My mother gave me her childhood book of fairy tales when my children were young. This wasn’t a book she had ever shown me, or my brother and sisters. I think it was my teaching and my newfound love of children’s literature that prompted her to give me the book.
I was thrilled and excited. I read many of the fairy tales, especially the ones I knew. I remember calling Mother and the conversation we had on the phone. It went something like this:
Me: “Mother, these fairy tales are terrible.”
Mother: “What do you mean?”
Me: “They’re violent.”
The silence was deafening. I could see the stiffening and the tension, and I wasn’t even there. I could see the eyes tightening and the chin rising, even though I wasn’t there.
My mother was a no-nonsense, tough woman. She always idolized her grandfather who was a coal miner from Wales. He came to America, made a fortune in mining in Pennsylvania, lost everything in the depression, and then built his fortune once again. It wasn’t the money, it was the grit her grandfather had that my mother admired.
Mother’s father, her beloved grandfather’s only son, was killed in a mining accident when he was in his 30’s. Mother’s mother (Lulu to me) practically fell apart and spent a year in Paris with her children to recover. That year, 1928, they lived in the same apartment building as the famous singer Maurice Chevalier, who often sang to my mother. She was eight years old.
A fortune was spent in only a year. My mother watched her mother in weakness. After that, my mother became a very strong woman. When my father, her husband, died as a young man, my mother was able to manage her four children with a positive presence and a stiff upper lip.
And that is why she bristled when I told her that her Grimm’s Fairy Tales were violent.
Cinderella. Well, in the original Grimm’s story, there is no Fairy Godmother. Instead there is a weeping willow tree by her mother’s grave, and birds. The birds get her the dress for the ball…which lasts for three days. They also pick out the lentils from the ashes for Cinderella so she can go to the ball.
The glass slipper. OMG. The evil stepmother tells the first daughter to chop off her toe, and the second daughter to cut off her heel in order to make the glass slipper fit. Of course the blood sends the Prince back to the house each time. When the Prince and Cinderella marry, the birds peck out the stepsisters’ eyeballs. Really.
Do you recognize many of these titles? “Little Red Cap” is the original “Little Red Riding Hood.” It has two different endings. I read this to the children at school last week.
Popular fairy tales are popular to their readers. In the days of the Brothers Grimm, children died, life was hard, disease and terrible working conditions were common. Hot water and a big meal was a luxury. Therefore, those stories were not scary or violent to their readers. Even into the early 1900’s.
Today, people think Disney movie adaptations are violent. If my children called me to tell me how violent Disney movies were, I would have been just like my mother; shocked and defensive, and bristling. Shielding children from what happens in life is not the way to go. Storytelling and books and fairy tales are a good thing.
I’m my mother’s daughter.