An acquaintance believes that children should not be exposed to fairy tales—ever—because they are too scary. I so heartily disagree that I thought the subject worth pursuing here. These stories are as much a preparation toward independent survival as their playtime mimicking adult activities.
Yes, fairy tales have “scary” moments: the father abandons his children [Hansel and Gretel]. A predator attacks an unescorted little girl [Little Red Riding Hood]. A bully destroys siblings’ homes [Three Little Pigs]. The more powerful takes livelihood from poverty-stricken family [Jack and the Beanstalk]. But wait! Didn’t I just read that in yesterday’s newspaper? Didn’t I see that on last night’s television news? News flash: those kids seemingly busy on their computer games heard and saw that, too. Now that’s scary.
Fairy and folktales are no more than harsh reality in costume. They take the chaos that is life, buffer it with disguises, and demonstrate that sometimes the good guys win. Children who miss out on fairy tales and folk-lore may be cheated out of something vital to growing up, however well-intentioned the omission is. Fantasy not only stretches our imaginations [the forerunner of all invention] but nourishes our souls in a positive way. Watch children at play. They grab the nearest block or stick and pretend it is a gun. Take that away, and they still have their pointer finger, and they will aim and fire. They play out their fears the same way they play out being grownups with their toy lawnmowers and vacuums, still popular items at gift time. They rock their baby dolls, playing parents. I don’t see many wanting toy briefcases. Fairy tales develop the full array of emotions like empathy, tolerance, and a sense of right and wrong.
Most of us know the difference between fantasy and reality by age six. That stick figure your kids must do to pass from kindergarten into first grade is a Gestalt test for that. It’ll tell you a lot more than that, actually.
I am certainly not knocking non-fiction. I read and write it. It a great source for information, and, if done well, for entertainment. Non-fiction deals with THE TRUTH, facts about the world we live in, facts about the people who are part of our history, and the ugly side of our world that needs us to change it. TRUTH is why I entered the newspaper business in my youth. Caring about the “why” in the “who, what, when, where, and why” is the reason I turned to writing fiction.
THE TRUTH VS. A TRUTH
We should not confuse “THE TRUTH” with “A TRUTH.” THE truth is often harsh and didactic: People, even children, die every day; bad stuff happens to good people; some people are brutally selfish; and bullies win at least temporarily. I have read picture books that had no purpose but to send readers on guilt trips. Most fortunately end up in a recycle bin. Pretending terrible things don’t happen every day is a fantasy world I have yet to live in. Luck is served on a platter to a privileged few in real life. It is also true that things work out for us sometimes if we find the right proportion of optimism, faith, and action. That is A TRUTH: Pride goes before the fall; evil is its own enemy, etc. Some of those original tales really are harsh, even brutal.
Peruse through an original collection of fairy tales, and you’ll find a homeless orphan freezing to death and any number of unspeakable horrors, basically the same sort of horrors we see thumbing through the current newspapers or browsing the web or television. Fairy tales and folk tales didn’t invent scary. They merely dressed up the innocent in a tiara and ermine and turned the predators into dragons and ogres. The good and evil battle it out in a place far away across time. It is a safe place, with an emotional draw bridge controlled by the young readers. “Once upon a time” is a safety net because it reassures the reader that it was long ago and the danger is past. Fairy tales are where we work out our fears and gain confidence in our strengths and abilities to face today’s versions. We know if it is too much to handle we can simply close the book. It is controlled chaos.
I can imagine that is how and why fairy tales and folktales came to be. Tales probably came about on those harsh winters were huddled near the fireplace, the men mended their tools of trade and the women mended clothes. They probably entertained the restless children with the cautionary tales they once heard and adapted with their own versions. These tales were oral and fluid and changed with the storyteller and the occasion. They became “classics” only when they were committed to print.
HARSH REALITIES IN COSTUME
Take Little Red Riding Hood. It was and is a cautionary tale about befriending predators. [The wolf is always portrayed on two feet and in human clothes]. Put it in modern clothes on city streets as one publisher did, and it is still cautionary, but it is a terrifying read for even adults without altering a single original word; I can’t imagine putting it into the hands of a child. Yet the “once upon a time” in period costume reads the same with the same lesson but less threat. Many contemporary authors have revised it with humor, setting it in the west or in swamp country and even letting the wolf tell his own version of what happened. The old fairytales are once again fluid and adaptable to their audiences.
Yet they speak to contemporary children as they spoke to children decades ago. Kids then knew what kids know today: there is wickedness in the world. They know that their survival and ability to thrive depends on the more powerful, bigger people in their lives and sometimes on their own cleverness and ingenuity. They can make you a list of the unfairness in their lives, and not all of it is life or death situations: Tim gets picked on by Bobby and pushes back, and Mom punishes them both. A parent murders the family and the newspaper runs a smiling family portrait with the story. If we write these stories with contemporary settings, even if justice eventually prevails, I’m not sure they are as comforting as those old tales–certainly not for the younger children who know the injustices but haven’t the life experiences that we have with which to cope. But dress the scary up in royal robes, put a crown on their heads, and turn that grownup into a dragon or witch [see any psychology book on dreams] and kids get a safer version. They see the parallels with the Emperor’s New Clothes and today’s public reactions to just about everything.
In the story of Hansel and Gretel, the weak father deserts his children to fend for themselves. Hansel and Gretel is about abandonment and child abuse by parent and predator. Their wooden shoes and costumes are like a gossamer curtain that separates the readers from the harsh reality, yet the essence of the triumph over brutality remains. It is about kids using their noggins to get out of trouble. And it is about remorse [the father’s] and forgiveness [the kids’]. And it gives emotional satisfaction that the wicked get punished, even when they don’t always see that in today’s world. Sometimes it’s hope and faith that gets us through dark days of reality.
Jack in the Beanstalk is about righting an injustice [although I admit vigilantism is not the best example]. Jack redeems himself in his mother’s eyes when she thinks he is stupid for trading a milk-producing cow for a few beans. He defeats the giant [the bully who took his belongings] and brings home the goose that lays the golden eggs. Readers will take with them only what they can handle at the time: find the bully’s weakness and he can be defeated. All of these stories open up opportunity to discuss the rights and wrongs and let the reader think about what he would do in that situation.
The story of the three little pigs is a lesson in family dynamics as well as a subtle story of the industrial revolution and wise planning. Sibling rivalry is apparent, but when an outsider threatens the family unit, the family bands together. Then there’s the other more practical thread of building with sturdy materials, planning ahead and setting aside instant gratification to find a permanent solution worth waiting for. It is unfortunate that step mothers and wolves have gotten a bad rap in some of these. And most unfortunate that somehow ugly behavior is equated with physical ugliness. Contemporary writers can correct this in retellings. Why must Cinderella’s step-sisters be physically ugly? It sends the message that homely people, even physically infirmed, are not to be trusted. We writers have much to be aware of in our retellings.
Remove the costumes and the faraway settings, and you have today’s headlines of depravity and extreme cruelty. THAT’S scary. The happy ending could be months, even years away. Justice in fairy tales is swift and for the most part satisfactory.
The original “The Lucky Man” is a tale of sibling rivalry on steroids. The powerful brother comes off even more powerful and the hapless brother seeking legal relief is accidentally killed in the end. I found it in one of the rainbow fairy tale books. To give it a more hopeful spin I backed the story up one scene, wrote an alternative final scene, and justice prevailed. It was the essence of the original but with a more contemporary solution. And far more satisfying, I might add.
We writers can take a lesson from these stories of old and their application to current events. We can take any of the frightening realities of today, and then put them in the land far away and long ago or into the future in a space fantasy. A good story, no matter if it takes place inside a snow globe, tree house, or an undersea world, if good and evil are locked in a battle for dominance, will catch our readers’ interests.
READ BEFORE YOU WRITE
If you are a writer for children, or if you are a concerned parent I recommend reading THE USES OF ENCHANTMENT: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by Bruno Bettelheim; SHADOW and EVIL in FAIRY TALES by Marie-Louise von Franz; and THE WITCH MUST DIE: The Hidden Meaning Of Fairy Tales by Sheldon Cashdan.
By definition, fairy tales are those with imaginary creatures and beings and fanciful events where magic can happen. Folk tales are often cautionary tales and explanations of puzzling things [why there are birds of different feathers; why the sky rains, etc.] Even if the sky is green and the grass grows blue or anything else you can dream up, these magical lands have their own realities. Just as Achilles had his vulnerable heel, these gentle folk cannot solve their problems with a swish of the magic wand. They, like us, must use their ingenuity. Therein is the triumph.
If you intend to write your own version of a familiar tale do the research. Trace it back to the original version and make sure that your own twists and turns to it are not taken from a version still in copyright. [Modern copyrights don’t expire until fifty years after the author’s demise.] There are parallels to contemporary life. When you recognize that you are well on your way to your own version.
Yes, they are a little scary for those brief moments. The heart beat quickens and we wonder, will the witch eat her little brother? Will the princess die? But those magic words, once upon a time, have already signaled to us that there is no real danger. We learn empathy for others in The Little Match Girl. We learn a sense of justice, of right and wrong and safely observe the consequences of actions. We learn that tomorrow has promise, and that even the meek can win. And folk and fairy tales certainly nurture imaginations. I have never known a writer [and I recently polled all those in my acquaintance] who didn’t grow up with fairytales as an important part of their early childhoods. They are as basic to writers as learning scales and sonatas are to musicians.
OGRES EXIST IN THE REAL WORLD, TOO
Fairy tales may use dragons, ogres and anthropomorphized animals of your choice. They allow the child to vicariously control chaos in a safe environment. Those flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz terrified my little daughter, but she never missed an airing as long as she could safely sit in my lap. I wonder how she could have faced life’s challenges head on and triumphed if I had denied her that practice run. The ogres may have taken on human form, but they are still in our lives. So is the will to overcome them. If they are too scary, why do they want the stories read over and over?
Children play dolls, mimicking what they observe in us as parents; they turn their hands into pistols in an effort to mirror life they see on the news, working through the problems they observe in a grownup world, the world of giants. With their stories, they step into the space suit or wear the crowns of royalty, but they are vicariously solving the same problems: self-doubts, advisories, and nature. Perhaps somewhere back in that supra-conscious level they remember that once upon a time in a land far away they tamed an ogre, and they find the courage to do it again. Release the dragons; we’re ready!