The essential strangeness of fairy tales
Note: I’m taking a break for the next few days, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on March 30, 2015.
Over the last few months, I’ve been telling my daughter a lot of fairy tales. My approach has been largely shaped, for better or worse, by Bruno Bettelheim’s book The Uses of Enchantment: I happened to read it a few years ago as part of an unrelated writing project, but it also contained insights that I felt compelled to put to use almost at once in my own life. Bettelheim is a controversial figure for good reason, and he’s not a writer whose ideas we need to accept at face value, but he makes several points that feel intuitively correct. When it comes to fairy tales, it seems best to tell the oldest versions of each story that we have, as refined through countless retellings, rather than a more modern interpretation that hasn’t been as thoroughly tested; and, when possible, it’s preferable to tell them without a book or pictures, which gets closer to the way in which they were originally transmitted. And the results have been really striking. Stories like “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” have seized my daughter’s imagination, to the point where we’ll discuss them as if they happened to her personally, and she isn’t fazed by some of their darker aspects. (In “Hansel and Gretel,” when I tell her that the parents wanted to take their children into the woods and leave them there, she’ll cheerfully add: “And kill dem dere!”)
There’s no denying that the traditional versions of these fairy tales contain elements that most contemporary parents find disturbing or inexplicable, like the red-hot shoes that the evil queen in “Snow White” is forced to wear to dance herself to death, or the willingness of the father in “Hansel and Gretel” to abandon his children in the forest. (When my wife told me that she thought that the real villain in that story is the father, I replied: “Actually, I think the real villain is the witch who cooks and eats little kids.”) It’s tempting to tone down the originals a bit, sometimes to the point of insipidity: I recently came across a retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood” in which the wolf doesn’t eat the grandmother at all—she just gets scared and runs off to hide behind the house. But based solely on my own observations, I think it’s a mistake to shy away from the darkness: not, as Bettelheim would have it, for its psychological benefits, which can be hard to pin down anyway, but simply from the perspective of good storytelling. A version of “Little Red Riding Hood” in which the wolf doesn’t eat the grandmother doesn’t just trivialize the wolf, but everybody else involved, and it’s liable to strike both child and parent as equally pointless. And kids who sense that their time is being wasted won’t ask to repeat the experience.
And there’s a particularly important point here, which is that the more bizarre or irrational the detail—and the harder it is to extract any clear lesson from it—the more likely it has survived for a reason. Plot points that are simply functional or logical, or which serve an obvious didactic purpose, as in “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” will be retained out of practical considerations; when something arbitrary, grotesque, or even borderline immoral lingers on through countless retellings, it can only be because it gets at something fundamental. It reminds me a little of the criterion of embarrassment in literary analysis, which states that a historical detail that would have seemed embarrassing or strange to its original authors or readers—like the crucifixion—is likely to be authentic, since they wouldn’t be inclined to invent such an inconvenient fact if they had any choice. (Similarly, in classical philology, when you need to choose between two variants of the same text, the stranger or more unusual form is usually the older one: it’s more probable that a scribal error would smooth out a perceived anomaly to make it more conventional, rather than the other way around.) We may not be able to articulate why these details are there, but the fact that they were selected to survive speaks to their importance and resilience, which would be foolish to underestimate.
And it can be disorienting to move from the older versions of these stories to their more recent, Disneyfied incarnations. In the version of “Rapunzel” recorded by the Brothers Grimm, for instance, the story is set in motion by the mother’s obsessive desire to eat some of the lettuce from the garden of the sorceress next door. We aren’t told why she wants it so badly; she simply tells her husband that if she can’t have it, she fears that she will die. In Tangled, this detail is rationalized and clearly motivated: the lettuce becomes a flower with magical healing properties, and it’s literally used to save the queen’s life. This version has the benefit of explaining away the weirdness in the original tale, and it’s far more acceptable from a narrative point of view, but it also diminishes its mystery and resonance. I like Tangled a lot, and I’m not going to reject the Disney versions of these stories—which have considerable artistic merits of their own—just because they soften or minimize the darker elements of their sources. (Although I do avoid the Disney storybooks, which follow the plot points by rote while losing most of the appeal of both the movie and the original story.) But it’s worth remembering that each version exists to fulfill a different need, and a child’s inner life ought to have room for both.