Frightening Fairy Tales v. The Very Hungry Caterpillar?

Monica Bellucci as Mirror Queen in Terry Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm (2005)

Are fairy tales too frightening for our kids? Do they need sanitizing? Or should we just skip them altogether?

Fairy tales are a familiar part of most childhoods. All over the world, parents tell their children about Cinderella or Cendrillon or Yeh-Hsien or even the Egyptian Cinderella, Rhodopis. At least, they used to. According to a January 2009 article in The Telegraph, parents are skipping the once popular tales in favor of simpler, safer stories such as Eric Carle’s 1969 classic The Very Hungry Caterpillar.


Because fairy tales are scary, not PC, and outdated.

Too Frightening for Children

It’s not surprising that some parents find fairy tales frightening. Children are abandoned in forests (Hansel and Gretel), sent away to be killed (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), kidnapped and/or sold (Rapunzel), even married early to creepy old widowers (Bluebeard). Hans Christian Andersen’s little match girl dies on the street, forgotten and unloved, clinging to a memory of her dead grandmother and her dream of a real home.

Who’s avoiding fairy tales:

  • 3,000 parents polled

  • Almost 20 percent won’t read Hansel & Gretel

  • 20 percent don’t like reading The Gingerbread Man

  • 33 percent refuse to read Little Red Riding Hood

  • 66 percent say fairy tales have stronger morality messages than modern kidlit

  • 75 percent try to avoid scary stories before bedtime

  • 50 percent will not consider reading a fairy tale to their child until they reached the age of five

Fairy tales were not always the province of children, though children weren’t shielded from them, either. As Maria Tatar, John L. Loeb Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures, and Chair of Folklore & Mythology at Harvard University 2005 wrote in an article for Slate:

“[Fairy tales] started out as adult entertainment—violent, bawdy, melodramatic improvisations that emerged in the evening hours, when ordinary chores engaged the labor of hands, leaving minds free to wander and wonder. Fairy tales, John Updike has proposed, were the television and pornography of an earlier age—part of a fund of popular culture (including jokes, gossip, news, advice, and folklore) that were told to the rhythms of spinning, weaving, repairing tools, and mending clothes. The hearth, where all generations were present, including children, became the site at which miniature myths were stitched together, tales that took up in symbolic terms anxieties about death, loss, and the perils of daily life but also staged the triumph of the underdog.” ("Fairy Tales in the Age of Terror", 22 September 2005)

We Love Fairy Tales

There are no original fairy tales -- not really. There are earliest recorded versions, and literary versions, and retellings, but fairy tales are fluid. Details, like names and places and even supporting characters change, though central themes usually stay the same from telling to telling, because said themes are part of what makes up any given fairy tale.

Although we can’t trace the origin of a specific fairy tale, we can use fairy tales to illustrate the common origins of humanity. Why? Because many popular fairy tales exist, in some form, all over the world. The commonalities in many tales are so widespread that folklorists use a kind of catalogue, the Aarne-Thompson classification system, for keeping track of tales by their common elements. (Cinderella stories are AT-510 (with sub-types A and B) while Beauty and the Beast stories are AT-425.)

Folklorists aren’t the only ones who love fairy tales. Retellings, such as Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl and Donna Jo Napoli’s Bound are still popular with the teen set; The Three Billy Goats Gruff and Caps for Sale, two softer tales, do brisk trade as picture books. Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and Coraline, original fairy tales with strong ties to fairy tale themes and tropes, are bestsellers amongst YA and adult readers alike.

The vast reach of fairy tales isn’t limited to the written word, either. Many popular films and television shows owe large chunks of their plot to fairy tales. Pretty Woman is clearly a modern Cinderella; almost every bad-guy-changed-for-love-of-the-girl flick out there has roots in Beauty and the Beast.

The Telegraph’s list of top 10 fairy tales we no longer read:

1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

2. Hansel and Gretel

3. Cinderella

4. Little Red Riding Hood

5. The Gingerbread Man

6. Jack and the Beanstalk

7. Sleeping Beauty

8. Beauty and the Beast

9. Goldilocks and the Three Bears

10.The Emperor's New Clothes

The Dark Space Inside Our Heads

Fairy tales are dark. In the Grimm’s version of Cinderella, the ugly stepsisters cut off parts of their feet in an effort to fit into the slipper and fool the prince. In Bluebeard, a girl finds a room full of the hacked up remains of her husbands previous wives, her sisters included. In some older versions of Sleeping Beauty, it’s not the prince’s kiss that awakes the fair maiden but rather his, er, lust.

Are all fairy tales appropriate for all children and teens? No. Then again, not everything is appropriate for everyone -- not even chocolate. Even if authors and publishing houses did give way to the pressure from some parents to sanitize reissues and retellings, it’s likely the older, darker versions of the stories would stick around. As Jack Zipes, a professor of German studies and folklorist puts it in his article for The Boston Globe, "Fear of fairy tales", "There's a very important reason why these tales stick. "It's because they raise questions that we have not resolved." (21 September 2008)

Raising Questions & Relatability

As most authors and dedicated readers know, all good stories raise questions -- and fairy tales are up there with the best. Fairy tales present stories and situations riddled with questions for the discerning reader. Just a few:

  • Why doesn’t Cinderella leave home?

  • Why is the princess so drawn to the spindle? Why didn’t her parents simply warn her?

  • Why does Jack believe the magic beans are magic?

  • Why does Bluebeard’s wife open the door, even when she’s been told not to? And why is the story named for him and not her?

  • Do only princesses have happily ever afters?

Some argue that fairy tales serve an even deeper purpose, giving readers -- particularly children and teens -- a framework within which to understand their problems, and themselves. Fairy tales are dark, Tatar admits, but “beneath the horror was always the promise of revenge and restitution, the exquisite reassurance of a happily-ever-after.”

Zipes agrees, going so far as to read some of his own translations at elementary schools around Minneapolis. He “says he has seen young kids latch onto the classic, dark versions of the tales. Some of the most disadvantaged students, he told the Boston Globe’s Joanna Weiss, "really relate to us, because we're telling tales that they experience in their homes."”

Does this mean you should rush home and read an illustrated copy of Bluebeard to your two-year-old? Of course not. It’s every parent’s choice, picking books they deem suitable for their child. However, while some fairy tales may not be appropriate at all ages, that doesn’t mean we should pick up sanitized copies to fill the gaps. Skipping over the darkness in fairy tales does readers -- all readers, not just children -- a disservice. We can’t skip over the darkness in real life, but we can give children and teens a way to put it in perspective, and learn about themselves in the process. As Weiss so eloquently writes,

"Fairy tale" may be our shorthand for castles and happy endings, but these classic stories have villains, too -- nefarious witches, bloodthirsty wolves, stepmothers up to no good. And scholars have come to see the stories' dark elements as the source of their power, not to mention their persistence over the centuries. Rich in allegory, endlessly adaptable, fairy tales emerged as a framework for talking about social issues. When we remove the difficult parts - and effectively do away with the stories themselves -- we're losing a surprisingly useful common language.
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