View From The Glen

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Fairy Tales

Do you tell your kids fairy tales? The real ones I mean. Not the ones where the three little pigs and the big bad wolf make friends and go on a picnic with Little Red Riding Hood, but the ones where bad stuff happens, where evil lurks, where loss and heartbreak and death and dismemberment exist side-by-side with courage, pluck, resourcefulness, kindness, helpful woodland creatures, and yes, happy endings.

I have never shied away from these tales – we tell them to each other in the car on long trips, at bedtime, whenever a story is needed but no book is present. We mix the Brothers Grimm with Hans Christian Anderson and throw in Greek mythology or Aesop for good measure. And what I only half recall, I make up, but always remembering what I think are the big important must-haves of fairy tales:
  • They must be entertaining
  • They must include unpleasantness
  • They must have happy endings
There’s a lot I have to say about this. But I’ll stick to a few key points.
  • The wolf is the Big Bad Wolf, not the poor misunderstood wolf whom, in the name of inclusiveness, we must rehabilitate
  • The evil witch is truly evil. She really wants to eat Hansel and Gretel and it is their ingenuity that saves the day, not her latent morality kicking in repentantly
  • Death is often final. And ugly. And children are not immune to tragedy just because they are children.
It strikes me that we water down these stories (c’mon, you know it happens) at our peril. To me, fairy tales are an important rite of passage for kids. They snuggle up safely with Mom or Dad and experience the thrills and chills of these age-old stories. Through them they are exposed to a world that isn’t all pleasant, that is full of obstacles to overcome and hardships that need to be faced. They are able to put a face on evil, to personify it and understand that it exists in the world, that it’s real, and most importantly of all, to believe that we all have within us the power to defeat it and triumph.

We sugar coat so much of our children’s experiences. And then one day they learn to read and pick up a paper and learn the hard way just how scary the real world can be. Fairy tales can be a bridge between innocence and reality, allowing safe exploration of the good and bad that makes up human existence in all corners of the world. We often make up our own endings now – Little Red might use a well timed karate kada to help the woodman take down the wolf – because the kids have internalized an important truth: that they if they know their own strengths, they can succeed.

Little Red sorted out the wolf, learned a valuable lesson in who to trust along the way, and lived happily ever after.

Hansel and Gretel stood up for themselves, teamed up to outwit the witch, showed great resilience, and lived happily ever after.

Snow White broke free of the evil queen, let go of the issues holding her back, and lived happily ever after (well, apart from her prince’s predilection for singing which, though charming at first, got really annoying in later years).

Fairy Tales aren’t perfect. Life isn’t perfect. But both are adventures. That’s a message I can live with.


Finola said...

I'm guilty of watering down stories and avoiding scary stuff. Fairy tales were a huge part of my growing up because my Mom loved them. I also remember being quite fearful as a kid going to sleep at night, and I always thought maybe the stories with evil witches etc could have been a reason for that.
As a parent I enjoy reading the kinder and gentler stories to my girls rather than the scarier stories.

But I think you make a really good point about the transition of children finding out about the real world. My 8yo is now reading the headlines in the newspaper and maybe I have missed a way of introducing some of the awfulness that there is in the world. You have got me thinking....

Capital Mom said...

I think a lto about fairy tales. We tell them to the kids. We tell the 3 little piggies, Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks. I like these because there is a message in them (often listen to your mom! :-). I will have to tell Hansel and Gretel too. I thik the girl will like that one.

I don't tell the princess fairy tales. I think they are more damaging them stories about little girls being eaten by wolves.

Denise Nielsen said...

Finola; I was terrified about the Wolf (from the Wolf and the Seven Kids) for years. My dad reassured me that wolves lived in a country far far away in Canada - and then when I was 12, we moved here. Talk about facing your fears!

Capital Mom, I tend to agree with you about princess fairy tales being more damaging that being eaten by wolves. I read them, but my kids in general prefer the gorier tales which suits me. LOL love the message - listen to your mom. Now that's a good one to instill:)

Leanne Haines said...

We love fairy tales, and I don't water them down. Although, Janelle tends to do that herself. Snow White is her favourite, and I had bought her the DVD for Christmas, she noticed it in the store with me one day. She stated very strongly "I don't want that movie". While I made a mental note to return the DVD I had already bought, I asked why and she responded "I don't like that witch". I agreed with her, remembering how terrified I was of "that witch" as a kid. But I wondered how it could be her favourite story if she didn't like the witch? "Oh, MY Snow White doesn't have the scary witch", Janelle told me. I told her she would have to write down her version and maybe other little girls would like it better, too.

As for Connor, he doesn't like it if you call it a "fairy tale", but anything with dragons and giants and trolls is right up his alley.

Of course, you knew I love fairy tales, didn't you?

Jana said...

I wonder about fairy tales and kids. It's very interesting the way they've changed over time. The Grimm's fairy tales are really intense, dark, scary. We don't tell them anymore. The issue I have more often is the man who saves the woman. If we could change that, I'd be happier sharing them.

Anonymous said...

I totally just put out a book that is a series of fairy tales that tell one whole story and it is a balancing act. You want the darkness but not for it to overpower the story. Fairy tales are the grandfathers of the modern horror film and so we want scares, we want danger, and we hope, hope, hope for a happy ending but fear the worst.
We love them because they are dangerous.
We remember them because they can end happily ever after.

- Chris Ringler

Bluestocking said...

Great post! I loved fairy tales growing up and consumed them in vast quantities. When I was old enough to realize many of the versions I had enjoyed growing up were abridged or adaptations, I felt a bit cheated. I still like to see current adaptations of fairy tales and myths, but only if they don't shy away from the heavy issues.