The People of Tomorrow.

Children’s Literature class. I really didn’t like this course.

EN 201 010217140

Sylvia Bryce-Wunder Monday December 6, 2004

The People of Tomorrow

The best thing about fairy tales, as I see it, are what Tatar seem to fear are false implications about a form of literature she seems to feel is not getting its proper respect.

In the introduction to her critical look at the classics, Maria Tatar notes the arguments of her detractors:

“The association of fairy tales with the domestic arts and with old wives’ tales has not done much to enhance the status of these cultural stories. ‘On par with trifles,’ Marina Warner stresses, ‘mere old wives’ tales’ carry connotations of error, of false counsel, ignorance, prejudice and fallacious nostrums – against heartbreak as well as headache; similarly fairy tale, as a derogatory term, implies fantasy, escapism, invention, the unreliable consolations of romance” (Tatar x –xi.)

Warner seems to be trying to trivialize fairy tales but she fails miserably in her attempt because she is in fact naming some of the best things about fairy tales; namely the beautiful things in life all should embrace rather than shun. In regards to fantasy and the “unreliable consolations of romance”, Warner assumes too much. To trivialize romance as a genre inept of providing any positive influence on the human mind is to neglect the brilliant works Shakespeare and Chaucer, who both wrote romances and who both injected within those romances with many inspirational characters and philosophical ideas. In romance, heroes and heroines give people, young and old, artificial yet worthy role models that we should aspire to imitate because of their virtue and astute manner. In addition to that, romance’s key theme is often the binding and unifying nature of love, a concept no scholar would put down as a negative for any child to embrace. Furthermore, seeing escapism as wholly negative for children reading children’s literature would be to slight any and all forms of entertainment, which often take the reader or viewer away from their world and into the world of the narrative. Besides, life is often difficult and who is to say that children do not deserve a break that will most likely relieve, even if only temporarily, the stress and rigors of everyday life. Finally, to condemn invention would be to oppose the thoughts of one of the greatest intellectual minds the human race has ever known; Albert Einstein, who is quoted as once saying that “imagination is more important than knowledge”. These explanations serve to nullify the thought that all children’s literature can be deemed as “false counsel” to children; extreme exceptions considered.

Though admittedly, it is not difficult to for one to understand why critics of children’s literature had such nervous apprehensions about this literary form specifically because children are viewed – and rightly so in my opinion – as extremely volatile human individuals. Common in all human cultures is the belief that the mind of a child is like a blank slate where moral can be written and embedded. It is safe to assume that early authors of children’s literature such as Charles Perrault, The Brother Grimm, James Thurber, and Italo Calvino, wrote their children’s stories with the well-being of children in mind. They aimed to teach with didacticism rather than diversion; teaching children what is ‘right’ rather than showing them what to fear. Criticism and eventually censorship arose because it was feared that these authors lacked the adequate qualifications to be teaching the people of tomorrow. Therefore, a gradual sanitizing took place in order to purify the stories children would grow up with.

The ‘purification’ of the tales can be seen, for instance, in an early version of Little Red Riding Hood, actually entitled The “Story of Grandmother”. It is believed to be the earliest known version of this fairy tale in oral form, and because of that, it contains images of violence and some language that could be construed as vulgar and inappropriate for young children. In the tale, a mother sends her daughter to her granny’s house to drop off a bottle of milk and some bread. On her way she encounters a wolf that goes ahead of the little girl and arrives at her granny’s with time to kill the old woman, presumably eating her, putting the leftovers of “her flesh in the pantry and a bottle of her blood on the shelf” (Tatar 10), and take the guise of her victim. These words conjure fearful and gruesome images of blood and gore. When the little girl arrives at the house and is invited by the tricky wolf to sample some of the “meat and wine” he has left out, a helpful yet rude cat calls her a “slut [for eating] the flesh and drink the blood of granny” (Tatar 10). The first thing that came to my mind when I read this was the Eucharist and taking mass. In Catholic churches, Christians eat bread and wine that is blessed and meant to symbolize the body and the blood of their divine messiah and savior Jesus Christ. This ritual has often been deemed a bit cannibalistic and the way Delarue’s “Story of Grandmother” parallels this holy rite acts as a subtle criticism and diversion from Christianity. If real live little girls heard this story they would definitely cringe at the thought of eating the flesh and blood of another human, not to mention one they knew and loved. Whether the initiator of this oral tale intended to speak out against the church or not is unknown. But society’s conventions are hard to break, and people of the early 17th century were not very lenient in view of transgressions against the church, even small ones as small as this. The tale however actually ends with the little girl escaping and getting home safe, whereas the ending in 1885’s version of the story by Charles Perrault has the little girl being eaten by the wolf followed by an abrupt ending to the tale and a moral as a sort of epilogue. Little girls, and indirectly women in general, are portrayed and almost ridiculed by the narrator as being nothing more than “pretty, well-bred, and genteel” beings, unable to fend for themselves when faced with trouble. The problem with portraying Little Red Riding Hood thusly lies in its subliminal reinforcement of stereotypes within the minds of children. Critics justly thought that women should be given positive role models within children stories rather than helpless and gullible little girls to imitate.

In later versions of this fairy tale, particularly “Little Red Cap by the Brothers Grimm (1857), “The Little Girl and the Wolf” by James Thurber (1940), and “The False Grandmother” by Italo Calvino (1980), the little girl undergoes a transformation whereby she is allowed to live again with the help of a (hunts)man, then later she is smart and resourceful enough to bring and use a concealed weapon in her basket to save herself, and finally she is able to free herself by using her wits. As James Thurber puts it in the moral at the end of his tale: “It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be” (Tatar 17). The Brothers Grimm’s version has a naïve and happy narration, whereas Perrault’s is ironic and tragic; not regularly befitting the humor of a child. The formalistic structure of his dialogue is not as effective as the symmetric repetitions found in Roald Dahl’s works for example. This evolution of character in children’s literature proves that as we, human beings, evolve intellectually throughout the ages and naturally weed out our old prejudices. This fact is seen in the slow but ultimate abolishment of slavery and anti-feminist laws in the majority of the modern world.

The main structure of “Little Red Riding Hood” remained the same with these four versions with subtle changes like substituting a Hairy Ogress for the wolf and a gross-out scene of fried ears and stewed teeth for flesh and blood. The prior pairing still can be construed as gruesome but it is much more playfully narrated and functions here as mere fun. As the story further evolved, into primitive versions of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” and “The Three Little Pigs” the tradition of incorporating a single shocking scene into the story continued. It would seem that the authors of children’s literature were constantly trying to push the limit and experiment in a way with subjects to discover what young children could and could not handle mentally. Some may have believed that children should be shown the truth about everything and educated as much as possible in the realities of the world. The scary thing about children’s literature was and remains its incredible influence over children when they are in their formative years. The fear is that it in some way is an accomplice to perpetuating primitive thought and opinion in humans. The fear is that the authors of children’s literature are molding the people of tomorrow.

Works Cited

Delarue, Paul. “The Story of Grandmother”. Perrault, Charles. “Little Red Riding

Hood” (1885). Brothers Grimm. “Little Red Cap” (1857). Thurber, James. “The Little Girl and the Wolf” (1940). Calvino, Italo. “The False Grandmother” (1980). Tatar, Maria, ed. The Classic Fairy Tales. W.W. Norton & Co.: London, 1999.

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