Once upon a time, in small cottage in Mountain Village, there lived two little girls who loved princesses….
Fairy tales seem to be the substance of my children’s current cerebral existence. Our weekly trips to the library procure stacks of stories about helpless princesses, evil witches and wicked step-families, all embroiled in good-versus-evil struggles that usually find the brave and strong swooping down to rescue the beautiful and meek from the clutches of the malevolent. There is always some violent struggle in which the villain comes to some unsavory end – like my personal favorite, when Gretel pushes the witch into the oven.
The thematic underpinnings of these classic tales certainly convey questionable morals: Foolish girls are saved by handsome princes, violence is required to overcome evil, and wishes always come true.
These storybook legends have shaped children’s worldviews for generations, and even with their kinder and gentler, Disneyfied permutations, are far from “politically correct.”
So when my girls and I settle in to read our most recent fairy tale, I do so with an air of wary acquiescence.
A recent study by a British TV channel found that many parents have in fact stopped reading fairy tales to their young children, either because they’re too scary or foster sexist and classist premises. And that study was referring to the modern versions of classic folk tales! Original versions of Cinderella, Snow White and The Little Mermaid seem grossly inappropriate for small children of any era: In the Brothers Grimm version of Cinderella, the nasty stepsisters cut off parts of their own feet in order to fit them into the glass slipper, and birds eventually peck out their eyes.
Hans Christian Andersen’s original version of The Little Mermaid ends with the mermaid witnessing the prince’s marriage to a human princess, and in despair, she jumps into the sea and dies by turning to froth.
Snow White’s evil queen is forced to dance herself to death wearing red-hot iron shoes, and Hansel and Gretel’s father abandons them in a forest to starve (but for some reason, only their stepmother is portrayed as the bad guy).
Analyzing the foundations of these tales begs the question: Are these stories really suitable for children? And if not, why do they carry on as children’s most beloved legends?
The work of Maria Tatar, a professor at Harvard University who writes about and teaches classes on fairy tales, offered some enlightenment on why children love fairy tales, and why – even if they are unsavory – we continue to share them with our kids. “Fairy tales have a real role in liberating the imagination of children. No matter how violent they are, the protagonist always survives,” she writes.
As she explains, fairy tales emerged from an oral tradition, passed down through generations by retellings long before being inscribed on paper. Thus, as she suggests, we should never consider there to be an “original” version of any fairy tale, since the basis of these stories is merely a reflection of the world and time in which they were shared. When the Brothers Grimm were compiling folklores, for example, the world was a more dark and dangerous place; the stories from that time were thus merely reflections of that era.
Children are drawn to such stories because they have the ability to excite the imagination while simultaneously exploring the darker corridors of human existence. “The tales not only have this magical, glittery sparkle, but also a dark, horrific side that stages our deepest anxieties and fears,” Tatar explains.
Children, even at their youngest age, crave knowledge about adult matters: We talk about violence, unrest, and death in hushed tones around our kids, because we don’t believe they are appropriate subjects for a child’s impressionable mind. We want to protect them from the grim realities of life. But as any parent knows, children are smarter than we give them credit for, and wildly curious to boot – possessing a strong desire to seek out the knowledge adults try to keep from them.
The well-known writer and child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim believed fairy tales are important to children’s development because the main characters, many of them children themselves, are clever and brave and possess the ability to triumph over adversity in a world of giants and cruel adults.
“They work through so many personal and cultural anxieties, yet they do it in a safe, ‘once upon a time’ way,” he says.
Perhaps Tatar and Bettelheim’s assertions about why fairy tales are OK merely serve as convenient justifications for my wary acceptance of my kids’ insatiable desire for stories starring princesses and evil stepmothers. But maybe those unwholesome, politically incorrect components really are preparing my girls for the real world – where both good and evil really do exist.