Once upon a time Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm wrote and compiled many fairy tales for the enjoyment of the masses, and we’re lucky for it. In this week’s post I want to pay homage to their efforts and look at children’s literature a bit differently by looking at some of the earliest and longest lasting children’s stories: fairy tales.
Think about the fairy stories we still read today, they exist in a timeless realm where the impossible is not only probable but expected. The Brothers Grimm recorded the oral tales and folklore like “Cinderella,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and “Snow White” (my personal favorite) and published the Children’s and Household Tales in 1892. In these stories witches eat children and hex young women, and fairy god mothers come to life. Fantasy and archetypal characters keep the tales timeless so that kids are still reading and learning from them today. Ironically, the Brothers Grimm published the tales for children but the stories were really tales to teach people of all ages. It’s common knowledge that some of the more adult content was considered too inappropriate for kids and so the versions that kids read today are vastly different from the originals. The realm is the same but the content has become very censored so that the stories are infinitely different from their original forms.
Hans Christian Andersen wrote his fairy tales to pay the bills, impress the ladies, and to just deal with different issues in his life, but they aren’t the same ones that we read today. What these stories still have in common with their past versions are the fantasy, archetypes, and the existence of a moral at the end. “The Ugly Duckling” is still encouraging children to wait out the awkward phases of growing up to get to the beauty of maturity. “The Little Mermaid,” still teaches about cultural norms, but the norms are very different from that which Andersen was promoting originally. The stories reflect the ideas of an era and their methods are what makes these stories so timeless.
As an anthropology student, I can’t resist looking at how a culture’s literature conveys how it feels about topics and ideas. Fairy tales are the perfect venue for this. Initially, fairy stories were told as a means toward social conformity. The stories taught people how to behave as well as right from wrong. Fairy tales were used as a means to scare people into following societal norms and encourage appropriate social behavior which is why they included violence and other adult content. The modern versions of fairy tales are still teaching socially acceptable behavior but they’re doing so without violence and are often teaching very different social norms. What’s funny is that the stories have adapted and altered with changing cultural ideas. Look at “The Little Mermaid.” In the original Andersen version the Little Mermaid dies because she failed to listen to her father and broke social norms. Modern versions have the Little Mermaid not only living, but flourishing for going her own way and being an individual. This reflects a changing understanding of what we want to teach our children and reflects was is seen as acceptable and valued behavior. It’s a really cool reflection of a changing collective conscience and our societies ideas on morality.
Fairy stories exist in the timeless realm of faeries and magic, but that realm is changing to fit our needs as a society. We read fairy tales to put kids to sleep when they used to be gristly tales meant to keep kids in line. I think it’s a really interesting shift that makes reading fairy tales even better. We are human. We adapt our stories as we learn to better adapt to the world around us and the stories we tell our children directly reflect that. While fairy tales are simple stories with settled morals, they are used to convey ideas about how the world works, and those ideas are shifting which is changing the stories. It is amazing to see how much our culture and its values have changed by looking at the literature we give our children. The anthropologist in me is amazed at the way our values have shifted, and the writer in me delights in how children’s literature has changed to show that. I think that our stories are what make us human and fairy tales change with every generation showing just how timeless these stores are.
I’ve heard people complain about the new Disney adaptations and the different fairy tale options that have arisen, but that doesn’t change that we still read these same stories after almost two hundred years. The archetypes still apply as well as they did back then. People have shifted the morals of fairy tales to reflect what we value as a culture today, but we’ve kept the stories the same at their hearts. Though we think of them as kids stories, even today any age group can enjoy these awesome tales and get something out of them. Some people like to take the nerd perspective like I do, others like the moral options and lessons, and some people can just identify with the archetypes and enjoy the different journeys of the characters. They’re great stories that will continue to change and be enjoyable for generations to come.
What do you think? How do you read fairy tales? Do you have a favorite story?