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    illustration of Hansel and Gretel and a witch

    The Case for Not Sanitizing Fairy Tales

    Fairy tales are the best way for children to learn that the world contains evil, violence, and danger.

    By Haley Stewart

    June 17, 2024
    • Grant Barber +

      No matter how often you reassert the premise that kids need the unadulterated versions of fairy tales, I'm stuck on the images of Cinderella's step-sisters and their bloody feet, the Little Mermaid facing either death or becoming a murderer. Are we really talking about those images as saluatory no matter what comes next? I'm imagining Jesus portraying The Prodigal Son stumbling home with syphilitic, eyes sunken, hair coming out in patches, teeth falling out from malnutrition. Or Sunday School dioramas of the animals exiting the ark walking past bloated, reeking corpses of people and animals left by the receding ocean. Or the children doing a little skit for the whole church during which the ark has been sealed up and children outside act out drowning. Because, you know, that's the cold truth. I still recall the horrible time I had going to sleep as a seven yr old after watching the Wicked Witch of the West. I'm picturing a group of kids to walk to school, past storm drains. The day after watching a murderous clown reaching out to drag a kid into the wet underground. Archetypes aplenty there. I affirm communicating to kids at age appropriate part dictated by their developing capacities to take the lessons on board...of Truth, Mystery, meaning out of the seeming chaos of the world surrounding us. I do not believe the author makes her case that the original stories gathered and published in 1812 ought to be treated as some sort of quasi-sacred texts. I believe that kids of 2024 get enough to be anxious about.

    • Linda wilson

      This is wonderful. I agree that fairy tales are important. I designed an online course on fairy tales connecting them to “high culture.” Brunhilde and Siegfried in Wagner’s “Ring” is a Sleeping Beauty story. “Romeo and Juliet is a “Sleeping Beauty” story that goes off the rails. Juliet is kissed by Romeo but doesn’t wake up until after Romeo Kills himself, a lesson in patience perhaps. “The Firebird”, “Swan Lake (“Beauty and the Beast”)” “The Magic Flute” are all fairy tales. Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale” is a “”Sleeping Beauty” story, “The Tempest” a ‘Sorcerer’s apprentice” story. “Cyrano de Bergerac” is a kind of “Beaty and the Beast” story. The course tries to point out how embedded in our culture fairy tales are. But parents won’t enroll their students in the course because they see fairy tales and assume the course is something childish (the course is for high school students). Fairy tales do get a bad rap. Maria Tatar in “The Heroine with a Thousand Faces” takes on Joseph Campbell’s definition of the hero as always a male. Tatar writes in her introduction: JOSEPH CAMPBELL wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces while teaching at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. His classes on comparative mythology at the then all-women’s school were in such high demand that he was soon obliged to limit enrollment to seniors. During his last year of teaching there, one of those seniors walked into his office, sat down, and said: “Well, Mr. Campbell, you’ve been talking about the hero. But what about the women?” The startled professor raised his eyebrows and replied, “The woman’s the mother of the hero; she’s the goal of the hero’s achieving; she’s the protectress of the hero; she is this, she is that. What more do you want?” “I want to be the hero,” she announced. Thanks for this. John Wilson, Jr.

    • Henry Lewis

      This is fantastic. I think you are on to something essential and true. Thank you for writing this.

    During Flannery O’Connor’s childhood, the future author had a creative way of weeding out any unsatisfactory playmates who had been chosen by her mother as respectable society. O’Connor would read Grimms’ Fairy Tales aloud to her guests. Some were too frightened by the stories to ever return to the O’Connor house in Savannah (which suited their hostess just fine). Any girl who loved the fairy tales passed young O’Connor’s test. A kindred spirit had been found.

    Classic fairy tales aren’t for the faint of heart. It’s not hard to see their influence on O’Connor’s disturbing and shocking southern gothic fiction that includes such horrors as serial killers waiting by the side of rural roads, ready to murder selfish grandmothers. The stories compiled by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm include their fair share of violence and twisted crimes: men who chop young women up into pieces, a father who lusts after his own daughter, and many, many characters who make deals with the devil himself. Today children are often only familiar with sanitized versions of the Grimm Brothers’ stories.

    illustration of Hansel and Gretel and a witch

    Arthur Rackham, Illustration of “Hansel and Gretel,” a well-known German folktale from the Brothers Grimm, 1909.

    Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tales have also been adjusted over the years for a more sensitive audience. When I found his version of “The Little Mermaid” at the library as a young girl, I was surprised but fascinated by the stark differences from the Disney film. The prince in Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” marries someone else. And the mermaid’s bargain with the sea-witch results in a desperate choice: die when the sun rises after his wedding night or murder her beloved in his bridal chamber. While there are moments of suspense and danger in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, it’s hard to imagine bubbly Ariel with her bouncing red bangs and a knife in hand, trying to decide whether to fatally stab lovable himbo Prince Eric. Such a dark scene, although not uncommon in the realm of classic fairy tales, would have been considered too distressing for young viewers. In an effort to make the story more palatable, Disney’s Cinderella does not include the details of Cinderella’s stepsisters chopping off their heels and toes to fit their bloody, mutilated feet into the glass slipper in greedy pursuit of the throne or getting their eyes pecked out by birds in a final stroke of justice, as the Grimms’ version describes. But is this Disneyfication of these tales a good or a bad thing?

    Fairy tales are stories that are told to children and set in a world of magic. As twentieth-century educator Annemarie Wächter put it, “Children and fairy tales are inseparable – one cannot be imagined without the other.” Fairy tales are beloved by children partly because they are tales of action. Rather than revolving around the inner thoughts and motivations of nuanced characters, they are concerned with what happens next, what the characters (often archetypes) do. They are more than mere fables with a snappy moral (think Aesop) because their meaning transcends clearcut lessons. Instead, they are full of mystery. There is room inside these tales for the child to explore fairyland: a strange and dangerous world in which she can practice overcoming her fears by journeying alongside the hero. And at the end of the tale, everything is set right. As Wächter puts it, “Fairy tales can often be brutal and cruel – people and animals die – and yet, despite everything, the positive powers always win. There can be no other ending.”

    Fairy tales take both evil and goodness quite seriously. In other words, they are truthful. As Madeleine L’Engle claimed, “The world of fairy tale, fantasy, myth, is inimical to the secular world, and in total opposition to it, for it is interested not in limited laboratory proofs, but in truth.” And in their embrace of truth, fairy tales wrestle with darkness and end in triumph. But are we willing to tell children the truth by reading them fairy tales, as Flannery O’Connor did to her playmates? It seems that these days we are more comfortable if we alter them either by  softening the darkness in the story or, as we see in much young adult literature, rejecting the possibility of happily ever after.

    Disney’s Cinderella does not include the details of Cinderella’s stepsisters chopping off their heels and toes to fit their bloody, mutilated feet into the glass slipper in greedy pursuit of the throne or getting their eyes pecked out by birds in a final stroke of justice, as the Grimms’ version describes. But is this Disneyfication of these tales a good or a bad thing?

    While protecting the innocence of children by sheltering them from overly gruesome material is something all good parents seek to do, have we swung so far in our attempt to protect children that we don’t tell stories that help them process dark things? While we haven’t always been so leery of the violence in fairy tales, in this strange age we subject our children to drills at their schools to prepare them for active shooters in the classroom but consider them too fragile to be told stories that take evil and death seriously. Is this sheltering from the classic grit of fairy tales benefiting them, or are these just the sort of stories they need to be able to endure the violence that hangs like a shadow over our world?

    The fairy tale acknowledges that parents do not always love and care for their children as they ought, that loved ones die and leave us alone and grieving, that evil is real and often powerful, and that violence and sin are present in our world. All these truths make grownups uncomfortable; we are eager to smooth over a child’s fears with comforting falsehoods. “Don’t worry, nothing is going to happen to me,” a mother might say when her child is distraught at the thought of her mortality. But the child knows that sometimes mothers die and his mother is no different. Children are wise enough to be afraid of death, loss, and danger – after all, these are frightening things. The question is whether we allow them to wrestle well with these fears or not. British writer G. K. Chesterton famously wrote, “The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a Saint George to kill the dragon.” If we spend our efforts trying to convince a child that the dragons of life can’t hurt him, we not only fail to tell the truth, we fail to show him that dragons do not have the last word. And the child longs to be equipped to face the monsters he fears, whether dragons or death.

    While classic fairy tales are maligned by some for being too realistic and unsettling in acknowledging the reality of evil, they are also criticized for being too unrealistic for their final hopeful resolutions. “I won’t read my daughter fairy tales!” I’ve been told by concerned parents. “She might think Prince Charming is coming to save her and she’ll only be disappointed when she wakes up to the real world.” These critics are willing to leave the dragon in the story but want to remove Saint George. The endings of classic fairy tales are considered too rosy for a child’s consumption. Perhaps robbing young children of the world of fairyland where they can face the monsters they fear results in an inevitable overcorrection, as the explosion of dystopian YA fiction might suggest. Many such books see the world through a lens of despair, defeat, and mistrust, overrun with dragons with no Saint George in sight. A belief that despair is the only realistic response to the nature of the world leads to narratives like Game of Thrones, which presents a universe where there is neither good nor evil, just the unquenchable thirst for power that motivates every soul.

    Even in stories for younger kids – A Series of Unfortunate Events, for example – we see the fairy tale turned on its head. In this series the orphaned Baudelaire children are never given the happily ever after they deserve. In Grimms’ Fairy Tales the heroes or heroines sometimes encounter helpers along the way, or they might meet manipulators or liars. In this they are realistic. And there is the understanding that the world is not merely dark; both good and evil people inhabit it, but there are some worth trusting. But the Baudelaires can trust no one. The adults they encounter are either too weak to help them or are secretly trying to harm them. Another trend of subverted fairy tale is the apologia for a villain, such as Disney’s Maleficent, in which the evil sorceress becomes the sympathetic victim. In these stories both evil and goodness are removed from the tale. The villain’s evil is explained away, the hero’s goodness revealed to be a farce. And yet, while these kinds of stories are undeniably popular, it is notable that the series that has recently captured the imagination of children (and even adults) most deeply is a modern fairy tale that includes both wrestling with evil and death and a happily ever after: J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, a story, like Grimms’ Fairy Tales, with an indisputably Christian framework.

    Every human being understands the world and his place in it through narratives. God wires us to be formed by story; Jesus himself tells parables to teach his disciples. It is of the highest importance that we consider what stories we are telling our young people. What character do they think they are in the story of their lives? And what kind of world is their story set in? Is it a world in which greed and power will be ultimately triumphant? Is it a world in which love and goodness hold any sway? Could the dread that seems to plague our young people be not merely a reaction to the brokenness of our world but our failure to communicate that the universe will ultimately be set right as both fairy tales and the gospel promise? After all, as the theologian Vigen Guroian beautifully puts it in his fantastic book Tending the Heart of Virtue, “Fairy tales lead us toward a belief in something that, if it were not also so veiled in a mystery, common sense alone would affirm: if there is a story, there must surely be a storyteller.” And in this lies our deepest hope.

    The fairy tale acknowledges that parents do not always love and care for their children as they ought, that loved ones die and leave us alone and grieving, that evil is real and often powerful, and that violence and sin are present in our world. All these truths make grownups uncomfortable; we are eager to smooth over a child’s fears with comforting falsehoods.

    To combat both the anxiety that comes to children robbed of the space to confront evil and the despair that holds that the last chapter of humanity’s tale is final defeat, we have to offer truer stories. Early in life, children need to be steeped in fairy tales that don’t gloss over the dark and ugly parts of the world. Children are wise; they reject the false advertising of cheap positive thinking for the real prize of hard-won hope. For a message of hope to be received, it must be hope that shines in darkness, hope that breaks the witch’s spell. “It is the mark of a good fairy-story,” J. R. R. Tolkien writes in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” “that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears.” But to tell such stories, we have to believe they are true. If we grown-ups don’t believe there is, as Tolkien calls it, “joy beyond the walls of the world,” then our children will not believe us when we share fairy tales that end with hope. And if we offer narratives of a world without hope, our stories are no better than the sanitized tales that refuse to acknowledge mortality and evil. They are simply a different way of failing to tell the whole truth.

    But happily ever afters may be difficult to envision without an eternal perspective. At the end of Andersen’s story, the little mermaid loses her life and her body disintegrates into sea foam on the surface of the waves. But her sacrifice for her beloved is rewarded by the chance to gain a human soul and therefore to experience eternal life. This ending is only hopeful accompanied by a belief in an afterlife, just as Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” only ends “happily” with a salvific outpouring of grace if we see eternal hope for the murdered grandmother. Perhaps it’s the loss of this eternal perspective that prevents us from seeing beyond darkness to hope.

    “Deprive children of stories,” warns philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, “and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words.” Like Hansel and Gretel leaving their little white pebbles along their path into the dark forest, the next generation needs us to provide them with touchstones that can keep them from getting lost on their journey and help them find their way back home. These pathfinders are the stories they’re told, stories that light up the dark, that reveal the existence of dragons hiding in the caves of life, and remind us that Saint George will be ultimately triumphant, even when it seems all hope is lost.

    Contributed By HaleyStewart Haley Stewart

    Haley Stewart is the author of Jane Austen’s Genius Guide to Life, The Grace of Enough, and The Sister Seraphina Mysteries, a series for young readers.

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