Jan 19, 2008

Touch Magic by Jane Yolen

Norwegian Folktales by Asbjornsen and Moe

Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie and Folklore in the Literature of Childhood is a collection of essays by author Jane Yolen, about how important traditional and imaginative stories are for children, and why.

I picked up this book because, after having to spend days reading The Routledge History of Literature in English, a book that, interesting though it may be, dismisses authors like Lewis Carroll, J.M. Barrie, or Tolkien with a sentence or two, and treats movements like the Celtic Twilight, the Pre-Raphaelities or the Kailyard school like embarrassing and uncomfortable little stains in history's otherwise neat tuxedo, I needed a breath of fresh air.

Even the critics and scholars themselves know that the formation of literary cannons has everything to do with intellectual trends, and very little to do with actual literary merit. Fantastic fiction has been out of fashion for over a century now. The attacks it suffers now were already being made in the nineteenth and early twentieth century—causing G. K. Chesterton to write his famous essay on fairy tales. They were being made in the time of Tolkien, who also tried to set the record straight with the wonderful essay "On Fairy Stories". The dismissal of fairy tales, myths and fantastic fiction as "sentimental" or "merely escapist" is nothing new. Jane Yolen's book is one more attempt to show how these labels don't do these stories any sort of justice—and how the loss of traditional stories may have real consequences for contemporary children.

In the book’s opening essay, “How Basic is Shazam?”, Jane Yolen gives four reasons why fantasy, mythology and folk and fairy tales are important for children. First of all, she says, myths and traditional stories are deeply ingrained in our culture, and, if children grow up without them, there is a whole range of cultural references whose meaning they will not be able to appreciate. They will lose a common heritage that is a fundamental part of what it is to be human. Secondly, knowing the myths and folktales of another culture is a way of getting to know it better, of looking at it from the inside. Thirdly, stories provide us metaphorical tools with which to deal with reality, and in doing so they help us heal. And finally, the symbolic language of stories can often help us understand ourselves better.

This is, of course, just a very basic summary. Jane Yolen’s essay explains these points in great detail. The tone of these essays is extremely intelligent, but also conversational. You get the feeling you are in the presence of someone who is wise and knowledgeable, but also very approachable and warm. Jane Yolen uses examples from her own experience as a mother and as a storyteller to illustrate her points, often to poignant effects—like the story of how the Grimm’s fairy tale “The Goose Girl” helped her young son deal with the family cat’s brutal death.

Two of my favourite essays in the book were “Fabling to the Near Night” and “Killing the Other”. In the first, Jane Yolen examines the scarcely disguised prejudice that can be found in the work of beloved children’s authors like Roald Dahl or E. Nesbit. In the second, she examines the questionable morals of such fairy tales as “Puss in Books”, that seem to tell children that it’s okay to kill Ogres just because they are ugly and different from the rest of us. I loved these essays because Jane Yolen doesn’t say These Stories Are Bad and Children Shouldn’t Read Them. She also doesn’t say that these issues should be ignored. People fall into one of these extremes much too often, but her approach is more complex. These are books and tales that she loved as a child herself, and she is aware of their power and charm. Things like thinly veiled anti-Semitism or racism in the work of an author are often a product of the time it was written in. The same applies to faerie tales—although their original authors can often not be traced, there is a historical context in which the versions we know today were cemented. Understanding the context is not a way of excusing these issues, but it gives parents and children a departure point from which to discuss these things. In the words of Jane Yolen:
Again, what I am suggesting is not to ban or censor the stories. They are great and important parts of the Western folk canon. But what I am asking for is that we become better readers. That we read below the surface. That we teach our children to think about what Puss does for his master, why Rumplestiltskin is destroyed, how Rapunzel treats her mother-substitute (…). There are many layers inside the old tales, like nesting Matrushka dolls. Examining the layers does not wreck the story, but shows us how rich and fascinating they really are.
This is an important book. It’s important for parents, important for teachers, important for lovers of folk and fairy tales who are tired of being looked down on for their love. It’s a book that unashamedly says what is no longer fashionable to say: Faerie stories are important. We need them.

I will leave you with some more memorable passages.
The magical story is not a microscope but a mirror, not a drop of water but a well. It is not simply one thing or two, but a multitude. It is at once lucid and opaque, it accepts both dark and light, speaks to youth and old age.

The tales of Elfland do not stand or fall on their actuality but on their truthfulness, their speaking to the human condition, the longings we all have for the Faerie Other. Those are the tales that touch our longing for the better, brighter world; our shared myths, our shaped dreams. The fears and longings within each of us that helped us create Heaven and Elysium, Valhalla and Tir nan og.

This is the stuff that dreams are made of. Not the smaller dreams that you and I have each night, rehearsals of things to come, anticipation or dread turned into murky symbols, pastiches of traumas just passed. These are the larger dreams of humankind, a patchwork of all the smaller dreams stitched together by time.


  1. I've just started a class on Tolkein and C. S. Lewis. In the first session, we talked about some of these very ideas. I'll have to get my hands on a copy of this book. It sounds good and may help me in the class.

  2. Sold! My favourite stories growing up were the ones my mum used to tell from memory about the Greek myths and King Arthur and his Knights (I think my favourite was Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). Fantasy is definitely big with younger people at the moment, partly because of huge series like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials which I hope continues. I know when I have children I will be telling them folk, fairy and mythology tales from a young age and hopefully starting to look at the deeper meanings.

  3. This sounds like a very interesting read. I'll be looking to find it.


  4. This does sound like an important book for me to read as a teacher of young children. Thanks for the review.

  5. This sounds like a fantastic book. I have always loved Jane Yolen and been enthralled by fantasy stories. I'm eager to read this book; thanks for the review.

  6. Lisa: That sounds like a fascinating class! And yes, this book would probably be helpful. It also has a very useful list of suggestions for further reading at the end.

    Rhinoa: You're right, fantasy is becoming more popular once again. This book is pre-Harry Potter, so it doesn't take that into account. Fantasy is still frowned upon in some circles, but that's something that sadly will probably never change. Anyway, I have no doubt that your children will grow up surrounded by wonderful stories! One of the things I am most grateful to my parents for is them having given me a beautifully illustrated book of Greek Myths when I was little. It sounds like a small thing, but that one book shaped the person I became.

    CJ: I hope you enjoy it when you get to it!

    Robin: I think you already know all the things this book has to say, but you'd probably enjoy it anyway!

    Jeane: You're welcome! I love Jane Yolen too!

  7. I'm definitely going to be reading this! You totally rock:)

  8. Robin Marie: Aw, thank you :) I hope you enjoy the book!

  9. I love this book! I got it from the library years ago, and then not too long ago I picked up a used copy for 50 cents! Who could resist? Sounds like a good candidate for a reread at some point - it's been a long time.

  10. Darla: I had a feeling you'd be familiar with this one. A used copy for 50 cents, what a find!


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