Friday, March 2, 2012

Is It Time to Return to Fairy Tales?

Before you think that the title of this post means that I, or people I know, or the reader, or the entire world, should retreat to a fantasy life, I want to make it clear I'm talking about actually fairy tales that one reads.  I'm talking about stories of enchantments and dark places and the darkest realms of imagination.

I was reading this piece in Slate recently about how parents are avoiding reading fairy tales to their children.  Fairy tales seem to fall into two categories.  The first is category is the stories in their original form.  These are the stories that the Brothers Grimm and their contemporaries originally intended.  These stories are dark and full of death, enchantment, uncertainty, and even sex.  The second category is made up of the versions of those stories we tell our children.  These are the ones that make it into picture books and Disney movies.

As adults, once we read the original versions of many of today's beloved fairy tales, we find ourselves cricital and contemptuous of their modern-day counterparts.  The stories are far more interesting to adult tastes when they're not sugar-coated.  In the old stories parents are often cruel, even murderous, or at the very least, fathers involve their daughters in dirty dealings behind the daughters' backs.   The fairy realm isn't filled with benevolent spirits, but with mischievous sprites who may demand a high price if you are successful in eliciting their help.  Murder, torture, and dismemberment are common (even in romantic Cinderella the stepsisters cut off parts of their feet to fit the slipper and then the prince has birds peck their eyes out).  Sexuality is open and uncut, and often punished.

It makes sense to sugarcoat these stories for children.  Parents don't want their children to be too frightened, or to accept that such grim scenarios are somehow socially acceptable.  It would be like allowing your children to watch hardcore horror movies.  Some children can take it, but many can't.  What moral lessons can a fairy tale teach?  Can we pull some intrinsic character values from the story that will help our children such as cunning, strength in adversity, or the rewards of kindness to others?

Today's watered-down versions of many classic fairy tales, whether they come from Disney or some other children's book publisher, try to teach kids good character values.  There are lessons to be learned in the world of the fantastic.

Do Disney movies and their interpretations of old stories with their beautiful princesses, teach good character traits to young girls?  I believe that is a very interesting debate.  When Beauty and the Beast came out I can recall three friends, all of whom would not be afraid to use the term "feminst: to describe themselves, having very different opionions on the lessons the movie taught.  Two of them were adamant that the movie sent a very negative message to young girls.  Belle was the classic abused woman.  She stayed with the mean and terrifying Beast who turned kind, and eventually even turned handsome, due to Belle's patience and kindness.  What kind of lesson is this for young girls?  Yet my other friend saw a character who was intelligent, independent, and feisty, who knew what she wanted and didn't want, and knew how to demand it.  The character of the Beast was quite different from the original story.  The Beast was always unfailingly kind to Beauty, but was always spurned because of his looks.

I agree that Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderalla of Disney's golden age were less than perfect role models.  They tended to be passive and dependent on their looks to save them from adversity. They had little control over their fates and tended to accept their lot in life.  Was any of this different from how the original fairy tales saw things?  Fairy tales were born in an era when women were not exactly respected in society.

What about more modern characters like Mulan, who was a warrior, or Rapunzel, who was willing to take risks and satisfy her wanderlust and escape her prison?  Once again I'll mention that Belle was well-read and self-determined.  Pocahantas taught important environmental lessons.  None of these women are perfect role models, but many of them had something to teach young girls.

This does beg the question as to why fairy tales should teach anyone anything.  That's not what they were meant to do.  They were scary stories told around the campfire.  They weren't so much about teaching moral lessons than they were about passing on cultural values and perspectives.  They weren't meant for children, although children were as likely to hear them as adults.

Why don't adults read fairy tales now if that's the case?  Why do adults turn their backs on the rich tapestry of traditional folk tales and leave the watered-down versions to the children?  Why don't we go back and read some of this stuff?

I'm trying to understand it.  Is it because as rational, mature, 21st century, adults we don't believe in enchantments or fairies.  Is it because fairy tales are now so heavily associated with children that we wouldn't want to admit that we read their literature?  But adults do read fantasy and they read children's book.  Fairy tales might be ignored, but adults will read Harry Potter stories, which is really nothing but a formulaic, watered-down version of everything already said in most fairy tales.   Think of the obsession some fantasy enthusiasts have for Lord of the Rings.  I have often heard it said that Star Wars is just a  fairy tale set in space. 

I don't know how long today's popular stories will endure, but I really hope the old tales won't die out.  I think it's not a bad idea to revisit some of the stories that were too scary to read in their original form.  The kids might thank us when they're read to read them.

If happy, upbeat, positive, fun fairy tales are your thing, I strongly recommend you check out my good cyberpal The Blond Duck

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