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The Importance of Being Scared: Polish Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska on Fairy Tales and the Necessity of Fear

The Importance of Being Scared: Polish Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska on Fairy Tales and the Necessity of Fear

“If you want your children to be intelligent,” Einstein is credited with proclaiming, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” Intelligence, of course, is a loose grab-bag term that encompasses multiple manifestations, but the insight attributed to Einstein applies most unequivocally to the ninth of developmental psychologist Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences: existential intelligence. Fairy tales — the proper kind, those original Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen tales I recall from my Eastern European childhood, unsanitized by censorship and unsweetened by American retellings — affirm what children intuitively know to be true but are gradually taught to forget, then to dread: that the terrible and the terrific spring from the same source, and that what grants life its beauty and magic is not the absence of terror and tumult but the grace and elegance with which we navigate the gauntlet.

Art by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. (Available as a print.)

This notion was at the heart of J.R.R. Tolkien view of the psychology of fairy tales. Nearly a century later when, in retelling Hansel and Gretel, Neil Gaiman asserted that “if you are protected from dark things then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up.”

The great Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska (July 2, 1923–February 1, 2012) makes a wonderfully spirited case for the developmental gift of frightfulness in Nonrequired Reading (public library) — that magnificent prose collection of her responses to and riffs on books she devoured during one voracious reading binge in the 1970s, which also gave us her meditations on what books do for the human spirit and how the prospect of cosmic solitude can enlarge our humanity.

Wisława Szymborska

In a piece titled “The Importance of Being Scared” — a reflection on the first edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, which revolutionized storytelling — Szymborska writes:

Children like being frightened by fairy tales. They have an inborn need to experience powerful emotions. Andersen scared children, but I’m certain that none of them held it against him, not even after they grew up. His marvelous tales abound in indubitably supernatural beings, not to mention talking animals and loquacious buckets. Not everyone in this brotherhood is harmless and well-disposed. The character who turns up most often is death, an implacable individual who steals unexpectedly into the very heart of happiness and carries off the best, the most beloved. Andersen took children seriously. He speaks to them not only about life’s joyous adventures, but about its woes, its miseries, its often undeserved defeats. His fairy tales, peopled with fantastic creatures, are more realistic than whole tons of today’s stories for children, which fret about verisimilitude and avoid wonders like the plague. Andersen had the courage to write stories with unhappy endings. He didn’t believe that you should try to be good because it pays (as today’s moral tales insistently advertise, though it doesn’t necessarily turn out that way in real life), but because evil stems from intellectual and emotional stuntedness and is the one form of poverty that should be shunned.

1924 illustration by Kay Nielsen for ‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier’ by Hans Christian Andersen

Complement this particular fragment of the thoroughly terrific Nonrequired Reading with Neil Gaiman on the allure of scary stories, Flannery O’Connor on why the grotesque appeals to us, and the most beautiful illustrations from 200 years of Brothers Grimm fairy tales, then revisit Amanda Palmer’s enchanting readings of Szymborska’s poems “Possibilities” and “Life While-You-Wait.”

Published April 22, 2016




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