East of the Sun West of the Moon – resources for teaching children about symbolism in fairy tales

Ell-Nosed Princess
The Ell-Nosed Princess, from P J Lynch’s illustrations for East of the Sun West of the Moon

The Power of Reading sequence for East of the Sun West of the Moon treats it to some extent like it does its other literary texts.  For example, it asks the class to examine the characters of the protagonists (Session 3), with a focus on the portrayal of the heroine (Session 5).

But of course – as the sequence acknowledges – fairy tales ‘preserve key features of an oral storytelling tradition’ and are quite different from literary texts in important ways.

From the blog ‘Fairy Tale of the Month’:

The literary writer spends 80,000—90,000—100,000 words to get the reader to see, hear and feel what the author wants the reader to sense and understand. Characters need to be developed: have names, have clear motives, and follow long, logical, exciting, interesting progressions. The reader is allowed into the heads of the characters and experiences the progressions with them.  Fairy tales are short, compact, and sketchy on details. We never get inside the hero or heroine’s head; we may not even know their names. We see them on the surface. Motivations and logic are optional…

…If we are to measure the fairy tale as an artistic form—not that it cares—we would do better to use the terms we use to describe paintings. What are the images? What does it say to us? What is the atmosphere of the work? What memories does it evoke? What is the impression it leaves behind?

The sequence goes some way to acknowledging this by suggesting a focus on ‘how elements of northern folk tales are conveyed through pictures and language’ in Session 4: Looking closely at pictures.  In the notes for this session it directs the teacher and class to ‘note what the pictures show that the words don’t’.

However, this isn’t quite the point that the quotation above is making: for the reader to respond with feeling to the story, rather than to the pictures that go with the story.  In this case, would the writing of a poem be the best way for a class to end this unit?

It is worth saying that the sequence does not explicitly build towards a final piece of writing.  The last session, Session 10, is called ‘Devising a quest story’ and suggests that any plans devised ‘could be continued as piece of extended writing’.  This seems to be an implicit acknowledgment that the real power of fairy tales is in the reading of them rather than the writing.

Whether you choose to end the sequence with the writing of a poem or a fairy tale, it is an opportunity to introduce pupils to the idea that characters, both animal and human, can represent human qualities and fates.  As Nikki Gamble says in her chapter on Traditional Tales and Fairy Tales in ‘Exploring Children’s Literature’:

..characters in folk tales are archetypal, representing ideas rather than attempts at realistic characteristics.

You can use the PowerPoint here to demonstrate this as a starting point for writing a poem or a retelling along these lines.  Before using it, Year 6 children and even more so Year 5, will need parallel input on symbols and symbolism.

I used this essay by a Jungian psychologist Dr Stephen A Martin for this PowerPoint (which is copyrighted).

Author: writing1to6

Ex-Literacy Lead, Ex-EAL teacher, Ex-Writing Intervention teacher, currently PPA-teacher. Picture book nerd.