Remember fairy tales? You know, the Grimm ones, where people died violent deaths – often at the hands of children?
Guess J.R.R. Tolkien was more prescient than we give him credit for.
In 1939 Tolkien gave the lecture “Fairy Stories”, later published as the essay “On Fairy-Stories” in which he railed against the fate of fairy tales as they became increasingly relegated to the realm of children’s literature. (Read more here...)
“Fairy-stories have in the modern lettered world been relegated to the ‘nursery,’ as shabby or old-fashioned furniture is relegated to the play-room, primarily because the adults do not want it, and do not mind if it is misused,” Tolkien said. “Children as a class …neither like fairy-stories more, nor understand them better than adults do; and no more than they like many other things.”
The problem he foresaw was that just as anything left in the hands of children will eventually be destroyed, so would the value of a well-conceived and written fantasy. Especially the caliber of fantasy that reveals to us deeper truths often hidden in “real life”.
So, what has happened in the past 70 years to the fairy tales we feed our children? I have an almost complete set of The Junior Classics: The Young Folk’s Shelf of Books, copyright 1938, 1948 and 1949. I started reading Volume 1: Fairy Tales and Fables to my sons before bed. I had to quit because some of the stories were too scary.
Take, for example, the story Mollie Whuppie, by Joseph Jacobs.
Little Mollie and two of her older sisters are dropped off in the woods by their parents who have too many other mouths to feed. The hapless girls wander through the woods until they come to a house. Of course a giant lives there. The girls are fed and allowed to share beds with his three normal-sized daughters. Before bed, though, the daughters are given gold chains to wear while the homeless girls are given straw ropes to wear around their necks.
Mollie, apparently the cleverest of the girls, suspects something, and switches the ropes and necklaces once the other girls are all asleep, and the giant bludgeons his own daughters to death. The visitors escape to a nearby kingdom.
Which is where Disney would probably end, with Mollie and her sisters living Happily Ever After… but that’s not how this story goes.
The king of the kingdom gives Mary a kind of negative compliment for her quick thinking, “Mollie, you are a clever girl and you have managed well; but, if you would manage better, go back and steal the giant’s sword than hangs on the back of his bed, I would give your eldest sister my eldest son to marry.”
She succeeds, but not before the grieving giant nearly catches her and threatens her life. The king sends her back again, this time for a bag of gold from under the giant’s pillow, on the promise that the second sister will marry his second son. Again she succeeds, but only just, escaping across a narrow rope bridge that will not support the giant’s weight.
The king, again (seriously, what kind of a jerk is this that keeps sending a child into harm’s way?), asks Mollie to take from the giant the gold ring on his finger. For this Mollie will get to marry the youngest prince.
This time Mollie gets caught and is stuffed into a bag with a dog and a cat while the giant goes out to find a stick to beat her to death with. She escapes by tricking the giant’s wife into switching places. The giant beats his wife to death while Mollie once again escapes over the “Bridge of One Hair”.
After reading “The End” to my sons I thought, “wow. I’ll never complain about Loony Tunes violence ever again!”
As I think about it, though, there’s no “damsel in distress” here. Mollie is resourceful, loyal to her sisters, selfless and insanely brave. She is Tris in a genre dominated by Bella. And those are lessons I want my kids to learn.
Those are lessons I need to internalize myself.
Always a writer, Jane’s “real jobs” have included newspaper journalism, youth ministry, sewing machine sales and marketing for a publishing house. Currently she is back to “just a writer” again, while juggling all the typical domestic duties of wife and mother, homeschooling two boys, managing two needy Golden Retrievers and answering to one very demanding cat.