Three weeks ago, I talked about twelve classic children’s stories and what they can teach us about writing books children will love. Nolieal Carturiel asked:
“Do write a post on the myths and legends children like. That’s really a fascinating subject, partly because grown-ups read them and think they must be too scary for children, but somehow they’re not. And myths have something…otherworldly, I guess? about them, too.”
How many of us read at least some myths and legends as children? From bold Robin Hood and chivalrous King Arthur to fairy tales of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast to the account of Thor dressing as a bride to get his hammer back and the long wanderings of Odysseus before coming safely home to the waiting Penelope; myths, legends, and fairy tales have inspired countless generations of boys, girls, and even adults.
But when you think about it, most of these stories are pretty violent or contain a lot of darkness before the heroes win the day and retire with their Happily Ever After.
King Arthur and his Knights were constantly fighting, usually to protect someone or because of a quest, but often simply because they were looking for adventure and wanted to prove that they were the best. Knights’ heads are cut off all the time. Brothers and best friends don’t recognize each other and wind up killing each other. The legend ends tragically, with most of the knights dead, the Round Table fellowship broken, and Arthur’s queen in an abbey.
The ‘real’ versions of most fairy tales are like midnight to the high noon of Disney’s sanitized versions. Cinderella’s stepsisters cutting off parts of their feet, Sleeping Beauty’s children supposedly sacrificed, the unloved Little Mermaid contemplating murder to restore her to mermaid form, and the pregnant Rapunzel being abandoned in the wilderness.
Robin Hood was probably one of the least dark tales (if you’re reading Howard Pyle’s version), although even he wound up having a bloody fight with Guy of Gisborne.
I think I was 9 the first time I read about Cronus eating Zeus’s siblings and Athena springing full armored from the forehead of her father. Not exactly the sugar and spice that supposedly goes into making little girls. I was mildly horrified in a fascinated sort of way and went on to devour the rest of the book.
So what is it about myths and legends that continues to enthrall new generations of children every year and draws adults back for years after they’ve passed out of childhood?
You can be anyone you want to be in fantasy. In your imagination’s eye, you can be an innkeeper or a queen, a woodcutter or a prince. There is no one around to tell you to stop being unrealistic. More than any other reason, this is why the fantasy genre continues to be popular with readers of all ages.
Myths, legends, and fairy tales are all fantasy. No matter where they began or what historical facts and people shaped them, the passage of time aging the realism out of them has transformed them into fantasy.
Many parents censor their children’s reading until they’re a certain age- such as refusing to allow their children to read just any newspaper article- because they’re protecting the child from being scared by the evil in the world until they are strong enough to face it. You (probably) wouldn’t give an unabridged copy of Dracula to a 12-year-old, but he/she can often read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy without a problem.
Children can handle more darkness in a fantasy context than in a real world setting, because they know it’s not real. As much as they imagine the other world is real and spend their time pretending they are living in it, deep inside they know it’s fiction, it’s fantasy, and they’re not going to meet a Nazgul in real life. But experiencing the terror in an alternate universe as well as the courage it takes to defeat the evil, inspires them with the strength and will to face darkness in the real world.
Instant Connection and Accessibility
Every culture has their tall tales, their myths, their fairy tales and legends. Some children hear them as bedtime stories from their parents. Others discover them in books from the library or grandma’s dusty shelves.
Rich, poor, white, black, intellectual, hands-on creative, ambidextrous, or dyslexic, pretty much everyone can gleefully cheer as Robin Hood robs the Sheriff of Nottingham and then makes him sit down to eat poached deer from the very forest the Sheriff is supposed to guard. You can find versions of Robin Hood all over the world, from Rob Roy in Scotland to Zorro in California to Hong Gil-Dong in Korea.
No one likes reading something and thinking, “But I just don’t CONNECT with them!”. Myths and legends are built upon basic themes, but the huge variety of characters and how each journey is different for each of those characters means that there is ‘something for everyone’, as the saying goes.
The beginnings of most myths and legends are lost in the mists of the past. Who can truly tell whether there was a real King Arthur or Robin Hood? Historians have spent generations trying and still many conclude that they can’t really KNOW. But as readers, children don’t need to know if King Arthur was real or not. The lessons they take away from the stories are the same whether based on reality or 100% invented, because the tales convey ideas and principles… or simply provide a way to escape from reality for a while. From them, children (and adults) draw truth which aids in enlightening the often dark and confusing path of life. They give us hope that in the end it will all come out fine and there will be some version of Happily Ever After. Cinderella got her prince. Rapunzel was rescued. Robin Hood was pardoned and married his lady-love. There is a legend that King Arthur will return again in glory when Britain’s need is greatest.
In conclusion, I think the reason children love myths and legends so much can be summed up in the first line of the song, ‘I wandered through fiction to look for the truth’.