Essays & Articles

In Defense of Real Fairytales

This essay, first published in The Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy Blog, is for any librarian, teacher, administrator, or parent who is a little…well… hesitant to share the real Grimm with their children.


An email arrived in my inbox recently. I was in the midst of planning a visit to a rural elementary school to share “A Tale Dark and Grimm,” my adaptation of Grimm’s fairy tales. The email arrested my planning:


“I am afraid I have bad news. My colleagues and I are afraid we will not have administrative support should a parent challenge your wonderful book… As you might guess, this is a very conservative community and while we have your book on our shelves and can stand by it 100%, we are fearful that asking some of our teachers to read it aloud will be met with resistance… I feel like I am not defending the First Amendment by declining to have you visit … but this is not the year to borrow trouble.”


Scared off by fairy tales? Indeed.


I can’t say I was surprised. Fear or distaste for the real Grimm fairy tales is as ubiquitous as it is hoary. There may be no more systematic case of bowdlerization than Disney’s treatment of them. Even a hundred years ago, G.K. Chesterton devoted an essay to those who “actually thought that fairy tales ought not to be told to children.” Chesterton, a self-described “orthodox Christian,” charged that such a position “is (like a belief in slavery or annexation) one of those intellectual errors which lie very near to ordinary mortal sins.”


While adults wring their hands over whether children should be exposed to the real Grimm, young people themselves have no such ambivalence. In my visits to schools I have witnessed the introduction of Grimm tales to thousands of children— elementary students in urban London, middle schoolers in rural Texas, high school students in suburban Baltimore—and the reaction is always the same: enthusiasm that borders on ecstasy.


Which is, I admit, a little strange. Grimm fairy tales are 200 years old. They do not feature guns or robots, they do not involve cliques or internet slang, they do not mention LeBron James or the WWE. They are not televised or computerized. They are the most primitive form of entertainment still in existence. How do they bewitch an auditorium full of tweens and adolescents? Why, contrary to adults’ expectations and apprehensions, are fairy tales so perfectly appropriate for these children?


There are a few answers.


The first is the simplest. The real Grimm fairy tales enthrall children because they are bloody. Kids, boys and girls alike, love bloody stuff. Horror is among the best selling genres for children. Violence, from “Tom and Jerry” to “GI Joe,” has always sold well. The children I meet literally cannot believe that Cinderella’s step-sisters dismember themselves to get the slipper to fit. And they really cannot believe that adults have been peddling the sweet, anodyne version of the story all this time, when there was another version that was so much cooler.


One might expect older children to enjoy such bloody fare. But what of their younger siblings? I agree that many five-year- olds should wait on reading the most gruesome stories–despite what I tell children, nightmares don’t always build character. But, despite having shared some of the most gruesome tales with thousands of second and third graders, no parent has ever complained to me of her child being upset. How could that be?


The explanation, I think—and this is the second reason that the real fairy tales are uniquely appropriate for children—is that the tales are not at all realistic. I once taught a six-year-old girl who suffered from insomnia. Her affliction was cured when we discovered that her mother let the girl watch the eleven o’clock news. This first grader could not sleep because she was watching accounts of fires, assaults, and deaths right before bedtime. But she loved Grimm fairy tales. For fairy tales signal clearly to children—through simple, matter of fact descriptions of unearthly events and keystone phrases like “Once upon a time”—that the land of the fairy tale is decidedly not the external world.


Which brings us to the third, most complex, and most interesting reason that real Grimm fairy tales thrill and enthrall and bewitch children.


The land of the fairy tale is not the external world. It is, rather, the internal one. The real Grimm fairy tale takes a child’s deepest desires and most complex fears, and it reifies them, physicalizes them, turns them into a narrative. The narrative does not belittle those fears, nor does it simplify them. But it does represent those complex fears and deep desires in a form that is digestible by the child’s mind. Sometimes I refer to this as turning tears into blood. Allow me to illustrate what I mean.


I often share the Grimm tale “Faithful Johannes” with groups of students. In this tale, a father decapitates his two children to save the life of his faithful old servant Johannes. This done, the old servant places the children’s heads back on, and they leap and frolic and play as if nothing at all has happened. After sharing this tale, I typically ask kids, “How would you feel if your parents cut off your head to save an old friend of theirs? Imagine, of course, that you came back to life—but they didn’t know that you would. How would you really feel?”


What amazes me about kids’ responses to this question is that, not only are their answers always the same, from Los Angeles to London and everywhere in between, their answers almost always come in the same order. Maybe it has to do with the order in which I call on children. I usually call on a serious looking girl first. Her answer is almost always, “I would feel betrayed.” Next, I call on another girl. “I would feel angry.” Then, I call on a boy who looks like he’s going to jerk his arm out of its socket, he’s raising his hand so strenuously. “I would cut off their heads, and then I would shoot them with a machine gun, and then I would…” I let him indulge in his patricidal fantasy for a few more sentences, and then I say, “So you would want revenge?” And he says, “Yeah, revenge.” And then, usually fifth or sixth, a boy or a girl will say, “I would feel like maybe my parents didn’t love me enough.” Which silences the room. Finally, I say, “I hope none of you have ever experienced any of those feelings. But I know I have. And maybe some of you have, too.” And the kids nod their heads and stare.


“Faithful Johannes” takes a host of amorphous, ambiguous, and uncomfortable feelings and puts them into terms that children know intimately—the terms of physical pain.


In fairy tales, as in dreams, we are every character. Cinderella is so enduringly popular not because of her clearly delineated character traits, but because every child has felt neglected or belittled. She is not a character you would recognize on the street, or want to have a play-date with, like Huckleberry Finn. Details are scarce and carefully chosen. We may hear about the color of Cinderella’s gowns, but we will never hear about the color of her eyes. Cinderella is an empty box that the child puts himself in.


Fairy tales share the archetypal structure of every story of growth. The hero is faced with a problem. To solve or escape it, she must leave home and enter the great wide world. Out there, she overcomes the problem and, armed with her solution, returns either to her old home or to a new and better one. Joseph Campbell calls this basic tale the Hero’s Journey, and schematizes it as “separation, initiation, return.” As Campbell argues, this structure is as old and essential as myth itself.


In most fairy tales, the great wide world takes the form of a forest. Bruno Bettelheim, the great psychoanalytic interpreter of fairy tales, explains, “Since ancient times the near-impenetrable forest in which we get lost has symbolized the dark, hidden, near-impenetrable world of our unconscious.” Forests are where our fears turn into wolves, our desires into candy houses, where our fathers turn us loose to fend for ourselves, where the emotional problems we face at home are physicalized, externalized, and ultimately conquered. Where tears are transformed into blood.


This physicalization of emotion is so powerful for children because every child has fallen and bruised himself. Every child has felt hungry, even if only in our well-fed, First World way. Every child has had a cut that has bled. And so every child knows that the bruise stops hurting, the food does eventually come, the blood clots, scabs over, heals. When a child reads about emotional pain—betrayal and loneliness and anger at parents— in terms of blood, he comes to understand that those pains too will heal, that salty tears also dry.


G. K. Chesterton, in defending fairy tales from Victorian do-gooders, explained, “Folklore means that the soul is sane, but that the universe is wild and full of marvels. Realism means that the world is dull and full of routine, but that the soul is sick and screaming. The problem of the fairy tale is—what will a healthy man do with a fantastic world? The problem of the modern novel is—what will a madman do with a dull world?” Children are indeed healthy men in a fantastic world. From their perspective, they are the only ones who make any sense, and everyone else, adults in particular, are shadowy incomprehensibles. (I tend to agree with children on this point.)


More distressingly, there are aspects of children’s own, inner worlds that seem incomprehensible to them. As Bettelheim says: “The child must be helped to make some coherent sense out of the turmoil of his feelings. He needs ideas on how to bring his inner house into order.” And so we give the child fairy tales.


When I share the real, old, Grimm tales with children, I see them gasp and laugh and clasp their hands together and stare so hard I think they might fall over. But does this mean that children are benefitting emotionally? Or are they merely titillated?


Over the course of my career as a teacher and writer for children, I have become aware of one of nature’s greatest gifts to both to children and their guardians. Children know what they need. Not that they are errorless—we still have to grab their hands before they rush into the street; we still must help them overcome their fear of the first day of school. But children, much more than adults, are unconsciously in tune with the developmental needs of their bodies and minds. Their play is more educational and emotionally salutary than anything a teacher or psychologist could prescribe. When a child is reading a book that he finds upsetting, he closes it and puts it aside (this is one structural advantage of books over movies, which move so swiftly and are so hard to turn off). And when the book contains new and needed wisdom, he will demand it again and again, until its lessons are mastered (much to the chagrin of the sleepy parent).


One afternoon, I was working in the hallway outside of my classroom. Suddenly, a girl I did not know appeared and approached me. She asked, “Did you write that book with the fairy tales?” I smiled and said that I had.

She could have said a lot of things. She could have said, “That book was funny!” or “It was scary!” or “Why do you write such messed up stories?”


Or maybe she couldn’t. For what she did was throw her arms around my neck and squeeze me fiercely. And then, quite literally, she ran away.


I don’t know why. Perhaps the Grimm tales had spoken to her on a level too deep for words.


Or maybe the forest beckoned.

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