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Adult content? Give children some credit

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It’s time for the annual mass media revelation that fairy tales Aren’t Just For Kids – or even Aren’t For Kids, period:

Am I glad that someone is acknowledging, and trying to educate others about, the dark undertones (or sometimes outright shocking overtones), source material, and original context of fairy tales? Of course. I absolutely adore fairy tales, mythology and folklore, and have done since I was old enough to read them, so the greater appreciation for them the better.

On the other hand, the insistence that fairy tales Aren’t For Kids because of the potentially disturbing material smacks of a vestigial Victorian sensibility, or at least a continued desire to limit children’s fairy tale knowledge to the sanitised versions: now that we know about the foot mutilation in Cinderella, let’s write essays and books and articles and let’s teach classes and let’s hold seminars, but for God’s sake don’t tell the kids. They can’t know about this.

I realise that the social division between children and adults that started in the Romantic period still holds today when it comes to literature (among other things). There are certainly things that some children won’t be able to handle reading; The Robber Bridegroom, for instance, comes to mind. This is a variant on the Bluebeard/Mr. Fox theme, except that in addition to murder, mutilation, and rapey overtones, there’s also some cannibalism for that extra flair. That’s probably not a story you want to read to your children before they fall asleep.

But the reason I know what happens in that fairy tale is that I read it, over and over, when I was very young. Maybe I was 8 years old. I had a Collected Brothers Grimm with silver covers, and I loved that book. Read it every day. Some fairy tales I read once and never again, and some I kept returning to. That was one of them.

I’ve heard the argument that fairy tales aren’t any darker or more disturbing than what kids might see on the news. This is kind of true, but children CAN tell the difference between what can and can’t happen in real life. When I was eleven, I managed to get hold of Kiss The Girls, a crime fiction novel by James Patterson which basically centers on two serial killers/rapists who target women; one of the killers leaves a body part from each of his victims at the crime scene, or something. I read the book on a sunny afternoon, downstairs in the living room, while my parents were both home. After that, for a good portion of the day I was afraid to be alone anywhere in the house. I read The Robber Bridegroom repeatedly when I was eight, but reading a novel that could have taken place in real life scared the heck out of me when I was three years older. The Robber Bridegroom, due to being a fairy tale, was automatically removed (for me) from the realm of Things That Can Actually Happen, and so it wasn’t scary.

Children can mentally handle a lot more than adults seem to think they can. Either they process it and live with it, or it goes over their heads. I’m thinking of the time I saw Sweeney Todd on stage with my parents when I was seven. The plot, for those who haven’t seen it, includes rape, quasi-incest (the villain falls in “love” with his ward, who he’s raised since she was a baby and who thinks he’s her real father), lots and lots of murder, and cannibalism. I remember the bare bones of the plot, but came out with not much more than an impression of the title song. My mother, since she was old enough to understand the plot and the true horror of it, was traumatised – but I was fine.

When they do process it, there’s often a much-needed lesson in there. I don’t necessarily mean a straightforward moral, though those can appear too. The Juniper Tree (child murder, cannibalism) comes to mind, which I heard rather than read from a storyteller, Daniel Morden*, who was visiting Hawaii. I couldn’t have been older than seven when I heard it, but I remembered it for the rest of my life. I was enthralled, enchanted, fascinated, thrilled, amazed – but not afraid. Did he sanitise the story at all? Did he hell. I can still recall the stepmother slamming the lid of a heavy chest onto her stepson’s neck.

What I loved most about it – and I did love it – was that I felt privy to some sort of necessary truth, even if I couldn’t name it at the time. It was the feeling that someone was refusing to lie to me, even though (or perhaps because) I was a child. I carried that story with me for sixteen, seventeen years because of it.

Because here’s the thing. Children know that the world can be a dark, frightening, hurtful place. They don’t know the extent of it, they may not even know exactly how, but they know. Why do you think Roald Dahl sells? Fairy tales help children to understand by giving a shape to that darkness; once you know your enemy, it’s not so scary anymore. Fairy tales also let children know that while the darkness and fear and hurt don’t end forever – since the ending of one story doesn’t stop the generation of another, with its own dangers and pain – someone with intelligence, or a good heart, or conviction, or usually all three, can make them stop for a time, and maybe even end one kind of darkness forever.

So while I realise that there are some concepts children shouldn’t be exposed to, the murder and violence in fairy tales aren’t among them. I might not be telling the uncut version of Cinderella (in addition to the foot self-mutilation, the stepsisters get their eyes pecked out by crows) to my children before bed, but I do know which fairy tales I’ll give them to read – the Complete Brothers Grimm. Unedited.

*Incidentally, Daniel Morden is still telling stories and has a couple of books out, so if you have kids or were ever a kid yourself, check him out.


Written by Kelly Kanayama

October 14, 2009 at 8:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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