Thoughts on first fairy tales

I had thought I was going to be very heavy on the fairy tales for my children. My hefty volumes of Grimm and Andersen, standards of my childhood inscribed with my parents’ marginalia (“TOO GORY”), stand ready on the shelf.

But as we start to branch out beyond the animal stories, I find I’m more selective than I thought I would be. Lily’s nearly three, and her favorite stories are Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Three Little Pigs, and Little Red Riding Hood. The first one is a bit of a reverse in which the transgressive character is the little girl, but the others are fairly straightforward tales of how to survive someone who wants to eat you.

I’ve found that the first standard version of “The Three Little Pigs” has a longer bit than I remembered before the demise of the wolf. The interchange between the wolf and the third pig, safe within the brick house, is a story about outsmarting a phisher:

When he found that he could not, with all his huffing and puffing, blow the house down, he said:

“Little pig, I know where there is a nice field of turnips.”

“Where?” said the little pig.

“Oh, in Mr. Smith’s Home-field, and if you will be ready tomorrow morning I will call for you, and we will go together, and get some for dinner.”

“Very well,” said the little pig, “I will be ready. What time do you mean to go?”

“Oh, at six o’clock.”

Well, the little pig got up at five, and got the turnips before the wolf came (which he did about six) and who said:

“Little Pig, are you ready?”

The little pig said: “Ready! I have been and come back again, and got a nice potful for dinner.”

The wolf felt very angry at this, but thought that he would be up to the little pig somehow or other.

(a series of similar tricks follow)

These are basically cautionary tales: bad people/carnivores will get you if you’re not careful. She loves them, and I’m fine with that. It’s a way of introducing the concept of danger, which she finds fascinating. She’s also fascinated with the idea that fire will burn you, and asks for stories about various items catching on fire.

I’m much more wary of any of the fairy tales where people end by getting rich or getting married (which is most of them). We read “Rumpelstiltskin” last night and I was horrified by how badly everyone behaves: the miller lies to the king about his daughter’s ability to spin straw into gold, so the king kidnaps the girl in order to make money from her abilities, threatening to cut off her head if she doesn’t produce. Rumpelstiltskin is the first honorable character: he makes a deal with the girl and saves her life, requiring the promise of her first child as payment. (This is admittedly not a contract you should ever ask someone to enter into, but she does agree to it.) When he shows up after the birth to collect his due, she balks and he offers her an out: he’ll release her from the deal if she can guess his name. She then follows him and overhears him say his name; it’s not really clear if this is playing by the rules since she was supposed to guess it.

(Lily’s only question was a pragmatic one about the story’s final sentence, when Rumpelstiltskin tears himself in two in a fit of rage after the queen reveals his name. “How did he tear himself in two? Was he made of paper?”)

I don’t like telling her a story where the happy ending is that the girl, after being fobbed off by her deceitful father to a greedy and murderous king, stays married to said king by successfully hiding her own deceit from him.

I’ve read Jane Yolen’s and Terri Windling’s work on fairy tales as a way of processing the reality of abusive families.  (Explore Endicott Studio if you like that kind of thing.) In the days when these were peasant stories, a happy ending about finding riches or making a good marriage was equivalent to escaping crushing poverty and must have been very appealing indeed.  To my children, who don’t need to process abuse and will never need to escape poverty, I don’t want these to be the goals.

So I think we’ll stick with the stories about escaping predators.

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