“If you want your children to be intelligent,” Albert Einstein once said, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
Because the voices of my parents were constantly yelling, I made my home in books, in solitude, in the woods and in my imagination. The first books that offered themselves up to me were fairy tales. At first, they were my escape from reality but, over time, became my reality. When I went to the woods carrying a collection of fairy tales and my imagination, the three have interwoven themselves together so that I longed for the trees around me to resemble the ones in Arthur Rackham illustrations.
The woods were a place of magic. I had to first jump over a small creek to get to them and then through a field of tall grass. Often I would come upon a rabbit and I hoped that he would suddenly pull a pocket-watch out and announce in a hurried manner that he was late for something and I could follow him to a rabbit hole that would lead me to Wonderland.
I longed for Wonderland or Narnia or Neverland. Somewhere that I could escape from my own life.
My mind was full of the worlds created by Lewis Carroll, J.M. Barrie, C.S. Lewis, E. Nesbit, Kenneth Grahame, the Brothers Grimm, L. Frank Baum, Hans Christian Andersen, Diana Wynne Jones, J.R.R. Tolkien and George MacDonald. Their worlds became my own; more real to me than the one around me. As a quiet boy with an overactive imagination and a penchant for daydreaming, books were sacred objects that were read and reread and cherished like no other book since. Reading was life, was freedom. Even the novelist Graham Greene once said, “What do we ever get nowadays from reading to equal the excitement and the revelation of the first fourteen years?”
The characters in my favorite books were more than fictional figures, they were dear, close friends who I could not only imagine myself, but see aspects of myself in. And, like David Copperfield, I rad my books “as if for life.” And they didn’t even have to be human: they could be the faun Mr. Tumnus, or a silly old bear named Pooh, or the good-natured Mole. I remember reading The Wind in the Willows and loving this passage about Mole:
“The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.”
I could relate to Mole because I was quiet and reflective and loved (and still do) to sit by the banks of a stream and listen to the sounds of the water.
I was charmed and delighted and frightened and excited by the stories I read and watching the adventures unfold and they were more vivid to me than the lives of children my own age. These stories could be painful and terrifying, yet they taught me that, like the characters in them, I, too, could overcome. As G. K. Chesterton wrote, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” Or, as Neil Gaiman put his own twist on this saying with, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
In his monumental work on fairy tales The Uses of Enchantment, child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim wrote that fairy tales were critical for children to read because they did teach children that “a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable.” He also stated, “If one does not shy away but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end often emerges victorious.”
Fairy tales teach us that, yes, there is darkness in this world, but that the light can overcome it. As a small, quiet child who was often bullied, these were welcome words and worlds for me to discover. I would often take one of my fairy tale books (given to me by my great-Aunt Annie, who delighted in my love of reading) and go out into the woods behind our house: to explore, to read, and to daydream. Sometimes I would read and then lie down in the tall field grass, in the warmth of the summer sun, and re-imagine this wood as one of the many that were in these tales.
I could easily picture magical folk living in these woods: sprites, elves, fairies. There was even evil in the woods that I conjured up as the Shadow-man. All of the animals spoke English, of course, but did not when people were around. I secretly hoped to catch them doing so one day – and still do.
The illustrations in these books were as important to me as the stories. I gloried and reveled in the drawings of Cruikshank, Rackham, Tenniel, Bilbin, Crane, Burne-Jones and Dulac. Because I loved to draw, I copied their styles in an attempt to form my own, just as I wrote my own tales of what happened in this wood. The stories of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen and Charles Perrault and Joseph Jacobs emboldened me to begin creating my own. This really took on a fervor after I encountered C.S. Lewis and realized, for the first time, that someone actually wrote stories and they did just appear as they were on the page.
It’s amazing how much more magical the world appears when we see it that way. To imagine that around every bend is the possibility: for magic, for wonder, for adventure, for the dream world to overlap with the real one.
My woods were made especially opportune for such magic to occur since there as an old abandoned Volkswagen Bug right in the center of it. No one knew how it got there. If there weren’t teenagers hanging around it, smoking cigarettes and listening to Led Zeppelin, my friends and I would pretend that it could transport us anywhere, that it was able to go to any country or world, real or imagined, and could be a portal to our grandest adventures.
Those woods and the fairy tales still loom large in my memories. They are the ones I hold most closely to. They are the ones most dear and encapsulated my childhood in the ways that I love to remember. Those are the memories, like Wendy’s stories to the Lost Boys, makes me dream bigger and understand that words are like incantations and can weave such magical spells as only great stories can.