Fractured Fairy Tales

Anyone who has ever read Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the fairy tales of other nations like France or Denmark, can tell that there is a wide distance between the fairy tales as they were compiled by sociologists of folk culture like Hans Christan Andersen or the brothers Grimm and their popular understanding. A close reading of fairy tales will find that they tell rather chilling and deeply serious warnings about trusting charismatic strangers (The Pied Piper of Hamlin), warn about the dangers of cannibalism (Hansel & Gretel), warn about the dangers of blended families (Cinderella), and give a lesson in avoiding heartbreak due to foolish infatuations (The Little Mermaid comes to mind readily here). For the most part, these stories are tragic and dark and full of deep evil, warnings about the very serious nature of evil in this world couched in ways that a child could understand and become wiser by recognizing the dangers of the world without being too scarred by the grim details of those dangers. Fairy tales, at their heart, are age appropriate ways of giving instruction to children about a world that is full of danger and evil.

It should be noted as well that the men of the 19th century who compiled these fairy tales that we read (usually in sanitized version) or watch in Disney movies (in heavily edited versions) were highly educated social scientists who had deeply serious reasons for desiring to compile these accounts of folk wisdom. In an age of rapid urbanization and development within Europe, there was some concern that the folk wisdom of centuries might be lost in the face of alienation of people from their ancestral homes and villages, and a desire to use increased education to bring the oral culture of Europe’s peasantry into the written high culture. In addition, many of these men were active and involved in the cause of nationalism and they sought to inspire the love of the commonfolk for their ethnic nationalities (be they French or German or Dane or otherwise) through the legitimization of previously neglected folk culture in a similar way to the appropriation of folk music by Romantic and Nationalist composers of the same time period, a process that even extended to the United States (with the music of Aaron Copeland). A desire to preserve a previously ignored source of wisdom as well as ensure the support of a wide base of ordinary people for nationalistic causes influenced the popularity of educated people seeking to understand the folk culture of the ordinary populace, who previously had merely been the victims of dynastic and religious quarrels without being considered worthy of elite attention and concern.

Our attitude toward folk culture, including fairy tales, is a good way to measure how we feel about the common people and their own stories and lives. For many centuries fairy tales were ignored by elites because there was little interest among those who rules about the hopes and aspirations and lives and wisdom of their common people. All the elites wanted was for the common people to pray, pay, stay, and obey and anything else was a nuisance and a bother. The common people were to accept the dominance of rulers, to pay their taxes and tithes, and to basically keep quiet about anything else, even in the face of drought and disaster that was often brought on by the folly and corruption of those same leaders. When those same elites started to desire more than mere passive acceptance of rule and started desiring actual loyalty from the commonfolk as a whole, then it became necessary and politically useful for people to start appropriating common culture for high culture, whether it was in folk stories being collected by early sociologists, or folk music being brought into the high culture of orchestras. Tellingly, it is those elites (the sociologists and composers) who are remembered for this process, as the origin of the folk stories and music itself remains long forgotten among the anonymity of the common people whose contribution remained neglected even as it was appropriated to gain mass support in an age of growing egalitarian concerns.

Once that folk culture entered the consciousness of the higher culture, it then became subject to the same sorts of uses and pressures as everything else that was now a part of the larger elite culture. Again, we find that the attitude of people toward folk culture reflected their own perspectives and biases and agendas. The use of folk stories in Disney movies has often carried with it distinct political overtimes, including the desire to choose folk stories that appeal to a wide demographic audience [1] as well as the desire to cleanse from the folk stories the grim and dangerous nature of the world, in a similar way to the idyllic imaginary world that Disney has created through its theme parks. From this dishonest presentation of fairy tales, the fairy tales (not often read in their original forms) were dismissed as children’s literature unworthy of the time and attention of adults, and the wisdom and insights the stories originally provided were changed into often selfish wish-fulfillment in an overall context of consumerism and commercialization of what had been the freely shared culture of the masses in times past. Others have used fairy tales as a vehicle for exploring postmodern theories of truth (Hoodwinked comes to mind), while still others have simply used fairy tales as a familiar template for dramatic action without the pretense of greater insight beyond spectacle and action where the basic plot has been provided, in the absence of the creativity to tell new stories.

Why should we care about fairy tales in the first place? For one, they still exert an influence in our cultural understanding, especially through the media of film and television, as fairy tales are familiar plots to be endlessly retold and repackaged to suit the whims of marketers and promoters to appeal to the contemporary concerns of a wide audience. Because fairy tales are part of our wider culture since they were rescued from oblivion by 19th century intellectuals, they are part of the general cultural inheritance we have received from past generations. Another reason to care about them is that fairy tales in their original form show the same concern for education as a major concern for parents (and other educators) today. We are conscious, just as our forefathers were, that we live in a dangerous world full of great evil. Much of this evil tends to find its way to children largely because they cannot defend themselves as easily as larger people can, and so the wicked will exploit and attack those who are defenseless and lack protectors. We therefore face the difficult challenge of needing to better protect our children, to the best of our ability, from evil while also arming them with the discernment to be wary of others without becoming too cynical and corrupted. It is a tricky balance to maintain, and much depends on the general sensitivity of the audience as well as the severity of the evil that needs to be dealt with. But fairy tales offer one possible answer of the dilemma of how to instruct children in how to be wise in a wicked world (the book of Proverbs is another). Let us therefore study and apply what we can learn to the difficult problems we face in wrestling with an evil world without losing such innocence and good nature as we possess in the course of wrestling with that evil.


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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