The grimness of fairy tales

I’ve had a few blips recently when reading with the kids.

Exhibit A – The Tinderbox by Hans Christian Anderson.
One night, attempting to divert Jason from the umpteenth re-read of something dire I grabbed up the book of fairy tales.
“…So this soldier climbs down inside a tree where there are three enormous dogs guarding treasure…” I told him.

But it wasn’t quite the romantic adventure I remembered.
The soldier – the protagonist and hero – was actually a really nasty piece of work.

The first hint is when, after fetching the tinderbox for an old lady in return for a fortune in gold and silver, he chops off her head.
Now she may have had ulterior motives, she may have been the most evil hag in history, but he wallops off her head before anyone has the chance to find out.

Hmm… do I want to let my five year old go away with the impression that this is acceptable behaviour? And… why did I never pick up on this before?

Having topped up on a bit of murder and pillage our er… hero proceeds to the nearest town where he lives it up and spends, spends, spends.
Only when the money runs out does he think to look at the tinderbox that he went to the trouble of murdering an old lady for. Then he discovers that it summons the huge, treasure guarding dogs from the tree to do his bidding.
Re-established as a moneyed gent and with the added bonus of his three dogsbodies, he decides that he wants to see what the local princess looks like.
One of the dogs snatches her from her bed and brings her, still asleep, to the soldier’s rooms where he “…could not refrain from kissing her – he was such a true soldier…”

Mmm hmm…

The long and short of it is that he gets found out and sentenced to death, summons the dogs at the last minute who proceed to terrorise the townsfolk until someone has the great idea of letting the soldier marry the princess and become king.

What sort of moral fibre is that trying to instil in our young?
And it was written by Hans Christian Anderson, who I’d thought to be Mr Moral Fibre himself.

As a long time supporter of original fairy tales rather than the white-washed versions our kids tend to receive these days, I came out of that story with mixed feelings to say the least.

But what about Jason, you ask? Did he come out of this traumatised, or ready to wreak bloody havoc on unsuspecting pedestrians?
Umm… no. I’m not even sure he remembers it.

Exhibit B:
My second blip was a couple of days later.
Still keen to introduce Jason to new forms of literature (and keen to overwrite the memory of the last attempt) I came across and read out Hilaire Belloc’s ‘Jim who ran away from his nurse, and was eaten by a lion.’

It’s an amusing piece of verse that tells the story of Jim – who runs away from his nurse and… oh, the clue was in the title.

The rhythm of the piece was familiar and when I looked it up I realised it came from Belloc’s ‘Cautionary tales for children’ which included ‘Matilda, who told lies and was burnt to death.’ I found this very entertaining as a child, did not have nightmares and, more importantly, never shouted ‘fire!’ from a non-burning house. (In fact, I have just ordered the book as a Christmas present for Frankie, who at age 9 will be more likely to appreciate it).

Finally we come to Exhibit C, and we are back with Mr Anderson again.
For some reason ‘The Red Shoes’ came up in conversation. Frankie didn’t know the story, so I read it to her.

I really should have learned by now.

The christian morals are all there, about being obedient and unselfish. But oh my word! I do feel sorry for Karen, the girl in the story. Yes, she was selfish and thoughtless and naughty, but I do think that voluntarily getting your feet chopped off is a rather extreme come-uppance.
But that’s not enough for Hans Christian, no. The soldier can murder, steal and molest and be rewarded for it. But the stupid girl that just wanted a pretty pair of shoes gets the grisly spectacle of her own amputated feet in their red shoes dancing in front of the local church to prevent her from going inside.

What was Frankie’s take on it?
The religious stuff went over her head, but with the macabre glee of most nine year olds she took much enjoyment from reminding me about those little red shoes dancing around on their own with the feet still inside…

Children take what they want from stories and often ignore the bits they don’t or can’t understand. Perhaps our adult imaginations have had more practice and, more aware of the real horrors out there, our minds paint a more graphic picture than that of a child (see my comment about bear meat in Prince Caspian).
I’m tempted to revisit other old favourites to see how my adult-eye view differs from that of my childhood, I just hope it doesn’t destroy the magic too much.

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