed as foolishly vain, yet with his dignity upon exposure as a form of recovery.  The fantasy element – the magic cloth which was known to be non-existent - still has a power over the readers, both child and adult, who, half-believing, watch the worry and embarrassment of those who viewed it.  The fact that the swindlers appear to go unpunished leaves the readers with a sense of incompletion, thus, by this unresolved element, keeping the story fresh in their memories.

I chose these three stories as they all, in my opinion, demonstrate different types of fairy stories – JACK AND THE BEANSTALK is male oriented, showing a boy’s maturation to adulthood; RUMPELSTILTSKIN shows a typical subjugated heroine, achieving via the intervention of a male; and THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES presents a clear moral, showing that one should believe in oneself and in what one sees, not in what one is told.

As I have shown, adults would certainly get more out of these stories than children do.  And if the adult should read the story aloud, or better still tell the story, to a child, then the story would be coloured by the adult’s own

emotional involvement in the story and in the child, with empathy for what the story may mean to him. Telling is preferable to reading because it permits greater flexibility. (Bettelheim, B. (1976) p. 150)

(C) Jud House  28/08/2005, 20/11/2012 & 15/11/2012



ANDERSEN’S FAIRY TALES.  London: Andrew Dakers Ltd.

Bettelheim, B. (1976)  THE USES OF ENCHANTMENT.  London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.

(1973)  MY BOOK OF FAIRY TALES AND FABLES.  London: Brown Watson Ltd.

Carpenter, H. (1978)  J.R.R.TOLKIEN – A BIOGRAPHY.  London: George Allen & Unwin Publishers Ltd (paperback)

Cauley, L.B. (1988)  THE PANCAKE BOY.  New York: G.P.  Putnam’s Sons.

Dahl, R. (1982)  REVOLTING RHYMES.  + Video.

Disney, W. (1965)  WALT DISNEY’S FANTASYLAND.  London: Grolier

Disney, W. (1970)  FANTASY ON PARADE.  England: Purnell & Sons Ltd.

Duriez, C. (1992)  THE TOLKIEN AND MIDDLE EARTH HANDBOOK. London: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd/ Angus & Robertson.

Haviland, V. (ed.) (1972)  THE FAIRY TALE TREASURY. Hamish Hamilton/Puffin Books.

Isaacs, N.D. & Zimbardo, R.A. eds. (1970 ed)  TOLKIEN AND THE CRITICS.  Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press.

Kocher, P. (1972)  MASTER OF MIDDLE-EARTH The Achievement of J R R Tolkien.  London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd.

Ridden, G. (1981)  YORK NOTES: THE HOBBIT  Harlow: Longman York Press.

Tolkien, J.R.R. (1964)  TREE AND LEAF.  London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Zipes, J. (1989)  BEAUTIES, BEASTS AND ENCHANTMENT.  New York: Penguin Books USA Inc.

Zipes, J. (1991)  THE PENGUIN BOOK OF WESTERN FAIRY TALES.  London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Zipes, J. (ED.) (1987)  VICTORIAN FAIRY TALES.  New York/London: Routledge, Chapman & Hall, Inc. (Paperback).

* * * * *


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s