The Fairy Tale Paradox

The Three Brothers

Parents, mentors, teachers, babysitters, older siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, older friends, friends’ parents…every ‘big person’ in a child’s life is seen as a fountain of knowledge, an enigma of misery and a protector. Teachers and parents instil their children with a fear of danger and the unknown: don’t talk to strangers, look before crossing the road, don’t touch the spider, don’t swing on your chair, don’t jump on the bed, etcetera. And of course, you’d say that all of these things are necessary aspects of a child’s initial life education. It doesn’t stop there, however. Protecting the babies of our society is instinctual and extends beyond the physical dangers of everyday life. We protect our children from profane language, from violent and frightening images, from the sexually explicit, from immoral themes, from displays of drug and alcohol use, from depressing ideas and just generally from the darker aspects of life. We do all that is in our power to preserve the innocence of childhood and shield our youngsters from anything outside of the exuberantly happy or perfectly safe.

However…when you think of your childhood, what do you remember? Personally, I remember my parents, my trampoline, the smell of birthday candles, feeling energetic constantly and the stories read to me at bedtime. Ahh…the stories read to me at bedtime! Those fantastical fairy tales of magic, witchery, princesses, fairies, goblins, ladders, treasure, talking animals and every other wonder of a child’s imagination. I don’t feel it to be too gross a generalisation to assume that most children are read fairy tales. They are wonderful, absorbing and can be read to you a thousand times without becoming boring. They define bedtime, they make bedtime bearable and they usually pepper children’s thoughts and dreams with wildly imaginative scenarios of otherworldly people and places.

The paradoxical thing is however, that most of the tales read to little boys and girls around the globe are embedded with the very themes that parents sprain their mental and emotional limbs to eradicate from their children’s lives. The books read to kids from birth through to primary school, more often than not, detail stories of dark worlds, evil monsters, promiscuous princesses, sly witches, prowling shadows, violent wars, abusive behaviour and gruesome games. Yes, if you seriously think about it, fairy tales are often less about fairies and more about fright.

Take, for example, the Grimm Brothers’ stories of Snow White, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin and Cinderella. As four of the most celebrated fairy tales, these books are among those that nearly every child is familiar with and that parents read to their offspring without a moment’s hesitation.

Snow White

Snow White

Rumelstiltskin

Rumelstiltskin

Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel

Cinderella

Cinderella

It’s funny though, isn’t it, that each is its own expose of rebellion or promiscuity? I am, by no means whatsoever, suggesting that these books are inappropriate for children, but I do find it markedly comical that the majority of the world’s children’s books are, in actual fact, subtle illustrations of the dark, the dangerous and the dirty. Snow White is drugged, almost murdered and then runs off to live alone with seven strange men. Rapunzel blatantly defies the rules imposed on her by inviting a boy into her room and then running away with him. The young girl of the Rumpelstiltskin tale is cruelly locked in a room as a result of her father’s lies and is eventually asked to give up her first born child. Cinderella is neglected, abused and sneaks out of her stepmother’s house to meet a boy. Are these things not the epitome of what every parent attempts to shield from their babies? And yet…all around the world, children are drifting to sleep with images of glass slippers and the seven dwarfs swirling through their minds.

The Pied Piper is a story of vermin, deception, dishonesty, kidnapping, greed and violence, the original version of which results in the drowning of an entire village’s population of children. The modified version is less gruesome but instead features bribery and blackmail as the children are spared in exchange for money.

The Pied Piper

The Pied Piper

Sleeping Beauty, which may seem like a nice little tale of a cursed princess put to sleep for a hundred years and then kissed awake by a prince, was originally a heinously violent tale of a princess put to sleep by a prophecy and then raped by the king (not a prince) before giving birth to two children, one of which eventually wakes her by sucking a piece of flax from its mother’s finger.

Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty

While many fairy tales have been modified over the years, it cannot be denied that most are still founded on underlying themes of darkness, evil, violence, deception and rebellion…

Yes, we are an enigmatic species, us humans, with our paradoxical ideas and methods of parenting. We read stories to our five-year-old children about girls running away with boys and find ourselves ten years later, wishing for bars on our daughters’ windows. We tell the tale of Snow White’s poisoned apple and find ourselves, a decade on, warning of the dangers of GHB and leaving drinks unattended. We tuck our babies in at night, tell them they’re safe, and then read them stories of Hansel and Gretel’s kidnapping. We shower our offspring with love, affection, light and play before sending them to sleep with bedtime stories of greed, deception, danger and death. What on earth are we thinking?

We are thinking that fairy tales are just that: tales of fairies, of the fantastical, of the magical. We are thinking that they don’t translate to reality and are harmless little stories with which to entertain our kiddies. We are thinking that life is life and stories and stories, the two realms never intermingling and therefore never infecting the other with one’s themes. But are we completely correct in assuming all of these things? Are there not a thousand blog pots and essays and expository papers about the power of the written word, of books, of fiction? Have we not seen and felt the impact that stories can have on our lives and on those of others? Perhaps not…perhaps most people have never consciously connected the world of fiction with that of reality…now there’s a scary thought.

My question is, are fairy tales just bedtime stories with the sole outcome being the amusement of children? I turned out relatively sane (or as sane as a writer can be) and I can attest to having been read a host of marvellously magical stories. But there are adults out there who do strange things, whose parents remain flabbergasted by their son’s or daughter’s behaviour and wonder whatever it was that they did wrong in raising their not-so-cute-any-more child. I know, I know; it’s completely and utterly ludicrous to at all insinuate that heinous behaviour could be connected with childhood fairy tales. But really, how will we ever know? If you’re like me, then you absolutely love the idea that words can change the world. But if this is true, then surely it applies to pieces of writing outside of the ‘inspirational speech’ genre. Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech is still alive and active in the war against racialism. Are the dark little tales of Rapunzel and the Pied Piper still alive in our adult consciousnesses?

Now, there’s a conspiracy for the blogosphere!

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