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!