Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Fairy Tales Revisited

I'm currently reading an excellent novel about Hans Christian Andersen, which has encouraged me to pull a book of his fairy tales off my shelf and start reading them again. It's actually scary how...well, scary, his stories are!

When I hear the label 'fairy tales', I immediately think of princes and princesses and happy endings. Above all, happy endings! I watched a lot of Disney as a child (still do, really) and I never realised just how carefully selected and edited their stories were - take The Little Mermaid, for example. Mr Andersen's version is horrible, quite unlike the Disney one. As in Andersen's tales, Disney always preserves a moral, but they are diluted down versions - Belle loves the Beast despite his appearance; moral is, beauty isn't just about external appearances. Ariel gets her prince in the end and the evil sea witch is duly punished; moral is, love conquers all and/or if you're a bad person, bad things will happen to you. Same goes for Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and all the other heroines. But in Andersen's tales, if you're not a model Christian, terrible (and I mean really terrible - we're not talking all-singing-all-dancing teapots here) things happen to you.

I'm going to illustrate this point with two of Andersen's less well-known stories, which, incidentally, focus on females and their shoes. Firstly, there's the case of the little girl who was born poor and coveted red shoes like all the other little girls had. Sadly, because she was poor she had to make do with what her mother could afford, which was rather second rate brown shoes. When her parents both died, she was taken in by an old woman who took care of her every need and bought her whatever she needed. One day they were out shoe shopping and the little girl, quite naturally, chose a pair of stunning red shoes above all the others. Revelling in the special feeling that a truly beautiful pair of new shoes can give you, the little girl wore them to church but everybody disapproved of her vanity (including the old woman who was blind and therefore had no knowledge of the colour of the shoes). The little girl, having slightly limited understanding as children do, danced for joy in her red shoes and didn't understand why something that gave her so much joy could be as awful as everyone seemed to think. It seems red shoes were a bad choice for her however, because once she'd started the shoes wouldn't come off her feet and she couldn't stop dancing. She danced and danced and danced until she was exhausted, terrified and in floods of tears, whereupon a helpful woodcutter stepped in and cut off her feet. Now is it me, or does a love of pretty shoes seem an insufficient crime to warrant the punishment she recieved? Namely to be permanently crippled, unable to wear any shoes at all ever again because of the clunky wooden feet she had instead of her own feet and thus condemned to never again recieve joy from a pair of beautiful shoes or indeed, probably many other things - because if having a sense of aesthetics gets your feet cut off, who knows what enjoying the taste of cheese or the melodies in a piece of music might get you?

Second example: another poor little girl who had the good fortune to be taken in by a rich family. Admittedly, this little girl is not quite as likeable as the first; as she gets older, she turns into an ungrateful little cow. She doesn't visit her birth parents very often as she is a bit ashamed of her humble beginnings (although this seems to be inherent in her - her foster family are by all accounts lovely people). One day, her foster mother sends her with a loaf of freshly baked bread to visit her birth mother. As the little girl walks through the forest, she comes to a part of the path which is rather muddy. Not wishing to dirty her pretty shoes, the little girl then throws the loaf of bread onto the mud so she can use it as a stepping stone and thereby keep her shoes pristine. Reprehensible, certainly - although possibly not worthy of the punishment she received, which was to sink down through the mud into Hell where she remained for many many years until she turned completely to stone. (Some dear soul eventually rescued her, pointing out to God that the little girl's crime was not horrendous enough for the punishment she had endured.)

I am not impressed with these stories, and not just because I see nothing wrong with having a certain amount of love for one's oh so beautiful shoes. Stories with a moral are a fantastic idea, but there is so much wrong with these! Firstly, of course I appreciate that it is important to educate children while they are young so they don't grow up to be young offenders or 'yobbos' (as English people of a certain age like to label almost all teenagers). But the way to do it should be to tell them stories of what happens to children who grow up to be horrible adults, a) because adults should know better whereas children are still learning, and b) because everything Andersen said was simply a mean ploy to terrify children into submission - to their parents, to the Church, to anyone older than them. I feel this is akin to cheating, personally. I know he was writing in the early 1800s and was a product of his time, but still! What an awful thing for the son of a shoemaker to tell millions of little children, when the truth would have sufficed just as well.


litlove said...

I read an interesting commentary on fairy tales saying they expressed the hatred adults felt for children sometimes, and also their guilt about that. But the happy ending, and the moral, was intended to salve adults' conscience with the belief that it would turn out ok in the end, and that abuse and violence could be transformed into useful developmental lessons. Just a different perspective on the ways of, and reasons for, terrorising children.

Carl V. said...

A fascinating place to read some excellent articles on the origins of fairy tales and essays on how they have changed over time, etc. is the Endicott Studio Reading Room:

If you are at all interested I highly recommend it as there are some very well researched essays there.

Danielle said...

I must say I don't recall those fairy tales from childhood (thankfully). I should pull my books out and read a few, too. I think I have Grimm's (no doubt as depressing!). And Hans Christian Andersen sounds like such a nice happy fellow!

booklogged said...

Hey, Traveller, what's the name of the novel? Sure enjoy your posts.

Natalia said...

I think Andersen taps into a more organic form of fairy tale.

You might want to try Maria Tatar's analysis of the fairy tale's darker elements, and the way children need to experience the dark.

She can be a bit dry, but she was very useful when I did my honours thesis. :)

The Traveller said...

Thanks for all the reading suggestions - I've never thought about fairy tales since I was a child, but I'm looking forward to doing some reading up on them.

Booklogged, the name of the novel is 'Journey In Blue', and it is written by Stig Dalager.