Fairy Tales, Scary Tales?

This article, Fairy Tales too scary for modern children, say parents, appeared in The Telegraph a couple of weeks ago, following the results of a survey showing that one in five parents have eschewed the old stories in favour of modern picture books.

The issues that have been raised centre around two key aspects of the tales.

First is the potentially scary content of some of the stories.  It’s not difficult to guess which of them may cause problems.  Two of the three little pigs are eaten by the wolf, who also (ok, probably not the same one) consumes Grandma, Red Riding Hood, and the seven little kids.  Hansel and Gretel are kidnapped by a witch and in real danger of being eaten.  Rumpelstiltskin promises to take the princess’s child from her.  Rapunzel is abducted and imprisoned in a tower.   The Gingerbread Man is reduced to nothing but a handful of crumbs by a cunning fox.

Secondly there is the issue of changing roles in modern society.  Cinderella, so the article points out, has a young girl slaving for her elder sisters.   Snow White is permitted to stay with the dwarfs on the basis that she keeps their house clean (something they seem to have been doing perfectly well by themselves to that point). Most of the women in the tales are subservient and even in their happy endings their ‘achievements’ are to marry well and look pretty.  Red Riding Hood’s journey through the wood alone seems laughably stupid in a world in which small children can’t even walk to a corner shop to buy milk.

Undoubtedly old-fashioned and scary as they are, are they actually that damaging?  The thing about fairy tales, unlike modern stories, is that the characters tend to be two-dimensional. We do not hear too much about what they think or how they feel.  The wolf eats Little Red Riding Hood without much drama, the three little pigs are despatched in a matter of fact manner.  Without this the stories are less deeply frightening and more thrilling.  It is not horror that we see.

There are also those that believe that the move away from fairy tales is damaging in itself.  Fairy tales are simple, and uncomplicated.  The wolf is bad, the children are good.  The beautiful can be evil (Snow White’s stepmother) and the unconventional warm-hearted (the seven dwarfs).  It is what people do that counts.  If they do good, they are married, rewarded, become rich, live happily ever after.  If they do evil, they are killed, go mad, or are punished.  Last year Sally Goddard Blythe*, child development specialist and author of The Genius of Natural Childhood, argued that fairy tales are necessary to help parents teach morality.  “Fairy tales help to teach children an   understanding of right and wrong, not through direct teaching, but through   implication.  When you don’t give children these stereotypes of good and bad, you don’t give them a moral code on which to start to develop their own lives.”

“These stories are not cruel and discriminatory; rather they help children to understand, firstly, the quirks and weaknesses of human behaviour in general, and secondly, to accept many of their own fears and emotions.  If as parents or society we seek to protect children from all unpleasant  events, we do not equip them to deal with the real world,”

Without wishing to generalise too much modern children’s books have a tendency to blur the boundaries between good and evil.  Bad characters are redeemed.  Naughty behaviour is sometimes funny.  No ‘real’ evils or threats cross the paths of our heroes and heroines.  Whilst they may do an excellent job of helping children to explore their emotions and understand relationships they are more complicated in terms of punishment and reward and morality is not always obvious.

Traditional fairy tales do teach some fundamental lifeskills in imaginative ways.  Hansel and Gretel may be in a dark situation but they survive as a result of their initiative and resourcefulness.  Little Red Riding Hood learns a valuable lesson about listening to her parents and staying where it’s safe.  The Gingerbread Man’s pride comes before his inevitable fall.

Although there are elements of these stories which are old-fashioned and need explanation, especially with regards to gender roles, it is short-sighted to dismiss them out of hand.  Read right, there is still a lot to be learned – and enjoyed – from the traditional fairy tale.

*comments quoted from another article in The Telegraph published 14 May 2011