Fairy Tale Warnings

Why should you not . . . talk to strangers? Marry someone from outside your village? Drink from mysterious springs? Be rude to elderly women and men? Because uncanny, terrible things will happen to you. Just ask the grandmother or aunt or other teller of tales. At least . . . if you ask a real person, or read the original, unexpurgated stories. Even Andrew Lang, for all that he tidied up many of his stories in the Coloured Fairy Books, left enough hair on to make modern parents squirm and complain about the horrible examples.

That was the point! Folk tales are warnings. Be hospitable to strangers until you know their motives, but not too trusting. Be wary of people you meet who are out of place. Respect your elders, stay in your proper place in society, don’t trust your heart when an outsider appears in the village. If your gut says “don’t drink this”, then don’t. Do not abuse hospitality. If your husband asks you not to do something, don’t do it. Curiosity can be fatal.

I was reminded of the hair-on stories while rereading a guide to the Grimm’s Fairy Tale road in Germany. It includes history, fairy stories, museum guides, and the like, along with some of the discussion and controversy about the Märchen. Those of a “girl power” bent, among others, want the stories rewritten to reflect modern ideas about strong women, sex roles, and so on. Oh, and take out the violence, so that the evil sister in the Frau Pechta story doesn’t get a barrel of boiling tar poured over her head, Cinderella’s step-sisters don’t cut off their own feet, the evil servant girl doesn’t dance to death in shoes made of red-hot iron, and the witch in Hansel and Gretel doesn’t burn up in her own oven. Tone down the patriarchy, and make women more “empowered,” whatever that means to the writer. “Self-rescuing princesses” are trendy.

These revisionists seem to have missed that there’s a huge point to these stories, one about human nature. If you tone down the fate of truly evil people, you remove the satisfaction. The hero or heroine has suffered terrible things for . . . ? The bad step-sister is cruel and rude and gets . . . scolded and asked to reform? That’s nice, but not satisfying, especially for kids. Kids want justice, they don’t want nuance. Even Disney’s Sleeping Beauty has a truly evil queen who turns into a seriously evil dragon and . . . dies a satisfying-to-the-audience death at the hand of the brave prince.

If you really read the stories carefully, you realize that with a few exceptions, the princesses do everything they can to help the hero, and to be worthy of help. Look at “The Goose Girl.” The main character preserves her virtue, is loyal to her old horse, bends the spell on herself in order to tell someone the real story, and in the process makes justice possible. Or the Baba Yaga stories where the old witch is an avenger, seeing that vice is punished and faith rewarded. Likewise the Frau Pechta  (or cat king) stories in Germany.

The modern, mild stories don’t ring true to my ears. OK, they are less violent and gory. Not all the Grimm and other stories are truly violent. Or the violence happens to monsters, ogres, and other things that earn their reward. The sense of reciprocity is missing in many of the revised stories. Loyal Hans would never make the modern collections, for example. The idea that a servant loyal unto almost death deserves a near equal sacrifice in turn escapes the revisionists.

I suspect, if you live in a world where “my ideals will make a world to match,” [“Wishing will Make it So”], then mild, gentle, kind stories lead to a mild, kind world where people are all honest and fair and there are no monsters. That’s . . . not reality yet. I grew up on Andrew Lang. I wasn’t surprised by betrayal, cruelty, nastiness, and so on. Disappointed, yes, taken aback, most certainly, but not surprised. I’d read those stories.

“Fairy stories tell children that the dragons can be defeated.” Which means we need to keep the dragons, keep the ogres, keep the evil in the stories so that the good and pure and True can shine through.


19 thoughts on “Fairy Tale Warnings

  1. The idea that a servant loyal unto almost death deserves a near equal sacrifice in turn escapes the revisionists.

    Not escapes, is rejected by.
    That ideal of reciprocity is very far from globally accepted. It is as foreign to Oriental varieties of feudalism as it is from most varieties of tribalism.
    And really, what aspiring totalitarian would wish to obligate themselves in such a manner?

  2. Power Princesses replaced Briar Rose, all of whom wished for huge status boosts, never mind what it cost Daddy or potential husband in money, imprisonment, or their souls. The real lessons of those animated time-wastes were airbrushed out. Fairy tales can come to a good or bad ending for the protagonist, depending on their heart and soul, and if wisdom can overcome pride. Disney Princesses aren’t wise, and let their hearts rule, but never face the consequences.

    I’m imagining another kind of story, where a young woman gathering herbs encounters a bent babushka, intent on collecting sticks for her daily gruel. The young woman offers to collect more and carry the bundle to her hut; the charitable thing to do, like Father Gregor reminded them. Babushka smiles and blesses her, telling her to think of old Granny should she have dire need in the forest. “You’ll find a way, my dear!” The young woman doesn’t see the hut flex its feet as she hurries back to her own bundle and home. Probably the basis for an entire book of Russian or Slavic inspired folktales, right there.

  3. These revisionists seem to have missed that there’s a huge point to these stories, one about human nature.

    Rejected it.

    The princesses were worthless, because they did womanly things– they took care of others, they thought, they pondered, they did things that someone small and relatively weak can do, and worked with others.

    The only thing of worth is being a thug.


  4. The other thing is that princes on quests, or ashenlads, or clever men, or peasant girls, were all supposed to keep their eyes open and to be kind and helpful. It’s not sexist.

  5. In fairness, empty pornography can also be made of gore and violence.

    I’m mainly tempted to snarl that the revisionists think that making the whole of extant history and literature reflect them will empower they idols they worship in a futile attempt to fill the emptiness inside of them.

    If the ancients were mad, lazy, and derivative, they are at least mad, lazy, and derivative within a cultural context alien enough that it is easier for me to overlook the flaws.

  6. Concur with the other commenters. They rejected human nature because it no longer fits the agenda, if you will. And the thing I took away was ‘trust but verify’…

  7. I’m reminded of Tolkien’s rumination on Fairy Stories and his anecdote about the child listening to Snow White, the parent trying to edit out the part about the wicked queen ending up in the red-hot shoes, and the child insisting that that part be put back in. “Adults are guilty and like mercy; children are innocent and crave justice.”

    I’m not completely sold on all the fairy tales, though. There are a lot that seem to suffer from disproportionate retribution or misdirected retribution, i.e. the stepmother is a villain who favors her daughter over the heroine, said daughter never does anything actively wrong, but both mother and daughter end up burned alive in the end. I could stand for a little toning down of that (see Ever After, where the stepmother and the stepsister who was actively cruel end up working as servants, but the stepsister who had occasionally been nice ended up married to a lesser member of the court). I’m also not wild about the tales where the hero lies, steals, disobeys instructions, and breaks his promises but prospers because of all that. (Tsarevich Ivan, I’m looking at you).

  8. OK, I think it’s time to put the old copy of Grimm’s in the TBR stack. Not sure when I got it, and how much I read it. I need to dig up a copy of H. C. Andersen’s tales, too. Most of my childhood reading was in the YA SF section, so while I ran across some of the true fairy tales, my childhood memory seems to have more of the Disney versions in it.

    I like fixable problems.

    • Grimm is closer to true folk-tales. Anderson was writing much more literary work. The original Grimm stories . . . will scare the bejabbers out of the sheltered soul. Anderson’s just depressing, at least for me.

    • I don’t think of Andersen’s works as true “fairy tales”, because they’re his own work, not “collected from” or even “derived from” folktales the way the Grimms and Lang and other collectors did. It’s said that Andersen was seriously depressed (some say manic-depressive), and it shows in his writing.

      As for the issue of sex and “men’s” and “women’s” roles in fairy tales: I wonder how many of these preening lefties are aware that many of the classic fairy tales have gender-flipped versions? Usually one variant is much more common than the other, but the fact that both versions have survived seems important.

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