Thursday, October 18, 2012

Article: "In Defense of Real Fairy Tales"

Recently, the fairy tale blogosphere has been abuzz with a recent article by Adam Gidwitz, the author of A Tale Dark and Grimm and now In a Glass Grimmly. It is in response to the constant complaint that fairy tales are too scary for children, a favorite point of contention for me. He is enthusiastically in favor of reading original fairy tales to children and draws from personal experience:

While adults wring their hands over whether children should be exposed to the real Grimm, young people themselves have no such ambivalence. In my visits to schools I have witnessed the introduction of Grimm tales to thousands of children—elementary students in urban London, middle schoolers in rural Texas, high school students in suburban Baltimore—and the reaction is always the same: enthusiasm that borders on ecstasy.
Which is, I admit, a little strange. Grimm fairy tales are 200 years old. They do not feature guns or robots, they do not involve cliques or internet slang, they do not mention LeBron James or the WWE. They are not televised or computerized. They are the most primitive form of entertainment still in existence. How do they bewitch an auditorium full of tweens and adolescents? Why, contrary to adults’ expectations and apprehensions, are fairy tales so perfectly appropriate for these children?

He discusses how children LOVE violence and gore:
The children I meet literally cannot believe that Cinderella’s step-sisters dismember themselves to get the slipper to fit. And they really cannot believe that adults have been peddling the sweet, anodyne version of the story all this time, when there was another version that was so much cooler.
He talks about how fairy tale violence is much more digestible than real violence:
The explanation, I think—and this is the second reason that the real fairy tales are uniquely appropriate for children—is that the tales are not at all realistic. I once taught a six-year-old girl who suffered from insomnia. Her affliction was cured when we discovered that her mother let the girl watch the eleven o’clock news. This first grader could not sleep because she was watching accounts of fires, assaults, and deaths right before bedtime. But she loved Grimm fairy tales. For fairy tales signal clearly to children—through simple, matter of fact descriptions of unearthly events and keystone phrases like “Once upon a time”—that the land of the fairy tale is decidedly not the external world.
Lastly, he spoke about my absolute favorite reason why fairy tales are so important to read to children, complete with violence and gore:
The land of the fairy tale is not the external world. It is, rather, the internal one. The real Grimm fairy tale takes a child’s deepest desires and most complex fears, and it reifies them, physicalizes them, turns them into a narrative. The narrative does not belittle those fears, nor does it simplify them. But it does represent those complex fears and deep desires in a form that is digestible by the child’s mind. Sometimes I refer to this as turning tears into blood. Allow me to illustrate what I mean.
I often share the Grimm tale “Faithful Johannes” with groups of students. In this tale, a father decapitates his two children to save the life of his faithful old servant Johannes. This done, the old servant places the children’s heads back on, and they leap and frolic and play as if nothing at all has happened. After sharing this tale, I typically ask kids, “How would you feel if your parents cut off your head to save an old friend of theirs? Imagine, of course, that you came back to life—but they didn't know that you would. How would you really feel?”
What amazes me about kids’ responses to this question is that, not only are their answers always the same, from Los Angeles to London and everywhere in between, their answers almost always come in the same order. Maybe it has to do with the order in which I call on children. I usually call on a serious looking girl first. Her answer is almost always, “I would feel betrayed.” Next, I call on another girl. “I would feel angry.” Then, I call on a boy who looks like he’s going to jerk his arm out of its socket, he’s raising his hand so strenuously. “I would cut off their heads, and then I would shoot them with a machine gun, and then I would…” I let him indulge in his patricidal fantasy for a few more sentences, and then I say, “So you would want revenge?” And he says, “Yeah, revenge.” And then, usually fifth or sixth, a boy or a girl will say, “I would feel like maybe my parents didn't love me enough.” Which silences the room. Finally, I say, “I hope none of you have ever experienced any of those feelings. But I know I have. And maybe some of you have, too.” And the kids nod their heads and stare.
“Faithful Johannes” takes a host of amorphous, ambiguous, and uncomfortable feelings and puts them into terms that children know intimately—the terms of physical pain.
This is the exact approach that Gidwitz takes when he writes his books. A Tale Dark and Grimm (see my review) begins with "Faithful Johannes," and then follows the path of the betrayed children until they find some peace.  While the tone of the story is glib and gory, he packs it full of visceral emotional lessons and experiences.

He drives it home by discussing how children put themselves in the mind of every character. The fairy tale characters are consciously empty vessels into which we pour ourselves:

In most fairy tales, the great wide world takes the form of a forest. Bruno Bettelheim, the great psychoanalytic interpreter of fairy tales, explains, “Since ancient times the near-impenetrable forest in which we get lost has symbolized the dark, hidden, near-impenetrable world of our unconscious.” Forests are where our fears turn into wolves, our desires into candy houses, where our fathers turn us loose to fend for ourselves, where the emotional problems we face at home are physicalized, externalized, and ultimately conquered. Where tears are transformed into blood.
This physicalization of emotion is so powerful for children because every child has fallen and bruised himself. Every child has felt hungry, even if only in our well-fed, First World way. Every child has had a cut that has bled. And so every child knows that the bruise stops hurting, the food does eventually come, the blood clots, scabs over, heals. When a child reads about emotional pain—betrayal and loneliness and anger at parents—in terms of blood, he comes to understand that those pains too will heal, that salty tears also dry.
He quotes G.K. Chesterton  who states something rather comforting about fairy tales, and rather depressing about realism:
G. K. Chesterton, in defending fairy tales from Victorian do-gooders, explained, “Folklore means that the soul is sane, but that the universe is wild and full of marvels. Realism means that the world is dull and full of routine, but that the soul is sick and screaming. The problem of the fairy tale is—what will a healthy man do with a fantastic world? The problem of the modern novel is—what will a madman do with a dull world?” Children are indeed healthy men in a fantastic world. From their perspective, they are the only ones who make any sense, and everyone else, adults in particular, are shadowy incomprehensibles. (I tend to agree with children on this point.)
In the end, he advises us to trust our children. They know what is good for them and what is not. If a book is too scary or too much for them, they will put it down. If a book is good for them, as many sleepy parents will attest, they will demand it again and again.

This article is probably the most concise and well-stated argument for scary fairy tales that I have ever read. It sums up my feelings on the matter perfectly!


  1. Ooh, thanks for sharing! I'm always fascinated by how actual children respond to fairy tales and not psychologists speculating on how children react.

    1. Me too! I had to put down Bettelheim because he kept saying things like "well obviously no child would have the emotional capacity to experience X in this stage of development." (a horrible paraphrase, yes). He kept limiting children's potential and capacity for understanding the meanings of fairy tales.