Saturday, August 23, 2008

"Fairytales Gone Bad" or Wisdom in the Waldorf Reading List

The past few years I have taken to reading many of the books my 13-year-old daughter is reading. Teen fantasy novels - Eragon, The Rangers, Harry Potter, Etc are all short and/or simple enough to keep a busy mom's attention span and fun to read. However, the main reason I keep reading these books is so I am aware of what Mosi is reading and so she has someone to discuss them with. Because, as I have found, there is a BIG difference between fairy tale and fantasy. There is a big difference between a traditional tale filled with wisdom or a tale woven by a wise woman/wise man and a book written for purely entertainment purposes or other reasons.

Many of these books do have such a wonderful underlying wisdom and from writing children's books I know how difficult it must be to write a novel and so I do greatly admire anyone who has written a novel - especially ones that are able to entertain so many people. This post is not about criticizing books - it is about learning to read books in an aware way, seeing the differences between genres of books, and turning entertainment into a a learning experience.

Thirteen was the age when I started absorbing books like a sponge. I read every classic on the shelves and especially loved the philosophers and French romantic novels of the 16th century. However, with nobody to discuss them with I was left a bit lost with all the information I was getting and this can be a bit confusing at such an impressionable age. I remember making so many decisions based on the romantic views put forth in my novels.

It is interesting to note that teenagers today seem to do the same things with books. Mosi tells me about friends who are depressed because their favorite character in a book is not real, or how they want to "be" like a certain character in another book or about how one girl wants to meet someone like "him". And kids hold their breath waiting for the next installment in their favorite book to come out.

Of course it is good for the kids to be reading. I'm happy my teenager is reading instead of playing video games non-stop or going to those parties "in the park". However, what she has been reading brings back the wisdom of Waldorf to me 100 fold!

When children are in 1st and Second grade they are read fairy tales. Not Disney tales, but fairy tales with real consequences and lessons. People die and get hurt in these fairy tales. Not everything is happy and charming. In the real version of the story Red Riding Hood grandmother dies and does not get "coughed back up by the wolf".

When children are in 3rd grade they read stories from the Old Testament, or other solid spiritual books with a focus on the history of that time. These stories help them form a strong moral base in how people made/make decisions and what the consequences of those decisions might be,

When children are in 4th grade they read mythology - many read Norse mythology, stories of strong characters making sacrifices, stories of hard work, perseverance and real life consequences. They are also exposed to stories about inventors and heroes. Real stories about real people and what their lives were like.

In 5th grade children read stories from Greek Mythology and study the ancient cultures.

In 6th grade children read biographies of great men and women.

In 7th grade they read Arthurian legends, biographies and poetry.

So what is the difference between the Waldorf curriculum, which includes plenty of good literature and some of the fantasy novels children are reading today?

In Women Who Run with The Wolves (a MUST read for anyone who believes in the power of storytelling and has a daughter) Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D talks about the tale "The Withered Trees" and says, "We understand this tale symbolically. It is not a tale about killing people. It is a teaching about not unleashing anger indiscriminately, but at the right time." (Page 362). Reading her book, and reading some of Steiner's writings about the wisdom of Fairy tales, one can see the benefit of a story that has a core spirit to it. This is the difference between a REAL story and entertainment.

We all know that many Disney films can be an example of "fairy tales gone bad" for the younger generation. Many of their modernized or adapted fairy tales are entertaining and many of them do put forth important messages. However, not all of them have an underlying wisdom and in many cases the essence of the original lesson or tale is lost.

So what is one example of this for the older generation?

"Twilight" is a good example of what I would call "fairy tales gone bad" for the tween/teen generation. I don't mean to pick on just one novel - and certainly, I was entertained enough that I had to stay up all night to get to the end of this book - LOL! But it disturbed me in the deepest way that is popular with such a young audience. Why?

Because there is an essential element missing in this fantasy/fairytale for teens. For one reason (and there are many more), the girl in the novel makes very poor life decisions and there are very very few consequences. The consequences are easily overcome (within a half a page usually) and by the end of the book nobody dies or is injured or suffers many real consequences in any significant way. As I approach the end of the fourth book I am still hoping for some redeeming core quality to emerge in the books, however, they remain, as they are, good entertainment. The insights the author provides into the details in the lives of the mythical characters are also amazing.

Although the "Twilight" series has no redeeming qualities in the category of "books I want my daughter to learn something from" it has brought about some amazing conversations. Through these conversations we have been able to discuss many life choices young girls must make now and in the future. I've been able to hear from her what her views are now and why and I've been able to insert a few suggestions of my own, which we then discuss (because she likes to argue and ask questions...not because I lead any discussions - LOL). Most importantly she is learning a very good lesson in how to read AND THINK, which is something I did not learn with literature until later in life.

Now, as she reads the series, she is not being led into admiring those characters the author leads us to admire, but she is lead to think about who those characters are and develop opinions on those characters based on what HER standards are.

One example is the main character, Bella. She is the heroine in all the books and most people who read the books will admire her and love her as the heroine. Some girls will want to be like her. However, if you look at her character in more depth one can see that she has no depth. She has no hobbies, no strengths or interests at school and her life is completely centered around a boy in the book. Is this the kind of heroine we want our daughters modelling themselves after?

Our children will read and see so many things in their lives. Giving them a solid base in good literature will help them discern the differences between literature and entertainment. Helping them learn how to interact with books instead of just reading them will strengthen their inner will and ability to stand up for what they believe in.

NOTE: One person commented on this post: After reading your blog it sound as if the books were very good for your daughter. If she never gets any life lessons from another book, but read for pure enjoyment. The books have open a door for the two of you to come together and have open discussions about all things you can imagine. Keep that door open you will need it. Maybe the books will never become great literure but, They bought a mother and daughter to a special place that is very hard to find.

My Reply: Yes, I agree :) That was one reason I wrote this post was to show that HOW you read books can make the book a "negative" or "positive" thing. I think if I had just left her to read the books alone the outcome would not have been as positive :) However, even entertaining literature CAN serve a purpose. And, who knows, there could even be some redeeming qualities in it as literature that I am completely missing because I am so wrapped up in the "my daughter is reading it" angle - LOL.

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