Finding the Gospel in Fairy Tales (an interview with Angelina Stanford)

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Have you ever wondered if (or why) we should read fairy tales? Stick around for this scintillating conversation with Angelina Stanford and you might be amazed to find the Gospel hidden and interwoven throughout the fairy tale genre! You just may find yourself adding more fairy tales to your homeschool plan this year…

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Angelina Stanford interview on fairy tales

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Who is Angelina Stanford?

Angelina Stanford has an Honors Baccalaureate Degree and a Master’s Degree in English Literature from the University of Louisiana, graduating Phi Kappa Phi. For over twenty-five years, she has shared her passion and enthusiasm for literature with students in a variety of settings—everywhere from university classrooms to homeschool co-ops to homeschooling her own three children. In 2012, she entered the world of online teaching, creating a unique online community and mentor relationship with her students. And in 2020 she founded with her husband, Thomas Banks, the House of Humane Letters, providing classes, conferences and other resources for a more humane education. Angelina maintains a high commitment to teaching teachers and students the skill and art of reading well–and in recapturing the tradition of literary scholarship needed to fully engage with the Great Books.

Known for her ability to make academic scholarship both accessible and entertaining, Angelina has presented papers at the College English Association Conference, the Conference on Christianity and Literature and is a respected speaker at numerous conferences around the world. She has also written for numerous publications–including The Old Schoolhouse magazine and a column for Home Educating Family magazine. She is currently working on a book about finding the Gospel in Fairy Tales.

A popular guest on a variety of podcasts, Angelina launched her own podcast, The Literary Life Podcast, with her husband Thomas Banks, and her long-time friend Cindy Rollins in 2019. Flagged by Itunes as a New and Noteworthy Podcast, each episode explores some aspect of cultivating a literary life–from slow, thoughtful readings of novels and short stories to literary topics like the importance of the detective novel or getting over a reading slump. She is a great believer that Stories Will Save the World!

Angelina Stanford interview on fairy tales

Watch my interview with Angelina Stanford

Show Notes {with video time stamps}

From academia to homeschool mom {2:00}

Angelina was on a PhD track to become a professor, but grew disillusioned with academia. She decided to go be a homeschool mom instead (to the shock of her colleagues!). She has three children, two of whom are now in their 20s.

She’s also a newlywed to her “own personal poet,” and together they’re crafting a lovely literary life. Angelina now gets to spend all her time doing her favorite thing: talking about stories.

“Don’t hate me because my job is to read,” Angelina laughed.

When I was growing up, I just wanted to figure out a way to grow up and have a job that would pay me to read, so I’m super jealous!

Angelina Stanford’s love of fairy tales {5:31}

When Angelina was 3, her dad gave her a young reader’s adaptation of the Arabian Nights. She read those fairy tales over and over again as a child! “Growing up, I never read a European fairy tale,” Angelina said, but she was completely enchanted by these Medieval eastern tales.

That led her to an interest in reading mythology when she grew older, but it wasn’t until she took a folk tale class in college that the wide array of fairy tales captured her imagination.

What actually is a fairy tale? {8:27}

There’s a great deal of scholarly debate about the definition of fairy tales, and this might be a more complicated question than you anticipated.

Not all fairy tales have fairies or magic in them, and just because a story has magic in it doesn’t make it a fairy tale. This is because fairy tales express what it means to be essentially human, Angelina explained.

fairy tales Tolkien quote

The term “fairy tale” itself actually doesn’t come into our vocabulary until the 1600s. Authors like the Grimms called their stories wonder tales” and “folk tales.”

Angelina Stanford says that there are 2 essential components to a fairy tale:

  • How it begins
  • How it ends

She went on to explain that a fairy tale is going to begin with some version of “once upon a time.” It will be vague as to exactly when and where the story takes place, providing the reader with a “displacement of time and space.”

Thus, a story set in the time of King Arthur is a legend, but it is not a fairy tale.

“Fairy tales are the story of the Every Man,” Angelina said. “The main characters in a fairy tale are not named. They’re nicknamed… The hero could be anyone… It could be you.”

Fairy tales also end in a predictable way (and you’ll now quickly realize that not every story in your collection of fairy tales is actually a fairy tale!). “A fairy tale by definition has to have a happy ending. If it does not have a happy ending, it is not a fairy tale; it is a cautionary tale.”

“A fairy tale by definition is a redemption story,” Angelina explained.

  • Folk Tales: come to us from the oral tradition (example: Grimm Brothers)
  • Literary Tale: original story, unrelated to the oral folk tradition (example: Hans Christian Anderson)
  • Romance: highly literary version of a fairy tale; it follows the structure of a fairy tale with redemptive elements, but will be more rooted to a time and place (example: Edmund Spencer and Chronicles of Narnia)

In the 1600s in France, some authors began to write their own literary, imaginative short stories that they called “fairy tales.” They were not rooted in the oral tradition in the same way folk tales were. These stories were not written for children, and many of them were politically subversive.

Charles Perrault was a French author whose versions of many stories have, alas, become what we recognize as the traditional fairy tales. Charles was a bureaucrat during an era of extreme decadence and immorality at the French court. As someone who believed stories could be used to reform people, he took the old folk tales and “rewrote them with a very specific didactic purpose.” He basically wanted to write “the Elsie Dinsmore version of these tales to warn everyone about their bad behavior.”

Sometimes, this meant he chopped off the happy endings (like in his version of Little Red Riding Hood)!

The folk tale version of Cinderella does not have a fairy godmother or a 12 o’clock curfew. Angelina said that in the folk tale version, it is Cinderella’s virtue and the power of the Holy Spirit (symbolized by her dead mother) that leads her along the proper path. But Charles changed the story because he thought what French girls really needed was a chaperone and a curfew.

Not only did he change the tales, he added morals to the end of each story just to make sure his readers didn’t miss his point! At the end of Little Red Riding Hood, for example, he basically ends with this moral: “Ladies, if you get into bed with a wolf, you’re going to get eaten alive.” This may be true, but it is not a fairy tale!

Unfortunately, because they were based on folk tales, Charles Perrault’s version got reintroduced to the folk tradition and now we often tell our children his version of the stories!

This was such a fascinating discussion, and you’re not going to want to miss a minute! Based on Angelina’s definition, Spenser’s Faerie Queen is not really a fairy tale (it’s a romance), but Star Wars probably is. (No, seriously, you don’t believe me? Listen to our full discussion!)

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Why is it important for Christians to read and discuss fairy tales? {26:55}

 “This is my hill to die on,” Angelina laughed. “The things that make you cautious and uncomfortable about fairy tales are precisely why you need to read them. In the modern age, we are materialists. Our presumptions about reality is that …anything that’s not experienced by the senses is not real.” Within that framework, of course, there is no place for God, truth, goodness, or virtue.

Angelina continued, “Here we are in this emaciated age where we have sucked the soul out of reality… Our steady diet of realistic literature and realistic movies means that we are over and over and over subjecting ourselves to the lie that the only thing that is real is what we can see.”

Angelina Stanford interview on fairy tales

As Christians, however, we know that there is a “greater reality that transcends our senses.”

“What fairy tales do is they reintroduce wonder and mystery into our lives. Fairy tales teach us over and over that there is more than meets the eye,” Angelina encouraged.

This age of rationalism desperately needs to be reintroduced to wonder and mystery!

“The idea that the world is infused with a transcendent meaning that is beyond the rational mind is an idea that has historically been accepted and now we’re at war with that. We’re constantly having to fight our tendency to think was is real is what we can experience through the senses,” Angelina said.

This reminds me of the repeated phrase “under the sun” from the book of Ecclesiastes. Under the sun in this finite world, all is vanity. But our God is outside the system, outside the box. He is beyond the sun, so to speak. God is Himself reason and logic (Jesus is the Logos, remember?), yet He is so gloriously infinite and larger than our finite minds can contain. We like to think we can fully plumb the depths of God, but His ways are “past finding out.” It’s good for us to face reminders that there are things beyond the sun, outside the box, full of wonder and mystery.

Angelina added, “There’s a very real sense in which our day to day lives are lived under an evil enchantment, and we have to desperately be delivered from that.” She continued by sharing one of her favorite quotes: “Fairy tales are realer than real and truer than true.”

The basic structure of a fairy tale is the redemptive, Gospel pattern: dead princesses get rescued by princes.

Let’s take Sleeping Beauty as an example:

  • Born into a curse of death (as we all are)
  • Fairy changes curse of death into sleep (much like Paul says that death is not true death for the believer)
  • Thorn prick will create death (thorns bring up images of Garden of Eden)
  • Father tries to destroy all thorns to avoid death (parallels works righteousness; attempt to earn salvation on our own)
  • Whole kingdom falls under sleeping curse, hedges of thorns grow up around them (whole world trapped under curse of sin)
  • Many princes attempt to come and get caught up in the thorns and die
  • “When the time was right” (doesn’t that sound like “in the fullness of time”?), the true prince shows up and the thorns turn into flowers! His appearance has reversed the curse!
  • Prince awakens Sleeping Beauty with a kiss, the curse is lifted from the whole kingdom, and he marries her
  • “They live happily ever after, which is how every fairy tale ends, because this is our story. We are the enchanted princess under a curse, we are waiting for the prince to come and wake us up and lift the curse and say ‘You are now my bride.’” Christ is the bridegroom whose appearance has reversed the curse.

And we, too, look forward to the ending of our story that truly will be “happily ever after” for those who are in Christ!

Each fairy tale story is a miniature Gospel story, but each of them together is telling a different component of the Gospel story,” Angelina said.

Across cultures and across time, the oral folk tradition tells this same story. This can only be because every act of “sub-creating” is just a re-creating or a re-telling of the One True Story.

(You may also enjoy my post about why we study world mythology.)

homeschool worth mythology

When and how should we begin reading fairy tales to our children? {41:57}

Angelina encouraged us not to get all excited about what we’ve learned, run grab our anthology,  read aloud a fairy story, and start expounding all the symbols and layers of meaning to our little 5 year old. We don’t want to destroy the wonder of fairy tales by adding on a moral like Charles Perrault!

“You just read them… They internalize the pattern,” Angelina explained. “Resist that modern urge to be didactic.

Angelina Stanford interview on fairy tales redemption story

When it comes to the more disturbing elements, Angelina had some wise counsel. First, she reminded us that “parents are more disturbed by the weird than the kids.”

She also referenced Edith Nesbit’s essay “The Wings of the Child,” saying “The whole world is magical to a kid…. It’s our challenge to reclaim our childlike sense of wonder.”

Of course, Angelina also acknowledged that some children genuinely are more sensitive than others. If your child is sensitive, you can pick and choose which tales to read to them and when.

Watch the full interview to hear a personal story I shared about my youngest son!

Book recommendations both for fairy tale newbies and those wanting to study fairy tales more deeply {50:50}

Angelina recommended starting with the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, especially the Jack Zipes translation.

You can also enjoy Andrew Lang’s fairy books, although you need to remember that Lang was a folklorist so he’s not distinguishing between the different types of stories. He even uses Perrault’s version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” and includes an excerpt from Gulliver’s Travels! (Angelina also told me something I didn’t know previously! It may be Andrew Lang’s name on the title page, but it was his wife who actually did most of the work!)

On Fairy Stories by J.R.R. Tolkien is an important piece to read if you’re wanting to study fairy tales more deeply.

Chesterton and Lewis also both have many essays on the value of fairy stories.

For example, here is an excerpt from Chesterton’s essay “The Red Angel” from Tremendous Trifles:

“Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.

Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.” ~ G. K. Chesterton

fairy tales Chesterton quote

C. S. Lewis wrote an essay entitled “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said”:

“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

Angelina Stanford has many recorded webinars diving deeply into fairy tales that you can find on her website here.

And keep an eye out for her upcoming book on the subject! (You can sign up for her email list at her website so you don’t miss the announcement.)

Angelina warned that modern scholarship tries to make every kind of argument to destroy the Gospel message of the fairy tales, adding in their own Freudian and other weird interpretations. So be prepared and wise as you read from these sometimes problematic scholars!

C S Lewis fairy tales

Find Angelina Stanford online

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