Mary Wakefield

Are old fairy stories too scary for kids?

The folk tales of old prepare a child for life

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

Moving house, stacking books in boxes, I came across a clutch of fairy books, Andrew Lang’s folk tales from around the world in their coloured cloth covers: yellow, brown, red, grey, blue. I picked up ‘yellow’, opened the cover and fell down a wormhole, away from 2014 into the past.

My mother, as a child, had coloured in some of the book’s etched illustrations and I could see her kneeling, perhaps fireside, sawing away at the mournful knights in blue crayon. Then there was my own pre-teen self, mid-1980s, feeling strongly the injustice of being forbidden any further colouring in.

As I turned the pages, images began to dislodge from some cerebral crevice — magic caskets, witches, giant prophetic carp — and with them came a realisation: without ever being quite conscious of it, I’ve been thinking about these stories for decades. I’ve learnt from them in a way I never did from other children’s fiction, Five on a Treasure Island or The Magic Faraway Tree. And it made me sad for the 21st-century young who’ll only know Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella through Disney, which is to say not at all.

It’s often said that fairy stories in their original pre-Disney form are far too brutal for kids. It was said back in 1812 when the Brothers Grimm (whose tales appear in the coloured fairy books, translated into English by Lang’s wife) released their first collection: Kinder und Hausmärchen — children’s and household tales. It’s being said again now, because a new translation of Grimm fairy tales has appeared on the Christmas bandwagon (see Melanie McDonagh’s review on page 90). But to consider fairy tales unsuitable for youngsters is to misunderstand both children and the stories themselves.

Let’s take the very nastiest published fairy tale, Bluebeard, which happens to be one of those that’s stayed with me through the years. Bluebeard is an old French story first written down by Charles Perrault in his Histoires ou contes du temps passé (1659). It’s in Lang’s Blue Fairy Book and the story goes like this:


Bluebeard is a rich, distinguished but evil old man who persuades a nice young girl to marry him. All is well until Bluebeard has to go away for work. He leaves his young wife with the run of his palace, but with one proviso: she can do as she pleases, he says, but woe betide her if she looks in the little room at the end of the corridor. Well, of course boredom gets the better of the bride, she creeps down the corridor, opens the door, and there, lying in pools of blood, are the corpses of her husband’s former wives. They died, she realises, because they too failed the ‘little door’ test, which means she’s for the chop. Bluebeard returns, hands down a death sentence and starts to sharpen his axe, but the bride gathers her wits and calls for her brothers, who appear in the nick of time and murder the monster.

Why did Bluebeard stay with me? And why wasn’t I traumatised by a story about a serial killer? Well, first up, as soon as they can toddle, children develop a fear of predators — it’s innate. Why else would we dream so often of being chased? Fairy stories don’t conjure these terrors, they put names to them — and a named monster is halfway to being tamed, if you remember your Rumpel-stiltskin.

Second, a child can scent intention in a story just as they can in a grown-up, and the intention of these stories is to protect and not to terrify. They’re cautionary tales in part, designed to warn and teach. Thanks to Bluebeard I’ve thought from an early age about how a girl can best outwit a sexual predator. It’s come in handy over the years.

As for the gore, what adults forget, or wilfully ignore, is that children revel in it — particularly punitive and ultra-violent gore. Wilhelm Grimm excised several of the more gruesome details from later editions of his book — but that was for the parents. The progeny would have been incensed had they known. What child ever cried for Hansel and Gretel’s captor witch as she roasted slowly to death in her own oven, or said: ‘I hope they take it easy on that wolf?’

Best of all, in folk tales, but only rarely in modern children’s tales, there’s a strong feeling that the hero or heroine really could screw up; that they must stay on their mettle to survive. Good intentions are no excuse in fairyland. If you ignore sound advice, boys and girls, if you’re distracted by flattering tricksters or pretty baubles, you end up as wolf-bait. It was a kind thought of Red Riding Hood’s to leave the path to gather flowers for Grandma — but leaving the path was what her mother said not to do, and as a result she and Gran were et. I think that’s a terrific lesson for kids to learn. You’re not invincible, little one, so listen and beware.

In Disney-land, a heroine need not be on her guard, because the good guy always wins. Rapunzel’s mother doesn’t die, the Little Mermaid doesn’t have to lay down her life but lives happily ever after. It’s as if Disney wants to suffocate the reality in folk stories and overlay them with the great usurping American fairy tale: good things happen to good folk and bad folk get their come-uppance.

One last thing — in Disney the incidental characters are just echoes; they all chime in to reaffirm the general theme. If they’re on team good, they’ll prosper; if they’re baddies, they’re toast. Incidental characters in the old folk tales are considerably more interesting. Rapunzel’s poor mother longs for a child, and when she finally conceives, her daughter is taken by a witch and she dies of heartbreak. Cinderella’s sisters — not ugly at all, but pretty and vain, which makes far more sense — saw off their own toes in their desperation to make the slipper fit and bag a prince.

I didn’t understand the pain of childlessness as a child, but I knew somehow that Rapunzel’s mother was a fool to let the longing consume her. I thought hard about Hansel and Gretel’s cowardly father and the way he let his wife persuade him to send them off to starve. These details weren’t disturbing, but they felt interesting, to be considered at length. I suppose what it boils down to is that most stories these days are escapism. Unconsciously, quietly, real fairy stories prepare a child for real life.

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Show comments
  • Jankers

    “Thanks to Bluebeard I’ve thought from an early age about how a girl can best outwit a sexual predator”…..Call big brother?

    • Mary

      Jankers, good point. What i meant is that the story encourages girls to be wily and plan their escape, not to stay put and suffer at the hands of some psycho. It never occurs to some women that they can or should outwit a bullying husband!

  • zaq

    Really great column, more like this from Spec, please

  • Swanky

    Good points, except for this: Western children don’t revel in gore; they are too innocent to know what it is. In short, the violent aspects are a complete abstraction. To a certain extent they remain a kind of abstraction into later ages, which is why the essentially ‘innocent’ detective murder mystery is not only a respectable read but almost genteel (Bertie Wooster, for instance, is a constant reader of such fare).

    • Chris Morriss

      Even in the olden days of my childhood, children appeared to revel in gore. In reality it meant little or nothing to us, as it was way beyond anything we had experienced. Today the revelling is more overt, with quasi-realistic depictions of the most terrible atrocities literally splashed across the screen in video games.
      The writer should have kept the old Andrew Lang “coloured fairy books” in good condition, they’re worth quite a bit now, mainly for the excellent illustrations by HJ Ford.

      • Swanky

        I’m sure you’re right. I’m a Ladybird collector myself: I love the watercolour paintings, and each one (from the sixties and before) is like a cultural time capsule.

    • Bonkim

      You mean the modern generation that think sausages come from supermarkets.

  • AY

    very elegant and meaningful article.. I’m amazed.
    thanks.

  • Jim

    I very much enjoyed this, it took me to another world.
    A great relief from the issues of the day.

  • pearlsandoysters

    Great article! Disney is a horrendous hoax to lure children into synthetic imagination that is bound to weaken thier sense of reality. In fact, the fairy tales teach cause consequences effect and ultimately the responsibility as well as resourcefulness, something utterly absent in all these cheap and debased multi-million Disney flicks.

  • IS THE NEW GREEK STORY VERY SCARY FOR CAMERON?

    A NEW COUP D’ETAT IS BREWING IN GREECE!

    The Greek parliament will not be able to elect a new president of the republic, and Greece will then have national elections. Marxist Syriza will win, but there is no way Uncle Sam would allow Che Pras to become premier. There is going to be a coup d’etat soon, pure and simple. Most Greeks are fed up with all politicians, and a military coup will be considered a manifestation of God’s benevolence.

    Wikileaks has released two classified documents instructing CIA operatives how best to circumvent global security systems in Fourth Reich, while on undercover missions.

    The first of the documents advises undercover operatives how to act during a secondary airport screening. Secondary screenings pose a risk to an agent’s cover by focusing significant scrutiny on an operative via thorough searches and detailed questioning.

    The manual stresses the importance of having a consistent, well-rehearsed, and plausible cover, in addition to cultivating a fake online presence to throw interrogators off track.

    Meanwhile, the second document presents a detailed overview of EU Schengen Border Control procedures. The overview outlines the various electronic security measures, including the Schengen Information System (SIS) and the European fingerprint database EURODAC, used by border control and the dangers these measures may pose to agents on clandestine missions.

    WikiLeaks’ сhief editor Julian Assange explains that these documents show that under the Obama administration the CIA is still intent on infiltrating European Union borders and conducting clandestine operations in EU member states.

    The document also demonstrates the CIA’s increasing concern over the risks to operatives’ assumed identities posed by biometric databases—the very same systems the US pushed for after 9/11.

    Graecokleptocrats have made it illegal to record political corruption! People who present evidence of political corruption go to prison, not the corrupt! This is shooting the messenger, pure and simple.

    The coalition government of New Kleptocracy and socialist Pasok is desperate to garner the 180 votes needed in the 300-seat parliament to elect a new president, in order to avoid a snap election as mandated in the stupid constitution of Greece. That’s why New Kleptocracy (ND) buys each extra MP vote for three million euros!

    Syriza revealed that businessmen, linked to the government, have created a special slush fund to bribe MPs to vote for the coalition’s nominee for president. Che Pras discovered that business friends of Samaras have already brought out their piggy banks to raise money for that purpose.

    ANEL (Independent Greeks party) president Panos Kammenos, having MP Pavlos Chaikalis by his side, has presented the corruption case, denouncing it as an attempt to bribe Pavlos Chaikalis in order to vote positive for the election of the President of the Republic. Kammenos showed CDs and other material, with recorded conversations between Chaikalis and middle-man George Apostolopoulos, who tried to bribe Chaikalis.

    MP Stavroula Xoulidou was contacted by an official of ruling New Kleptocracy (ND), who offered to solve her financial problem with three million euros, if she voted for the coalition’s presidential candidate! Xoulidou’s bribery revelation was backed by the leader of Independent Greeks, Panos Kammenos, who revealed that the individual that offered the bribe was a close associate of a government minister.

    Samaras hoodwinks: Many warned me that I’d been given a hand grenade that could go off in my hands. I was aware of that. But I held on and I defused that grenade. I did not let it go off. Someone had to do it and it was I.

    Panos Kammenos says: The prime minister broke all 18 of his pre-election promises and now makes new ones. The man who handed over the country’s national sovereignty now speaks of a duty to the country. The ruler that plunged Greece’s middle class into misery now speaks of dignity. The hand grenade went off! The damage is done.

    Pattakos and Papadopoulos were much better than Graecokleptocrats. The corrupt Graecokleptocrats who have enriched themselves by stealing the country blind and who are still in power make it very hard to live in Greece. The very rich are immune, but the middle class has been wiped out.

    Nine democratically elected MPs have been jailed by the crooks of the ruling coalition of Türkoğlu mafia and New Kleptocracy in an illegal step that undermines the rule of law and increases the power of the executive. The third most popular party in Greece, Golden Dawn, has been declared a neo-Nazi party by the very crooks that have brought the country to its knees, and with only a majority vote in parliament a ukase was issued bypassing the judiciary and imprisoning democratically elected members on trumped-up charges.

    Golden Dawn’s Ilias Kasidiaris has accused Samaras of personally intervening in the justice system by ordering a judge, codenamed the Tall Panathinaikos Supporter, to fuck leading party figures of Golden Dawn and ensure they were jailed. Kasidiaris presented an audio recording to parliament with a conversation between Samaras and a judiciary official. In the audio, Samaras orders the justice official to tell the tall Panathinaikos fan that he must fuck the three of them. After that order, three senior party members, Stathis Boukouras, Giorgos Germenis, and Panagiotis Iliopoulos, were jailed.

    “This is the disgusting punk prime minister that gives orders to judges. He should be cuffed and held accountable,” he exclaimed in parliament, where he been transferred from Korydallos prison to attend a transparency hearing on the lifting of his immunity, so he can face charges of breaching privacy laws.

    Kasidiairis is now in prison along with other senior party members awaiting trial. Golden Dawn is under attack but remains unfazed. “On election night, Samaras and Venizelos will collapse, but we will be elected as MPs from jail,” he said.

    Samaras and Türkoğlu suffer from the Xenogiannakopoulou Syndrome, using the kangaroo justice of Greece as a political tool to gag their political opponents. Samaras’s chief assistant revealed that the Samaras-Turkoglu government manipulates justice to persecute Golden Dawn which attracts many right-wing voters away from New Kleptocracy! Michaloliakos and Kasidiaris, leaders of Golden Dawn, are imprisoned on stupid false charges.

    The political system of Greece needs a creative destruction. The impunity of Graecokleptocrats has to be abolished. Church and state should separate. The loot of Graecokleptocrats should return to the Treasury. Everything should be privatized, including schools, streets, forests, mountains, beaches, and islets. The state should not be allowed to own any property. The huge influx of criminal Pakistani must be stopped now.

    The Grand Brothel of Kleptocracy on Syntagma Squareoperates on a staff of two thousand drones of society, doing nothing. Fourteen hundred are regular employees. An additional six hundred people are working as expensive consultants who do nothing, raising the overall number to two thousand staffers.

    In Greece, there are no real political parties, but political mafias! There are no political leaders, but political godfathers. Any MP who does not kowtow to the godfather automatically is expelled from the mafia. The two main political mafias, Pasok and New Kleptocracy, have destroyed Greece and debased the Greek soul. Pasok is the most infamous political mafia on Earth!

    I cannot understand the stupidity of Greek voters who bring to power political mafias again and again. It looks like Greeks have been brainwashed with socialist propaganda through media parrots and public schools. The cancer of Greek socialism is at an advanced terminal phase.

    The Türkoğlu mafia and New Kleptocracy, the two major political mafias of Greece, rely on omerta to cover up their huge corruption. Having no real alternatives to New Kleptocracy and the Turkoglu mafia, Greeks move to extreme leftist Syriza and chauvinist Golden Dawn. Mickey Mouse extreme leftist party Syriza overturned four decades of political dominance by New Kleptocracy and the Türkoğlu mafia to become the second party in the Greek parliament and the first Greek party in the European parliament. Jingoist Golden Dawn is now the third party.

    Che Pras of Syriza is a Hugo Chavez rabble-rouser who does not understand economics. He wants to criminalize the privatization of public enterprises. He has been labeled the most dangerous man in Europe, and he has been pressuring successive governments to abandon austerity measures that underpin Greece’s continued access to international aid. Marxist Che Pras is banking on the fact that Eurozone treaties don’t permit a country to be evicted from Eurozone; so he has opted for uncompromising opposition.

    The Türkoğlu mafia and New Kleptocracy must be abolished now, because they have robbed the Greek treasury and the pension funds, received myriad bribes and kickbacks, exchanged sinecures for votes, spread the cancer of socialism, destroyed the Greek economy, robbed the banks at gunpoint, imposed kangaroo justice, persecuted dissident bloggers, established the impunity and immunity of Graecokleptocrats, framed a ridiculous constitution, enslaved Greece to Fourth Reich, debased the Greek soul, transformed the cradle of democracy to the cradle of kleptocracy, and deteriorated the national character of Greece.

    EU might deteriorate to the miserable level of extremely corrupt Greece. Your government is your #1 enemy. Brutal police and kangaroo courts are tools to enslave you to your government. But badges and benches do not grant extra rights. It’s your duty as a citizen to become a popopaparazzo, recording police misconduct. Use your smartphone to unmask cops and kleptocrats.
    The political philosopher Edmund Burke once remarked that all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good folks to do nothing. A glaring example is my persecution by the government of Greece, which grossly violates my civil rights.

    Martin Niemöller said: First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me!

    EU practices double standards on civil rights. It’s freakish for EU to interfere in the civil rights of foreigners, but condone the abuse of my civil rights, a citizen of EU! EU should get its own house in order before lecturing others. EU should rein in barbaric Greece, the most corrupt country of Europe with prisoners of conscience, testilying police, malevolent prosecutors, perjurers, and stupidest jurists. Basil Venitis, venitis@gmail.com,http://venitism.blogspot.com

    Greece is an incivil nation with kangaroo justice, overcriminalization, brutal police, huge political corruption, persecution of dissident bloggers, huge bureaucracy, huge taxation, and 23% VAT. Freakish Graecokleptocrats use the kangaroo justice as a political tool to gag political opponents.

    Every year, Graecokleptocrats receive myriad bribes and kickbacks. Many trains bought from Germany do not fit the rails, but they were bought just to generate bribes! In 2009, investigators of the Munich Prosecution Department uncovered a corruption affair, in which MAN has given huge bribes to Greek politicians to get large orders for overpriced trolleys. A streetcar named desire! These trolleys with huge markups are named bribes! But Greek prosecutors have started investigating this scandal just in September of 2012! One of those investigated is Mariliza Xenogiannakopoulou, the minister who destroyed my life.

    I accuse the government of Greece for:

    · Persecuting me for more than four years

    · Stealing my life

    · Stealing my computer and files

    · Spreading lies about me on all Greek media

    · Using the kangaroo justice as a political tool

    · Postponing my trial nine times

    · Locking me in jail without toilet and pillow for a night

    · Taking away my hypertension pills

    · Making me urinate in a bottle

    · Humiliating me with handcuffs, fingerprints, and mug shots

    On October 18, 2010, a gang of six brutal cops of the violent Greek Cyber-Crime Unit (CCU), a real godzilla, supervised by a dishonest prosecutor, a pathologic liar, a disgusting motherfucker, raided my home in Athens and stole my computer, software, files, documents, and personal data. The brutal policemen locked me in jail for a night, they humiliated me with handcuffs, fingerprints, mug shots, and lies, leaked false information to the media parrots, and the corrupt Greek government initiated sham court proceedings for a stack of freakish trumped-up charges! There was neither pillow nor toilet facility in my jail cell. I had to urinate in a bottle! I, a 69-years-old man with high blood pressure, was not allowed to keep my hypertension pills with me. There was neither toilet paper nor soap in the whole CCU jail.

    It’s been now four years since the government of Greece stole my life, my computer, and my files. I have done absolutely nothing, and I am being persecuted by the Greek government without any real reason. My ordeal is against all rules of civil society and treaties that Greece has signed. Greece, a corrupt country without a functioning justice system, has gone bananas. Graecokleptocrats use the kangaroo justice as a political tool to gag political opponents. Graecokleptocrats think the laws exist to give them whatever they want! This is psoriasis of democracy, pure and simple.

    Mariliza Xenogiannakopoulou, Alternate Minister of Foreign Affairs, sued me, and she wouldn’t show up in court! As a result, my trial has been postponed nine times so far. Xenogiannakopoulou, marilxen@otenet.gr ormarilxen@gmail.com, continues to destroy my life without reason whatsoever. I could understand the vengeance, if I did something wrong. But I did absolutely nothing, and vindictive Xenogiannakopoulou barks at the wrong tree. If this is not kangaroo justice, what is it? Has a harmglad sadist socialist the right to destroy a libertarian in cold blood? For God’s sake what kind of harmjoy is this tragedy anyhow? Basil Venitis, venitis@gmail.com,http://venitism.blogspot.com

    Please email appeals to

    GenSecretary@justice.gov.gr,grammateia@justice.gov.gr, minister.office@yptp.gr,primeminister@primeminister.gr, proedros@nd.gr,allusers@primeminister.gr, vassilis.kikilias@kikilias.gr,ypourgos@justice.gov.gr, xathanasiou2@gmail.com,allusers@justice.gov.gr

    · Calling for the immediate stop of the persecution of Basil Venitis.

    · Stating that you believe these trumped-up charges to be politically motivated and intended to prevent him exercising his right to freedom of expression against political corruption.

    · Seeking assurances that the civil rights of Basil Venitis will always be respected.

  • Bonkim

    Spot on – many things you read in your growing up years stick and help lead you through life – not the TV variety.

  • Claraver

    I couldn’t agree more. fairy tales for children are gripping reads. Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen coloured my childhood

  • Delilah Dimplebottom

    The modern Disney stories – with the exception of Pinnochio, which hardly ever gets an airing these days – all tell the same fable – that parents must learn from their children, and that no mistake cannot be fixed. This is patent nonsense. The original Little Mermaid’s family’s predictions all came true, and the prince for whom she sacrificed so much fell in love with someone else. The real damage done by these modern fables is that they are so palatable they can be absorbed without reflection, forming an unconscious basis for really bad choices later on. The arresting awfulness and unfairness of many of the old fairy stories rankle in a child’s mind, like a stone in the shoe, encouraging conscious reflection, wariness and Freudian analysis. Could you really love a husband who was great in bed but invisible and largely absent (Cupid and Psyche), was half-ogre with a mother who wanted to eat you and her grandchildren with a Sauce Robert (the delightful Fables de la Fontaine version of Sleeping Beauty, as retold by Lang), a murderer of women (Bluebeard, Sheherezade) (and, in Patient Griselda, children)? Should you try? Would returning your now-teenage children (Patient Griselda) or throwing his mother in a snake pit (Sleeping Beauty) make things right? If Bluebeard’s wife had simply left the locked door alone, would the marriage have remained happy? Perhaps the real message is, as the Irish folk song says, “the people were saying/ No two e’er were wed/ But that one had a secret/ That never was said”.

    • Johnson11b

      Interesting analysis.

  • Arthur Thistlewood

    Quite true – fairy tales run very deep. Sixty years on, I have still not recovered from the moral desperation of Hans Andersen tales!

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