Another Word: Original Sin
I always find myself stumped when I’m put on a panel or asked in an interview about contemporary adaptations of “original” fairy tales. Fairy stories began in Ancient Egypt, Greece, and China. Men and women started collecting these stories and writing them down in Italy, and then France, all before the Brothers Grimm. Whether the events unfolded within someone’s mind or in front of the eyes, no one can say. What we can be sure of is that—once upon a time—a tale was told by someone, to someone, for a reason.
After that, fairy stories became a victim of the giant sociological ouroboros: life imitating art imitating life, ad infinitum. A storyteller weaves a tale on which a child bases his moral development. That child then grows up and tells his children the same story. But it’s not really the same story, is it? It’s been adapted over the years based on how it affected that first child, and what reason he now had for telling that story to his own children. How these and future generations of children interpret the story similarly depends on their environment and upbringing.
And how appropriate are fairy tales for children, anyway? It’s a question that’s been bandied about for centuries.
The Grimms worried with this concept back in 1812, carefully sifting through their collection to find the most “appropriate” tales for children and modifying even their own stories throughout the many editions of their Märchen. For instance: Rapunzel’s deception was “originally” discovered by the witch in the tower when Rapunzel commented on how tight her dress was getting about the middle due to pregnancy. The Grimms changed this in later editions to Rapunzel randomly commenting on how the prince was so much easier to pull up than the witch.
“Are not the cruel punishments which are inflicted on the wicked in fairy tales unfit for children’s ears? Thirty years ago children were not shocked by any such matters: now they are said to be more sensitive.” So said Andrew Lang in the introduction to the 1890 edition of his Red Fairy Book. Unsurprisingly Lang included the more Christian adaptation of “Rapunzel.” He also chose Perrault’s “Cinderella” over the Grimm’s bloodier interpretation. Lang went on to suppose that “Thirty years hence there will be a generation of children whose parents have seen a very rough aspect of life, and this infantile humanitarianism will probably have disappeared.”
In 1952, far more than thirty years after Lang’s prophetic inscriptions, Geoffrey Handley-Taylor wrote a book on nursery rhyme reform in which he noted that of 200 common nursery rhymes; only half personified “all that is glorious and ideal for the child.” The remaining 100 described a multitude of sins, including: death, devouring, squeezing, decapitation, kidnapping, whipping, general dishonesty, lunacy, drunkenness, house burning, abandonment, quarrelling, discrimination, and unlawful imprisonment.
Indeed! With nurseries full of “Rock-a-bye Baby” and “Oranges and Lemons,” it’s a wonder any of us can function in polite society.
So let’s talk about kids today. (And I’m talking “Twenty-First Century”, because anyone born before the year 2000 is either already in high school or quickly on their way.) Raised on fairy stories written by Walt Disney, they know “Rapunzel” as “Tangled.” No one loses a firstborn child because of a greedy wife. No one gets knocked up and has twins. No one gets blinded and brought back (though tears are still magical). Evil is just Evil (because we said so) and eventually Falls from a Great Height. True Love triumphs and everyone lives Happily Ever After.
Of course, fairy stories have always depended on allegory. They are nothing like reality. Reality is a reed thin “housewife” in a posh dress with a bad attitude. Reality is chasing tornadoes or Bigfoot or aliens or ghosts. Reality is cooking a gourmet meal in 30 minutes using only a butter knife and a roll of duct tape. Reality is screwing up your life and having David Tutera with his bottomless money purse swoop in and save the day so that you and your True Love may live Happily Every After.
In the meantime, we must empty our pockets, take off our shoes, throw away our water bottles, and be x-rayed before getting on a plane to see grandma. There are now two types of drills in school, one for Acts of God and one for Acts of Crazy People with Guns. Children can bully other children to the brink of suicide, and they don’t even have to live in the same town. Or state. Or country.
Similarly, some of the most popular current young adult literature involves post-apocalyptic societies and young women who save the day and live . . . but not happily. The “original” fairy tales are trickling back into the mainstream. Snow White loses the guy but leads an army. Hansel and Gretel hunt witches. Even Disney has thrown their own hat into the ring, offering up their bowdlerized tales for a popular prime time television series rated PG-V (for violence).
Is this a good thing? That question still gets asked: Are fairy tales appropriate for children?
Perhaps the question should be more along the lines of: Do we even know who our children are? Do we realize what sort of world we have created for them, what sort of unrealistic expectations they now have based on what we’ve presented as “reality”? Are we properly preparing our babies for a world of Code Red classroom drills and x-rays, or are we coddling them with “infantile humanitarianism?”
I wonder what the children of today would say, if we asked them. Would they prefer to hear about a couple of greedy stepsisters having their eyes pecked out for their lying and greedy ways, or a handful of housewives inciting a catfight? Would they rather imagine twelve dancing princesses, or an overdressed toddler in a tiara? Would they see these stories for their true meanings, or would they escalate the ridiculousness to new heights? If they discovered that in some iterations, the frog prince was dashed against the wall by the silly young princess, would this lead to spates of animal cruelty?
I have a feeling that today’s children would be even less shocked than their nineteenth century counterparts. And in an entertainment industry sorely lacking a moral compass, I believe the “original” fairy stories should definitely be reintroduced into the nursery room . . . whichever “original” you choose.