Good amongst the grimm
“Suffering brings out the best
And the worst in everyone.
When hard times put us to the test,
We learn if we are weak or strong.”
Moral of the story ‘Patient Griselda’ by Charles Perrault.
When looking at the thematic strategies of modern storytelling, no one can deny the huge influence of fairy tales. Much like how Shakespeare’s tropes remain prolific throughout contemporary film and literature, so do the themes of the Grimms Brothers and Hans Christian Andersen.
Yet despite this abundant influence, a concern for many parents is the levels of violence and prejudice within these tales. No one can forget the gruesome outcomes of the witch in Hansel and Gretel, or the cruel torment of Cinderella at the hands of her stepsisters. Throughout this essay, I intend to explore the effect of fairy tales on childhood development; whilst simultaneously highlighting the ways in which they continue to inspire visual contemporary media. I will discuss the different ways that fairy tales impact modern society, by pulling together notable critiques and theories on the genre. In order to contextualise these noted concerns, I will also evaluate two classic fairy tales as case studies; these being ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and ‘Hansel and Gretel’, both of which works are internationally recognised for their complexities.
The debated benefits of reading fairy tales to children has long been a divisive argument for parents. While many believe that fairy tales possess a strong moral core, teaching children of the harsh realities of life, others see them as representing stereotypical and old-fashioned ideals which work to damage the development of young minds. Experts of child psychology have long praised the metaphors behind these tales, as being safe spaces in which to experience anxieties, and to understand the differences between good and bad. In an interview with The Telegraph, child psychologist Sally Goddard Blythe is quoted as saying: "Fairy tales help to teach children an understanding of right and wrong, not through direct teaching, but through implication."
The opposite side of this debate was recently sparked once more by actress Keira Knightley, who shares her concerns along with many other parents, regarding the negative representations of women in fairy tales. A poll published by The Telegraph in 2012 highlighted some of these concerns, revealing that 52% of parents felt Cinderella portrays women in a negative light. They also found that a third of parents avoid reading fairy tales to their children because they’re afraid it will give them nightmares. However, despite the negative responses, it subsequently revealed that half of the parents surveyed felt that children have more to learn from fairy tales than from modern forms of entertainment.
Up until quite recently, my own relationship with fairy tales was a purely positive one. I can remember sitting on the edge of my seat as a child, listening to my teachers read stories such as ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. Despite having heard the same stories countless times before, among every retelling I felt both thrilled and concerned at the same time, desperate to hear of the villains’ defeat and the protagonists’ victory. While the witches and wolves of these stories certainly had the capability to scare me, they taught me to be wise and cautious, and to keep clear of strangers. They also taught me to be
grateful of my privileged start in life. ‘The Little Match Girl’ was another story which had an impact on me. I remember crying the first time I heard it as the little girl’s grandmother appears to take her up to heaven. Afterwards I distinctly recall viewing my life in a new way; I never looked at homelessness the same way again, and it made me feel so thankful for my loving parents. These early experiences of fairy tales taught me many valuable lessons, which may have aided me through my transition into independence.
However, it wasn’t until rereading these stories as an adult, that I realized their potential for negative experiences as well. No one can deny that in these tales there is a huge amount of passivity and dependence written into the female characters. Men are often shown as the saviours, and marriage is shown as the epitome of a successful happily ever after. So ever since becoming more critical and aware of the world around me, I have been cautious of fairy tales despite my happy childhood associations with them. Within this essay, I will examine both sides of this argument, and try to determine the level of impact fairy tales have on children.
As stated previously, the visual impact fairy tales have had on modern pop culture is immeasurable. Their storytelling structures, however, have managed to remain on a subtler level. Of course, there are the obvious examples of their continuing popularity, with the recreations of famous tales like ‘Sleeping Beauty’ in the release of ‘Maleficent’ (2014), along with the release of ‘Beauty & the Beast’ (2017). Yet there are more understated examples of fairy tale tropes shown throughout contemporary media.
For example, many forms of children’s entertainment still tackle themes of tragedy, horror, family issues and romance, all of which can be drawn from fairy tales. Tragedy plays a big role in almost every Pixar movie, which allows for children to be familiarised with the difficulties of life. A huge amount of Hans Christian Andersen’s collection references the struggles of losing a loved one. Much like in the opening scene of Pixar’s ‘Up’ (2009), which unfolds like a Greek tragedy as we watch a couple grow old together until the wife dies, leaving her husband all alone in the world.
Another example of fairy tale influence can be seen in the fantastical animation ‘Coraline’ (2009), which follow a young girl as she discovers a new and exciting alternative reality. The story unfolds in a way that moves dangerously close to a fully-fledged horror movie, despite its young target audience. After facing against her monstrous ‘other-mother’ Coraline eventually realises just how lucky she was in her real world, in a narrative which closely mirrors the storyline of ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Just like my own experience with ‘The Little Match Girl’, this film encourages children to appreciate what they have, and to be well behaved to their parents.
The appeal of horror and tragedy in fiction may appear perplexing to some, but for children experiencing these themes in fairy tales, one could argue it prepares them for adulthood in a safe and controlled way. But what happens when we strip fairy tales of these darker themes?
When mentioning fairy tales, often the first thing people think of are the Disney versions. Arguably these films have become more famous than their original counterparts, given their overwhelming international success. However, despite the seemingly undying popularity of these films, they are criticized by many because of their alterations of the source material. There is no denying that Disney’s fairy tales are far more sentimental and tamer in comparison, with most (if not all) of the dark and adult material being stripped away to maintain their child friendly status. In addition, Disney seemed to further emphasize the conservative and Christian values of the originals, making them the main drive behind the films. Because of this, the complex inner struggles of women within these stories were often ignored, meaning that they simply appeared as damsels in distress, or as evil stepmother caricatures. Author and fairy tale theorist Marina Warner states when talking of Disney that they ‘have done more than any other to naturalise female maternal malignancy in the imagination of children worldwide.’
It’s also important to note that many of the cultural and traditional significance of these stories were erased. Author Frances Clarke Sayers referred to this process as ‘Disneyfication’, scolding the company for dumbing down the complex history included in earlier narratives. In a letter addressed to Disney she claims: “he shows scant respect for the integrity of the original creations of authors, manipulating and vulgarizing everything for his own ends”.
Yet it could be argued that to change and adapt is the very nature of fairy tales. Before there were fairy tales, there were oral traditions and folklore, before then myth and legend, and one could contend that film is the only way in which fairy tales can still exist within a modern world. But perhaps, in order to produce a true fairy tale, the creator must be aware of its history, in order to preserve the tradition. Whether or not Disney do this is debatable, but what they may do successfully is make people aware of fairy tales, encouraging them to become acquainted with the earlier versions. I would be the first to admit that these films were one of the main reasons I became interested in this topic.
Furthermore, the sanitization of fairy tales is hardly a new phenomenon, and it doesn’t apply solely to Disney. The censorship of these tales has existed for a long time, and it became particularly prolific in the Victorian era. Victorian collectors were paradoxically keen to maintain peasant culture in their retellings, while stripping the stories of all that was believed bad-mannered. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were particularly guilty of this, ridding their collection of any themes of sexuality or sinful behaviours. As written in their own words they: "carefully removed every expression inappropriate for children".
Down the Rabbit Hole
Many would argue that these stories were never meant for child consumption in the first place. Before being collected into written records, these stories were traditionally told between adult laborers to pass the time. The overwhelming concern for many regarding fairy tales, is the copy-cat effect the violence may have on children. Jacob Grimm often defended his inclusion of these themes by stressing that the collections were never envisioned for a young audience. As theorist Maria Tatar put it, the Grimm’s instead “hoped their work would serve as a manual for manners.” This defence may be applicable in cases such as the Grimms, but the same certainly can’t be said for other fairy tale collectors. The collection of Charles Perrault contains some of the most widely recognised fairy tales of all time. Yet behind these seemingly safe household names, lie themes of such extremity that they could even make the Grimms wince. Perrault famously maintained the charade for many years, that his young son was the author of his famous tales. He even published his hugely successful Mother Goose collection under his name. In claiming that these tales were written by a child, one can hardly deny that they were purposely targeted at a youthful audience.
Many theorists argue the importance of exposing children to these tales , arguing that if we eradicate them, we are withholding the positive messages children can learn from them. Highlighted in an article by the BBC, Professor Yvonne Kelly is quoted as saying: “A degree of magical content supports imaginative development. Children who listen to stories show better results in measures such as literacy tests and SATs - but also in terms of social and emotional development." As touched on previously, psychoanalysts have also long praised fairy tales for familiarising children with moral decision making. However, their everlasting appeal they believe is down to their capacity to challenge children’s inner conflicts. For Carl Jung, the archetypes of fairy tales represent the multifaceted nature of our subconscious. Similarly, for psychoanalyst pioneer Sigmund Freud, the dreamlike aesthetic in these stories represent our supressed desires and wishes. In 1976 child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim published his ground-breaking book titled ‘The Uses of Enchantment’. In which he uses Freudian analysis to evaluate the links between fairy tales and childhood development.
Throughout the book, Bettelheim defends fairy tales, highlighting why he believed all children should be exposed to them. When endorsing fairy tales, he is quoted as saying that “more can be learned from them about the inner problems of human beings, and of the right solutions to their predicaments in any society, than from any other type of story within a child’s comprehension.” As we know, most fairy tales depict a main character (who is often a child) facing a tremendous struggle, whether this be in the guise of a monster, a personal loss or an abuse of power. Almost all of which tales incorporate the childlike fears which reside in us all. This fear could be argued as being traumatic to children, or ultimately useful. Bettelheim argues the latter when stating: “Many parents believe that only conscious reality or pleasant and wish fulfilling images should be presented to the child. But such one-sided fare nourishes the mind only in a one-sided way, and real life is not at all sunny.” No one can deny the unavoidable struggles of life, and as Bettelheim suggests, perhaps it is crueller to shelter children from difficulty, than to coddle them to an extent of ignorance.
In order to further elaborate on the psychoanalytic theories behind fairy tales, it’s important to apply them to the stories in question. Two tales which have been endlessly theorised on are ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and ‘Hansel and Gretel’, both of which left a particular impression on myself as a child. Of course, at a young age I couldn’t have been conscious to the complexities and metaphors of each tale. Yet, it’s interesting to consider whether children have the capacity to internalise these themes in a constructive way, as Freudian analyses suggests. For both case studies I will highlight the history and various versions of the tale, whilst also considering the benefits and negatives to their implications.
Little Red Riding Hood
The story of Little Red Riding Hood is perhaps the most widely recognised and celebrated fairy tale of all time. The popularity of this tale can be revealed in its huge prolificacy worldwide, with many countries having their own individualistic retellings. The precise foundation of the tale is unknown, yet many scholars have linked it to Greek mythology with their cannibalistic tales such as the myth of Cronos; who devours his children before they inexplicably escape victorious from his belly. There are believed to be 58 written versions of the story, along with hundreds of accounts within oral folkloric history.
The peasant versions of this tale include themes of heightened extremity in comparison with their written equivalents. Folklorist Paul Delarue recounts what he believes to be an authentic folk lore account in his tale titled ‘The Story of Grandmother’. In this fable the protagonist is forced to eat the flesh of her grandmother, before performing sexual acts with the wolf. In the irrefutably humoristic conclusion, she escapes after pleading with the wolf to let her go to the toilet. For the tellers of this narrative, there was no moralistic intention behind the brutality, instead it was a story of peasant humour and absurdity.
The cautionary tale that we know today was originally shaped by Charles Perrault, who was the first person to put the tale in writing. Similarly, as shown with the Disneyfication debate, Perrault stripped the tale of all its peasant grotesques, instead deciding to include his own specific moralistic conclusion. This strategy was also utilized two centuries later by the Grimm Brothers, in their tale titled ‘Little Red Cap’, which has become the most familiar retelling. These versions encouraged children to listen to their parents, and to practice good manners, with the mother detailing ‘proper’ behaviour in clinical detail. It is in these tales where Little Red Riding Hood is made responsible for her own downfall by ignoring her mother’s instructions and allowing the wolf to invade the grandmothers home. Critic Karen Rowe states her belief that “nineteenth century rescripts of Little Red Riding Hood are, in fact, among the most frightening, in large part because they tap into discursive practices that rely on a pedagogy of fear to regulate behaviour.”
Yet it is the endings of these narratives which greatly differ in intend. Perrault’s account concludes in a tragic and frightful way, as the little girl does not resurface after being devoured by the wolf. While ‘Little Red Cap’ is saved by a hunter and is shown to learn from her mistakes by slaying the wolves she encounters in later life. She is transformed through naivety and lives happily ever after, displaying a purer fairy tale structure. The chosen ending by Perrault has been heavily critiqued for its lack of resolve, which may produce an anxiety in its readers. Even Bruno Bettelheim, in his mostly optimistic stance on fairy tales, openly disapproved of this ending, stating that Perrault altered a "naive, attractive young girl, who is induced to neglect Mother's warnings and enjoy herself in what she consciously believes to be innocent ways, into nothing but a fallen woman." It is the overt victimization of Little Red Riding Hood which brings a problematic layer to the story, particularly when considering the audience of fairy tales which is often young and impressionable girls.
The Men in Wolves Clothing
“Young children, as we clearly see,
Pretty girls, especially,
Innocent of all life’s dangers,
Shouldn’t stop and chat with strangers.
If this simple advice beats them,
It’s no surprise if a wolf eats them.
And this warning take, I beg:
Not every wolf runs on four legs.
The smooth tongue of a smooth-skinned creature
May mask a rough and wolfish nature.
These quiet types, for all their charm,
Can be the cause of the worse harm.”
Charles Perrault’s ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ moral.
Along with publishing the first written adaptation, Perrault was also the first collector to include the metaphors which shape our perceptions of the story; those being the suggestions of sexuality in relation to danger. The wolf for Perrault appears as a sexual predator in disguise, as opposed to carnivorous beast shown in earlier portrayals. While this is not clearly stated within the story, the implications are too obvious to ignore. The wolf is shown as a shady seducer, who cleverly lures Little Red Riding Hood into bed. This is made clear as day in his complementing moral to the story (as shown above), which concerningly places responsibility on young girls for their shortcomings. The suggestion of this text being that a wolf figure can in fact be a man who is inherently manipulating by nature; and if a girl encounters them its their fault for not listening to the advice of adults. Perrault fails in his attempts to create an effective cautionary tale, which works to help young girls, by instead using metaphors of rape to imply that a victim has equal blame. For feminist author Susan Brownmiller, the tale is a parable of rape that displays no hope for the outcomes of women. She is quoted as saying: “There are frightening male figures abroad in the woods—we call them wolves, among other names—and females are helpless before them.” In transforming the wolf into a sexual predator who kills the young girl, it could also be argued that Perrault suppressed the opportunities for children to understand that they can learn from their mistakes. Instead the tales suggests that if you make a mistake there’s no turning back.
For the Grimm brothers, the sexual implication is still present, yet far more understated. Their moral to the story is as follows: “I say a wolf, but not all wolves are exactly the same. Some are perfectly charming, not loud, brutal or angry, but tame, pleasant, and gentle, following young ladies right into their homes,
into their chambers, but watch out if you haven’t learned that tame wolves are the most dangerous of all.” While following a similar structure as Perrault’s moral, in context with their ending the cautionary aspects of their tale weighs far more positively on girls. In allowing Little Red Cap to rise victorious at the end of the story, it works to comfort adolescent readers of their anxieties, confirming that struggles in life are inevitable, but you can use them to your advantage and become a stronger person for it.
Another suggestion of sexuality is depicted in the overwhelming emphasis placed on the colour red. When considering the semiotic connotations of red, two opposing emotions arise; these being love and intimacy, as well as violence and danger. For Bruno Bettelheim, the red garments represent the protagonists budding sexuality, of which she is not mature enough yet to understand. He believes that the ultimate message of the tale is of sexual anxiety. He states: “The person who is psychologically ready to have sexual experiences can master them and grow because of it. But a premature sexuality is a regressive experience, arousing all that is still primitive within us and that threatens to swallow us up.” In most versions of the tale, Little Red Cap is around the age of 11 or 12, which is arguably the most anxious stage of sexual growth. Considering the huge concern many girls experience regarding puberty, the red in this story could also be a metaphor for menstrual anxiety. These fears, although daunting for children, are important to experience and grow from, and perhaps fairy tales are the safest place to do so if the child is embarrassed to question their parents.
Splitting the wolf
With or without sexual connotation, the wolf of Little Red Riding Hood is a fearsome character to remember. He possesses the same disreputable qualities of monsters such as the vampire or witch; the monsters who hide in plain sight, and creep into our bedrooms at night-time. Theorists have long pondered what or who his character represents. Many believe that the wolf originally signified the vicious and unyielding nature of the wilderness. But possibly the lasting-legacy of the tale comes from the fact that the wolf is a monster that possesses masculine malevolence, in a genre which so often paints women as the villains. It doesn’t shy away from the historic injustices of men to the same degree as many stories of folkloric origin. Fairy tale theorist Marina Warner stated her belief that the wolf may represent the fear of male ruling power in peasant societies. She is quoted saying: “the wolf no longer stands for the savage wilderness, but for the deceptions of the city and the men who wield authority in it.”
It’s also interesting to note the absence of a father figure within this story, something which is again, quite rare to find in fairy tales. Not only is there no father, but there is no grandfather either, meaning that perhaps the wolf is a manifestation of a fear of masculinity for a character who has never experienced it. One could even argue that the wolf may represent Little Red Cap’s father, who given his absence, may have had a tumultuous relationship with her.
The male presence may seem sparse, but in fact it plays a crucial role in the story. The hunter who frees Red Cap, and the monstrous wolf, displays the two opposing sides to traditional hegemonic masculinity, one violent and dominating, the other heroic. As Bettelheim states: “It is as if Little Red Cap is trying to understand the contradictory nature of the male by experiencing all aspects of his personality.” He continues to highlight how the hunter is a good role model for young boys, showing them that if possessed with violent masculine tendencies, it can be used in a constructive way. For example, in committing the vicious act of cutting open the wolf, the hunter is using his strength to protect.
This splitting of masculinity is used in a similar way with femininity throughout many fairy tales. In Little Red Riding Hood for example, the grandmother character goes through a hideous transformation from innocent older woman to wolf in disguise. The tendency for children to ‘split’ relationships this way is a common one. Much like alluded to in Coraline, the ‘other mother’ and the real mother may in fact be the same person. Perhaps the wolf and the grandmother were one in the same all along. Psychologists have long highlighted the benefits of compartmentalising in this way, because it allows the child to continue healthy relationships despite the natural disturbances that exist within family dynamics. To quote Bettelheim once more: “These fantasies are helpful, they permit the child to feel really angry at the ‘false parent’, without guilt.”
All in all, Little Red Riding Hood is a story of many complex layers. Given its prolific nature, it’s pointless to debate whether all versions of the story provide positive conclusions for children. While some accounts may have negative connotations of victim blaming and manipulating through fear, other versions such as ‘Little Red Cap’ I believe provide children with a safe place in which to analyse their concerns about growing up. It’s also important to note that as a character Little Red Riding Hood is universally adored despite her naivety, which may be a comfort to readers. The Grimm Brothers are successful in that they don’t punish Little Red Cap for her mistakes, to the same level as writers such as Perrault. Instead they work to encourage children to use logic and understanding of past difficulties, to learn from their downfalls. In rising triumphant from the belly of the beast, it shows a child the transformative power they possess to successfully transition into autonomy.
Hansel and Gretel
A tale perhaps on par with the popularity of Little Red Riding Hood is Hansel and Gretel, a story in which all Europeans would be familiar with in childhood. While its not as prolific as the former in its retellings, there are countless fairy tales with similar storylines and themes. The first to publish the story as we know it today were the Brothers Grimm, but it is widely thought to have originated around the time of the Great Medieval Famine, given the stories huge focus on starvation. The Grimms were also thought to be inspired by Perrault’s ‘Hop O’ My Thumb’ and ‘Vasilisa the Beautiful’ of Russian folklore. Both of which narrate a story of children being abandoned in the woods by their starving and neglectful parents.
‘Hansel and Gretel’ is another tale in which theorists and psychoanalysts have long examined. The tale has been praised by many for its revelation that problems cannot be simply ignored. After being abandoned, the protagonists are shown to ignore their problems by returning home, only to be abandoned once more. It is only through their mutual collaboration and intelligence that they conquer their problems, before returning home and living seemingly happily ever after. For Bruno Bettelheim, the story teaches children the importance of facing their darkest fears head on. In a chapter focusing specifically on this tale, he determined that “the story tells about the debilitating consequences of trying to deal with life's problems by means of regression and denial, which reduce one's ability to solve problems.” But one cannot simply praise this story without considering whether there are additional negative implications.
The Other Mothers
Much like the beginning of many Grimms fairy tales, ‘Hansel & Gretel’ starts by revealing that the maternal birth mother of the children is absent and has been replaced by a stepmother. The wife of this tale immediately falls into the role of evil stepmother, as she manipulates the father into abandoning his children within the very first paragraph. The ‘Wicked Stepmother’ trope is perhaps the most prolific and infamous theme within fairy tales, where it has seemed to seep into the minds of story tellers for generations. Even within contemporary media, its rare to find a positive example of a stepmother character. The Grimms brothers have often been accused of starting this phenomenon, as fairy tales predating them had little issue with painting birth mothers as malignant. They consciously changed mother figures into stepmothers throughout their collection, as they could not face the idea that a ‘true’ mother could be anything other than angelic and pure. When talking of this process within ‘Hansel & Gretel’, Maria Tatar states: “he [Wilhelm Grimm] transformed the mother into a stepmother simply because he could not bear to pass on stories about mothers so intent on surviving a famine that they are willing to sacrifice their own children.”
Yet, despite this transformation, it is believed by many that in the original un-edited story there was no mention of a step mother, meaning that her character still represents the ‘true’ birth mother. For Bettelheim, the wickedness of the mother figure epitomises the emotions felt by a child longing for autonomy, when the mother is the all-powerful force who at a young age must control their lives. Traditionally, she is the one who feeds, bathes, and clothes you, so it is only natural for children to feel powerless and angered from time to time. Fairy tales may in fact be the securest way in which children can exorcise these frustrations, without causing harm in their family relationships.
It’s also interesting to note the connections between the stepmother and the witch in the woods. Both of which characters are motivated to do evil because of their appetites, and both fall into the role of the mother for the protagonists. While the step mother appears cold and uncaring, the witch is so initially appealing to the children because of her nurturing tenderness. She seemingly embodies everything in which they had hoped their stepmother would, by feeding them, keeping them warm and providing them with a bed. But of course, much as the stepmother may have firstly appeared gentle, her malicious intentions are revealed when she locks them away as her prisoners. It’s as if the stepmother has resurfaced monstrously as the evil witch, suggesting that the characters are one in the same. The family home and the gingerbread house therefore may also be the same place, childishly split up into the reassuring and frightening experiences of a tumultuous family. As mentioned previously, this process of splitting can be of great comfort for a child, particularly to one who is too young to understand that all parents possess good and bad qualities. If a child grows up believing that their parents are bad people because of their minor infractions, this could work to damage them indefinitely. But if they differentiate the good and bad within people as being separate entities, this may help towards building trusting relationships.
While the splitting of characters may provide therapeutic comfort for children, the inequality of the process in this tale is something which can’t be avoided in the discussion. After all, it is the father who has the final say in the plan to abandon his children, and it is he who leads them out into the woods with very little food. Although the story ends with the characters living with their father ‘together in perfect happiness’, the complete erasure of all femininity is ignored. There is no ‘other-father’ in this tale, the same man who abandoned his children, is embraced with loving arms at the end with no responsibility placed on his character at all. The explained benefits of the tale as put forth by psychoanalysts all seem to ignore this factor, therefore for a child to reach autonomy it is suggested that they only must rebel against their mothers. One cannot deny the patriarchal implications of erasure such as this. When highlighting the opinion of folklorist Jack Zipes, Maria Tatar states: “For him, ‘Hansel and Gretel’ should be taken at face value: it is an account of fathers who engage in abusive behaviour to secure the submission of their children to a patriarchal order.”
“Wish-fulfilment in fairy tales often has more to do with the stomach than with the heart.”
Maria Tatar, Classic Fairy Tales.
Family issues aside, the main focal point of ‘Hansel & Gretel’, and the element that drives all characters is a ferocious fixation with food. A desperation for food is something that very little of us can comprehend anymore in western culture. But at the time of many fairy tale origins widespread starvation and famine was standard. An article published by the Telegraph in 2012, highlighted the overwhelming emphasis on food in fairy tales collected by the Grimm Brothers. In this text, they reveal the personal relationship the brothers had with poverty. After their father’s death in 1796, they were often forced to deprive themselves of food so the rest of the family could eat. Meaning that unlike the several fairy tale collectors who were born into privilege, they understood what it felt like to go hungry. To quote the article: “At breakfast they drank a single cup of coffee. Their only meal was a five o'clock dinner, three portions shared between five people.” ‘Hansel & Gretel’ may be the most revealing tale of this understanding, as it shows the lengths to which starvation may drive people. It’s possible the ‘evil’ stepmother did truly love the children, but extreme famine pushed her to do the unthinkable. Perhaps it is hunger which is the true villain of this story, as opposed to the witch.
Given that many fairy tales are set in times a famine, it may explain why a remarkable amount of these stories include themes of cannibalism. Another tale which has often been compared with ‘Hansel & Gretel’ is the Grimm’s brothers unnerving narrative titled ‘The Juniper Tree’. In said story another shockingly wicked stepmother decapitates her stepson before cooking him into a stew and serving it to her unknowing husband. In ‘Hansel & Gretel’ the witch craves the flesh of children in a suggested purely sadistic fashion; but is it that far fetched to believe she is simply a peasant woman driven mad with starvation? To quote Maria Tatar: “The peasants of folktales may have to worry about famines, but children in fairy tales live perpetually under the double threat of starvation and cannibalism.” It’s very possible to imagine this being a fear of many children of the time, so therefore it may be harsh to critique these tales as being inappropriate if we don’t fully consider their history.
Another significant link to poverty in ‘Hansel & Gretel’ is shown in the gingerbread house. When reading the story, you almost feel as though you are the protagonists, being drawn in involuntarily by the sheer tantalization of such a sight. Not only at this point do we understand the near agonizing hunger of the characters, but we can also imagine the sheer happiness and relief they must feel upon finding the house. But one cannot deny the irony of Hansel and Gretel destroying something which could provide them warmth and shelter in the wilderness. This element of the story highlights the undeniable selfishness of childhood, and how it’s the very nature of children to take (and not give back in return) due to their vulnerability. To Bruno Bettelheim, the gingerbread house epitomises oral greed, something in which all kids possess. According to him “the gingerbread house represents an existence based on the most primitive satisfactions.” He continues to explain how the comfort brought on by the house may represent a mother’s womb, and in destroying it, the characters are in fact stealing from their own mother. It is only when mirroring the protagonist’s gluttony with the dreadful appetite of the witch, that they realize the error of their ways. After slaying the witch and returning home they finally understand the importance of growing away from the comfort of their parents, instead they trade in their dependency for personal autonomy.
Just like Little Red Riding Hood, there certainly are positive things that can be taken from this tale. Perhaps the most useful thing, which even the harshest of critics could not deny, is that it subtly tells children that difficulties in life are unavoidable. In seeing the successful ending of Hansel and Gretel, after they face several hardships, it places in a child’s mind that anything is possible if they try. It also reveals that if you face your fears head on, you will often be able to conquer them. To quote Bettelheim: “A witch as created by the child's anxious fantasies will haunt him; but a witch he can push into her own oven and burn to death is a witch the child can believe himself rid of.”
Another element of this story which may provide comfort to both children and parents, is the sibling cooperation. ‘Hansel & Gretel’ strays away from the trope of sibling rivalry (as shown in tales such as Cinderella), and instead stresses the benefits of working together and supporting one another. The thoughtful collaboration undertaken by the two protagonists displays a refreshing outlook on team work, and the importance of it when growing up. Instead of relying on their parents to fix their problems, they instead work through them themselves, and they’re better for it in the end. No more do the characters depend on on wishful thinking as shown in the beginning, but instead on smart problem solving. Of course, there are notable flaws within this story, along with most fairy tales, but perhaps the main thing in which a parent must consider before reading it to their child is – does the good outweigh the bad?
As Bettelheim highlights, the central theme within these two stories, (among many other tales) is the threat of being devoured. Possibly this threat reflects the irrefutable weakness of childhood. Even as very young children, we understand that adults have power over us, and we recognise that they control the circumstances of our lives. Yet very often in these stories, we see the child protagonists undertake a journey which ultimately frees themselves from this vulnerability. Location also plays a huge role in the efficacy of these tales; for what else can the endless forests and grand castles represent, if not for our own unfathomable subconscious? Time and time again these stories encourage inward reflection, which is something needed among children if they are to become successful adults.
Yet despite all these positive assumptions, one can not help but to wonder why children are exposed to such themes of brutality within fairy tales. In a shocking amount of folk tales, the parental figures are shown as neglectful, absent or monstrous, despite the frequent suggestions to the childhood audience to listen to them above all others. Perhaps these tales have more to say about the responsibility of adults than of children. An article by the New York Times explored this idea, suggesting that maybe these stories exist purely to comfort the guilt of negligent parents. To quote the article: “I suspect our continual attraction to fairy tales, is based more on something adults repress and are afraid to talk about. I mean child abuse, neglect and abandonment, and not only the kind experienced at the hands of strangers but that meted out by parents themselves.” This suggestion poses a lot of uncomfortable questions, after all is it fair to punish the children of fairy tales for their naivety, when it is something in which all children naturally possess? Either way, the timeless qualities of these tales, I believe, is reflected in the ability they have to comfort us and to make us analyse our actions and feelings.
To summarise, the concerns for many 21st century parents are surrounding the depictions of femininity in fairy tales. It’s impossible to deny that there are themes within folklore which have misogynistic connotations. However, it could be argued that to depict a world in which everyone in equal is unrealistic, given that the struggle for equality still exists for many groups within our society. Therefore, it may be helpful to familiarise children with these inequalities so that they know how to recognise them in later life. To quote child psychologist Sally Goddard Blythe: “We don’t always help our children by allowing them to believe that the world they go into will always be easy or that other people will always understand them or make allowances for them.”
It’s also vital to point out that these tales are a product of their time. What is considered offensive now, may have not been then. And what was considered appropriate for children then, may not be so now. Perhaps its safer to meet in the middle between the for and against of this argument. In providing children with the right tools to identify the negatives to these stories, they can still be able to learn the valuable lessons these tales provide. Author Donald Hasse encourages parents to read these stories to children, whilst pointing out the outdated stereotypes within them. The overly optimistic view of psychoanalysts such as Bettelheim, often fail to point out that if not accompanied with thoughtful critique, the archaic themes may become internalised in a child’s mind. It may be that parents need to be carefully selective in the tales they read their children. For example, if reading Little Red Riding Hood, they should choose a version which doesn’t punish the character too harshly (as shown in Perrault’s version), so that they can highlight the endings which empower her (as shown in ‘Little Red Cap’). The total eradication of fairy tales would certainly obstruct a child’s ability to have meaningful experiences with literature, especially given the often sentimental and patronising narratives within modern child entertainment.
The conclusion of this discussion is not simply a happily ever after, yet it’s ending is not of a gloomy and hopeless nature either. Instead I will conclude with a similar motif as a fairy tale - this is a cautionary tale. I think it vital to understand the history of these tales, with their differing social norms, to fully understand and appreciate them. Perhaps all that is needed to make these tales more successful in relation to childhood development, is to have a cautionary relationship with them. If parents continue to read these tales whilst also balancing them with a contemporary voice which highlights the negative aspects, then children can continue to get the psychological experiences that Bettelheim highlights, all whilst not internalising sexist, and prejudiced tropes. To answer my previously posed question, I believe that the good elements of fairy tales, hugely outweigh the bad. So therefore, within my practical work I will continue to argue the efficacy and legacy of these tales. I will end with a quote by the brilliant Albert Einstein: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”