On Fairy Tales

I often think it’s interesting to look closer at the kinds of stories we think are suitable for children. It’s a great fear in our culture that if we expose children too early to images of sex and violence they’ll risk lifelong damage, and indeed, I’m not disagreeing. The closer the images are to being ‘real’ in either of these domains, the more disturbing they are, for adults and children alike. And yet, you only have to look at the genre of the fairy tale to see that the earliest stories we offer children are fraught with danger and sexual menace. The ravenous wolf in grandma’s bed, Hansel and Gretel abandoned in the woods and imprisoned, Anderson’s little Match girl, dying of poverty and hypothermia on the streets. It’s easy to see that these stories contain moral messages to children, but often less clear what those messages might be. All we can say for sure is that the fairy tale is the traditional medium for transmitting the experience of adults to the naivety of children, for imparting urgent warnings to them and encouraging them to recognize the dangers with which the world surrounds them.

Bruno Bettelheim championed fairy tales in his book, The Uses of Enchantment, which is a bit on the dry academic side, but still a very respectable and interesting study of the genre. He describes them as providing ‘great and positive psychological contributions to the child’s inner growth’. Fairy tales spoke knowingly – and more importantly symbolically – to a child’s inner conflicts, so that ‘the child feels understood and appreciated deep down – his feelings, hopes and anxieties – without these all having to be dragged up and investigated in the harsh light of a rationality that is still beyond him’. But it was also important for Bettelheim that fairy tales portray evil and conflict, for he regrets the way that ‘the dominant culture wishes to pretend, particularly to children, that the dark side of man does not exist.’ Bettelheim must surely have had in mind here the films of Walt Disney, which have produced such a sea change in the way that modern children and their parents experience fairy tales. The emphasis in our culture is very firmly on the resilience and magical problem-solving abilities of the children, the encouragement written into the tale that Bettelheim appreciates so much. But unlike the original versions in Grimm and Anderson, children are often divested of responsibility in the situations they find themselves in, and their fierce rage and fear are often sugar-coated and fantastically assuaged. In the early tales children had only their wits to fall back on, whereas it’s surprising nowadays how often they are given super powers and possibilities that their real life counterparts wouldn’t have. Mass market repackaging of fairy tales often does try to pretend that the dark side in mankind does not exist, or can at least be easily outwitted, and fairy tales nowadays are a kind of cultural shorthand for fantasies of rescue and tenacity, for a childhood world of reassurance where everything will turn out all right in the end, for thrilling adventures, for self-exploration and growth. The fun of fairy tales is nowadays emphasized rather than their more menacing underside; the emphasis is on exploration rather than victimization.

So let’s pause here to look again at the fairy tale through the alternative reading of another expert on fairy tales who rejoices in the name of Jack Zipes. Zipes is more lukewarm about Bettelheim’s redemptive appraisal of the fairy tale and keener to explore the dark side that gets overlooked. These tales are not just about understanding children and speaking to their fears; instead he wonders why it is that we so resolutely focus on the happy ending rather than the terrible trials the child must endure in its quest. Neglect, abandonment, and abuse are all intrinsic to the child’s predicament, and we prefer to treat them in retrospect as didactic tools, rather than consider them as traumatic experiences. Zipes suggests we remember that fairy tales express an adult viewpoint on family relations, and not that of a child. ‘To a certain extent,’ he argues, ‘they were told and written down to reveal the shame and guilt that adults felt over the centuries or to redress wrongs. More than anything, I believe, they reveal ambivalent feelings many parents have towards their children – their desire to abandon them, and the shame they feel when they actually abuse them.’ Fairy tales, then, become part of the strategies adults have developed to assuage or sublimate these uncomfortable feelings, part of the structure of uneasy control that asks children to take responsibility for themselves, to mistrust the world, and to rationalize the trauma of abuse. Zipes proposes that: ‘We refuse to discuss the trauma in the tales based on children’s real experiences of maltreatment because we want to believe that such trauma did not and does not exist. We want desperately to forgive the parent in us and happily resolve what can never be completely resolved’. The happy ever after ending protects the adult every bit as much as it intends to protect the child.

This may seem in itself an excessive argument, until we realize the huge extent of the power imbalance between adults and children and how easy it is for abuse to creep into the relationship. Children are born into an environment in which they are necessarily submissive because of their own utter helplessness and dependency. It is within this context that their sense of being is created, those endless daily control struggles that they fight with their parents, and which they are regularly destined to lose. Children will always give in eventually because they must be loved in order to survive; there is no other real option, and so it is all too easy to make a child submit. The responsibility that adults bear towards children is thus enormous. The power they possess over the child is already weighted so heavily in their favour, that it takes very little to turn a child into a complicit victim.

So perhaps we ought to see fairy tales as useful to both adults and children for all that quietly gets said between them through the story. Parents can apologise to them for the world that they must enter, and can warn them early on about the potential adults have to be unscrupulous, aggressive and abusive. Equally children get alerted to the responsibility they must learn to shoulder for themselves to rise above their passive condition and act in their own interests. Both are reminded of the innate strength and resilience of the child, despite its diminutive stature. But for these lessons to be learned, fairy tales need to tread a fine line; the threats must be as believable as the child’s strategies for survival. And of course that makes me wonder what those Walt Disney-ish representations of fairy tales say about our modern world. It’s certain that we have never in the history of the world been so anxious about our children’s survival, nor so dependent upon technological wizardry to get us out of all the messes we’ve got ourselves into. I don’t know what it all means, but I’m pretty sure that the job of parenting has never been so difficult, the life of children has never been so sheltered and the task of storytelling has never been so complex or so necessary.

Dear blogging friends, I’m away now on holiday for a week, back next weekend to catch you up on the reading I hope I’ll have done by then! The doors of the reading room are always open to you for browsing, or else check out the wonderful writers in the blogroll. Have a great week, look after yourselves and happy reading!

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22 thoughts on “On Fairy Tales

  1. Perhaps that is why I was so moved by Patricia A.’s McKillip’s retelling of an old tale (Tam Lin, though much of it reminded me of The Snow Queen as well). It was quite a dark tale filled with physical and verbal child abuse, rumoured adultery, murder, love, jealousy…it packed quite the wallop.

    Enjoy your holiday!

  2. “Zipes proposes that: ‘We refuse to discuss the trauma in the tales based on children’s real experiences of maltreatment because we want to believe that such trauma did not and does not exist. We want desperately to forgive the parent in us and happily resolve what can never be completely resolved’. The happy ever after ending protects the adult every bit as much as it intends to protect the child.”

    I don’t think your argument is excessive at all, but nuanced and rather brilliant. It’s thought provoking. I’m going to e-mail it to my son. Thank you, and enjoy your weekend!

  3. Imani – I do trust your recommendations – that’s another one going on the list, then! And thank you for your kind wishes! Alexis – hello and welcome to the site and thank you so much for your comment! I’ve just been over to visit you and I’m sure I’ll be back. The way you talk about your art is extremely interesting.

  4. I came across The Uses of Enchantment when I was looking for information about a novel of the same name. It looks fascinating. And what a thoughtful response to it you’ve written here.

  5. I’m thinking of Angela Carter’s fairy tales, rife with symbolism, the first stirrings of sexuality, end of innocence. Fairy tales have always been cautionary, imparting moral and behavioral lessons and, as a result, there can be dire consequences for wandering off the path…or into the woods. There’s a Charles Simic collection of prose poems I just finished reading that has a couple of amazing lines that, I think, are relevant:

    “The forest is a place in which everything your heart fears and desires lives.”

    “The father of our solitude is a child.”

    That’s why the man was the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant…

  6. Extending the discussion from fairy tales to the broader realm of fiction, I recall from childhood that titles from Lloyd Alexander, C.S. Lewis, Mark Twain and others served the same function for me then as fiction often does for me today — they were a safe realm in which to explore and (sometimes even understand) my inner stew of anxieties and uncertainty. Bettelheim has articulated this perfectly.

  7. I hate to read fairy tales as stories conveying a message: I like to consider them as plain entertainment, without the heavy political-correctedness of nowadays. In fact, I believe there are more and more children’s books that are now published with an entertainment-only storyline, without the moral undertones and politically-correct syrupy messages.

  8. Thanks for your thoughts on fairy tales – they take up a big part of my day. My children watch the sanitised Disney versions, and listen to the more gruesome Grimm originals being read to them and they swallow both up equally eagerly. Parents in many fairy tales are completely useless: Cinderella’s father didn’t do much for her, neither did Snow White’s, Hansel and Gretel’s parents are abusive in the extreme. Either way, my children are completely entranced by the idea of children being resilient and triumphing, either through their own wit or with the help of fairy godmothers, teams of dwarfs or redemptive love (which is another topic altogether – all those princes, offering happily ever after!).

    Have great holiday.

  9. I loved fairy tales as a child, although I remember being scared by the pictures in my Grimm story book and thought there were wolves under the bed waiting to get me. But the thought that they are really horrific only came to me when talking to my grandaughter about the wicked stepmother in Snow White. Definitely a thought provoking post, Litlove, especially Zipes’ view, which has never ocurred to me.

  10. Dew – It does have some really good bits, and the title is very striking. Would love to know what you make of it. Cliff – you’re spot on with Angela Carter. She was in my mind, too, as I was writing. Charles Simic is new to me, but definitely someone I now want to seek out. Those lines are marvellous. Gerry – how very interesting. I can see definite structural similarities with the Lewis and the Twain in the way they evoke and resolve peril. Thank you for that intriguing connection. Mandarine – did you ever see the novelty books that came out a few years back in which fairy tales were rewritten to be politically correct in a satirical way? The seven dwarfs all represented ethnic minorities and so on. The concept was much better than the execution, however, as the whole point was to show the way that correctness destroyed edge, bit and verve in narrative. Charlotte – oh I could do a whole new post on princesses – don’t get me started! But you’re absolutely right; children just love to watch themselves triumph (particularly over stupid adults) and I’m all for that. Booksplease – ah you see exactly what I mean! I can remember not liking that dark space under the bed, either.

  11. I have been interested in the roots of myth for a number of years. Fairy tales are just another form of myth and show many of the elements of myth. My interest is in the reality of myth and so I see real people creating these myths from remembered tales told around the cave fire. My feeling is that there is a need to remember that while “fairy tales” are told by adults, those adults were once children. So where was any postulated abuse? The story telling generation or the previous generation? Folklorist scholar D. L. Ashliman has published on this, in other scenarios, in “Incest in Indo–European Folktales,” pub. 1997. I wish I could get a full copy!

  12. Russian fairy tales are particularly gruesome, but they are also fantastic stories, full of symbolism and depth (and so worth reading as adults!) I remember one particularly from my childhood about Vasilisa the Beautiful, whose mother dies and her rather ineffectual father marries an abusive, evil woman who brings her two elder and equally nasty daughters along. Vasilisa’s life is made a misery – her only companion is a magic doll given to her by her mother. Vasilisa is made to go to the witch Baba Yaga’s hut for fire – Baba Yaga is a horrible witch, travels around in a giant mortar and pestle, her hut stands on giant chicken’s legs, and is guarded by three horsemen. Vasilisa is treated badly by the witch but manages to win using her wits and her magic doll. Eventually, she is sent home with a skull on stick. In the last, gruesome scene, the skull’s eyes burn the wicked stepmother and daughters to a crisp. Nothing sanitised there, and I can’t imagine Disney making a musical version. Thankfully.

  13. As someone who grew up on Disney fairy tales, Cinderella, Snow White, and the likes, I was shocked when I discovered that the real stories were so dark and so, well, scary. I wonder if all the Disney sugar and happy endings doesn’t also have something to with how we think childhood should be, or maybe how we as adults wish our childhoods had been?

    Have a great holiday!

  14. Very interesting post! For some time now I’ve thought about fairly tales as just forms of folk tales and/or myths as archiearchive notes, which means I don’t think of them as stories only for children, and I’m sure they weren’t meant to be children’s stories when they were first told. My guess is that people didn’t make such huge distinctions between adults and children. Stories were told for everyone’s benefits: some meant to teach lessons, some purely for entertainment, much as they are written today. And, of course, many theorize that they’re full of sexual symbolism. What I’d like to know is when we decided fairy tales were stories for children and not for adults. And I’m with Bettelheim: I believe they’re important, and I’m not one who thinks fairy tales should be “sensored,” as some parents I know do (I have a friend who didn’t want her child exposed to Little Red Riding Hood and the notion of a wolf eating a child and asked me not to tell fairy tales when I was babysitting. Maybe I’m wrong to think this way, but I found that very sad). I believe too strongly in Jungian psychology for that, and my experience with children is that if you pay attention to them, they are very good little sensors themselves. If something disturbs them too much, they will choose not to watch/read/listen, etc. to it. The key is paying attention to them and not pushing something on them when they are obviously disturbed by it. Storytelling should be fun, not traumatic. I haven’t ever heard Zipes’s theories till now, so not sure what I think and will have to chew on that a bit, but I absolutely agree with you about the task of parenting today and storytelling being so necessary (unfortunately, my fear is that children aren’t being told enough stories these days, as they’re shuttled around from one activity to another).

  15. Fairy tales are meant to guide young minds in an entertaining manner not forcing them to grow old but letting them realize the realities of those fairy tales as they grow up. It is meant to inspire young minds and mold them with good values. But then, the fairy tale story teller is the top influencer to young, innocent minds who are ready to absorb anything that sparks interest to them.

  16. A really interesting article. I had great fun a year or so ago wading through Bettelheim, shouting “Yeah!” a lot, and occasionally, “No!” I’m off to try to decide which Zipes book to read first, now. May I throw in another thought on the Grimms v. Disney style? The Grimms tales were hand-me-down distillations, so probably closer to what most people want and need. The Disney versions were one person’s work with one aim in mind, so don’t have so much human ‘applicability’, as JRRT would have termed it.

    Great blog, end to end – off to read some more of it now.

  17. Pingback: The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim « Jenny's Books

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