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.