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“On the Supposed Unsuitability of Fairytales for Children”
J. Aleksandr Wootton
Shortly after supporting a local library event promoting fairytale literature, the folklore department at Lightfoot College received an animated communication from a very concerned mother regarding, in short, the “unsuitability of fairytales for children.”As this seems to be a rather widespread idea (I might mention the Daily Telegraph article of February 12, 2012) as well as an oddly long-lived one, I take the liberty of public response.Dear Madame,
Though you may be unaware of it, your email represents sentiments that have been argued ever since people first began to collect folklore into written volumes. As soon as the stories were set down in writing, they became frozen and lost that greatest attribute of oral storytelling: the ability of the storyteller to adapt the story to her audience. Consequently some writers, including such visionaries as Charles Perrault and Andrew Lang, have contended for permanently revising some or all fairytales to make them “more suitable” for children.
Additionally there have been, and continue to be, modernists who consider fairytales to be too “unrealistic” or nonsensical, and who have proposed or written new stories to replace them. These new stories take their settings and characters from contemporary, everyday adult life and communicate whatever values and ideas their authors believe are particularly suitable to the times.
Others — J. R. R. Tolkien and child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, for example — have disagreed with this approach. I will attempt to explain why I myself agree with the latter, and not the former. I have two primary objections.
Firstly, it seems to me that those who claim to be revising or producing stories “more suitable” to children than the old fairytales are really succeeding only in making stories more acceptable to the adults of the time, with their particular conceptions of what childhood is, or ought to be. And this seems a bit presumptuous. It ignores the reality that those adults (especially in the early days of the movement) were themselves – as well as their parents, and their parents, and every generation preceding — raised, as children, on the very same types of folklore they now propose, in their solitary wisdom, to “improve.”
Even Christians, Madame — with whom you identified yourself in your email, and among whom I hope to be numbered as well — even Christians throughout the whole world have been, for centuries, brought up on the old “pagan” folklore, without any detriment to their religion; or, if there has been a detriment, it is one that you and I and all who believe with us have inherited.
The whole contemporary world has been founded on a more or less common folklore. Popular stories disseminated just as thoroughly — though not as quickly — in the ancient world as they do in the modern.
(It is probable, for example, that the “French” story familiar to us as “Cinderella” originated in Southeast Asia. The tale we know as “Beauty and the Beast” evolved from retellings of the Greek myth about Eros and Psyche, which was probably based on older works in its turn. Both the Jews and the Tibetans tell of the Tower of Babel, or a building project quite like it. Etc.)
Therefore we must ask: What right or standard have we to criticize or reject these stories?
If the movement you represent, Madame, should ever gain the velocity necessary to escape the gravity of the old folklore, what kind of people should we expect to become?
You might justly respond, to my second question, “I don’t know,” and still say, to the first, “the right of a mother who knows her own children, and what is best for them.”
Very well; to that assertion I can make no objection. But I ask you to observe, Madame, that you cannot by that argument make any prescriptions regarding the suitability of fairytales for anyone else’s children. And I direct you to my second point.
It seems to me that the fairytale-content which provokes, in some, the desire to revise or eliminate, is a matter of the details of the stories, rather than their essential structures or themes. It is, in other words, the witches and monsters, the magic and the violence, and the most whimsical or least “natural” elements that spark the controversy, and not what the stories are actually about – not, that is to say, the essential themes or messages communicated by folklore.
For these are the messages of the old fairytales:
- Sorrow is real, and so is joy
- Joy is freely available to all, just as sorrow comes freely to all, whether rich or poor, and without regard to changes in material fortune
- The world is fraught with danger, including life-threatening danger, but by being clever (always), honest (as a rule, but with common-sense exceptions), courteous (especially to the elderly, no matter their apparent social station), and kind (to anyone who has obvious need), even a child can succeed where those who seem more qualified have failed.
I do not have any children of my own; therefore what I am about to say may be hopelessly naïve, and if so I beg you to excuse it, and me, and leave my ideas out of the discussion on those grounds. But at least until the revelation of fatherhood I expect to hold the view I am about to state. Namely:
The messages of these old fairytales are precisely those that children most need to hear.
Is it not so? Ought not children be affirmed in the deepest feelings they, along with all people, experience about life?
Ought they not be taught that material disparity exists, that fortunes do change for better and for worse, and that wealth cannot shield us from knowing sorrow any more than poverty hold us back from realizing joy – in other words, that possessions are not what matters most?
Would we not be doing a disservice to them, as well as to society, to let them go on believing that the world is safe; that they will be provided for and achieve worthwhile things even if they should remain stupid, shirk integrity, and ignore courtesy, acting only in self-interest; that they should rely on those stronger, smarter, and more able than themselves to solve their problems?
It is not the details, the fiction, of the stories that really matter; it is the stories themselves. Nobody that I know of has expressed this idea more elegantly than Neil Gaiman, in his paraphrase of G. K. Chesterton: “fairytales are better than true; not because they tell us that dragons are real, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
What better message for a child to understand from her youth? What better medium than a story?
If you can change, or re-write, all of the details of objectionable stories while preserving their essential themes, well and good. Hans Christian Anderson did both very well. But if not – best not throw out that bathwater just yet.
The story is told by means of its details, and the story should be preserved. There may well be devils in the details (in some stories there most definitely are); but we are told there are devils in the world too, walking about seeking to devour the unwary, and we may certainly hope our children will not be discovered in that group.
Therefore we come to folklore monsters and fairytale violence, which some suggest children should be sheltered from. I do not disagree that stories, and what they contain, should be revealed with discretion. Some stories are beyond the proper grasp of tiny hands, just as some books are above their reading level. But I don’t believe that children should never be afraid.
Of course it’s very inconvenient for parents when their child develops an irrational fear of the dark or of the bedroom closet. That struggle, to exert rationality against unwarranted instinct, unfounded imagination, and overblown emotion, lasts long into adulthood. To act on what we know, when what we know is contrary to how we feel, can be just as difficult for adults as for children; but such discipline, at the very core of what it is to be human, must be learned, and somebody must guide children to learn it. If we never knew fear, we have never learned to be brave in order to do what is right – and what better thing to practice and hone bravery against than an imaginary monster, in the closet or under the bed, before we are confronted by a real one?
There are other lessons, lost lessons, that might have been communicated to us through the common wisdom of past peoples, had we not given in to this instinct to revise and censor their stories. For example:
I can’t help but wonder whether, if children grew up being told how Cinderella’s evil stepsisters cut off their big toes and heels in order to fit their feet into the glass slipper in an attempt to deceive the prince’s herald (effectively trying to look like somebody else in order to become somebody else, through dishonest and self-destructive means), we would have such an epidemic of eating disorders and self-harm.
I can’t help but wonder whether, if entire generations had not forgotten the story of how “simpletons” — somebody who thought differently than everyone else, someone whose accomplishments were not easily measured by normalized standards — gained their fortunes through unusual means or by heeding shrewd advice (one even became the crown prince through a cleverly-performed, out-of-the-box comedy act that cheered up a depressed princess), we might not have gotten ourselves into our current factory-inspired, standardized-test-driven educational mess.
Once upon a time, there was a saying: “it takes a village to raise a child.” Whether that was considered so because a well-rounded child needs a diversity of perspectives to grow by, or because parenting is simply too big a job for one or two people to undertake alone, or both, you may take your pick. The fact remains that the old fairytales are the child-rearing stories rigorously selected and rigorously polished by the commonsense and everyday wisdom of a thousand thousand villages in a thousand thousand nations over a thousand thousand years.
So let us have done, Madame, with this silly notion that my fairytales are unsuitable for your children – as if it were the children who have stood the test of centuries, and need no proving. Say rather, if you must, that your children are unsuitable for my fairytales, and pray do not leave them in that sorry state for long.
J. Aleksandr Wootton