Fairy Tale Pathology

To my mind, this advice by Sandhya Raghavan on ‘6 famous fairy tales you should never let your child read‘ seems like parody; these readings, if serious, are reductive, mechanistic, and unimaginative. Yet the alleged harmful effects of fairy tales have been discussed, by both conservatives and progressives, going back at least to the eighteenth-century.

In fact, fiction itself has always come under suspicion, but that which partakes of the irrational and anti-realist particularly, as does that intended for children (perhaps understandably). But the explicit lawlessness, violence, and sexuality of the unexpurgated fairy tale attracts more attention than most other genres (which is why fairy tales become expurgated–or rewritten–in the first place).

Today, they are more likely to offend liberal mores, or, as with Disney’s sweetened versions, come under attack precisely because of that expurgation. It’s an interesting topic, one which raises ideas about autonomy and the interpretive freedom of the reader; I leave it here for discussion.

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3 Responses to Fairy Tale Pathology

  1. Really interesting. I have just written a brief bit, to be published on tomorrow’s anniversary of the death of Henry Rider Haggard (mainly quotes), that relates to this somewhat: “… Like most people I read a lot of novels that contain characters or attitudes that don’t meet contemporary societal standards, and no doubt many books written today will fall short in the not-so-distant future (e.g. mental illness, disability, animals, lookism and violence). The question is what do you do about it?” Needless to say I don’t have a good answer – something that will run and run.

    • William the Bloody says:

      No, I don’t think there is an easy answer! Rider Haggard is, of course, particularly prone to accusations of both sexism and racism–perhaps less ambiguously than fairy tales.

    • Yes, it is becoming difficult to teach some of these texts. I taught ‘The Juniper Tree’ by Grimm to undergraduates. In this the son is decapitated by his stepmother, cooked in a pot and served to his father. There is a reason for this violence however as Grimm were keen to leave the figure of the natural mother unblemished (she is buried under the Juniper tree in this tale) and to warn against the dangers of step mothers. This is because so many women died in childbirth that many children were not brought up by their natural mothers and were treated cruelly. Due to inheritance laws the step mother would seek to prioritise her own children and to turn the husband against the children of his first marriage. The violence has an important historical referent therefore and is symbolic of the abuse experienced by these neglected children. I think we need to do some historicising and think of texts within the period in which they were written. Censorship is a terrible thing so I would always rebel against anything that promoted this approach to literature (whilst being aware that sadly I am restricted in what I can teach now).

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