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Once upon a time there were tales of fairies, and fabulous castles, fanciful places, and blood! Yes, Blood! Such was the imaginary world of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. We do not often think of blood and fairy tales in the same context. However, the Grimm tales often included horrific details of evil, death, blood and darkness; not the sort of calming and peaceful thoughts that want our children dreaming about. This wonderful world of make believe was originally intended for adults, not children. Though these tales have been softened and altered from their original state, but they still contain harsh imagery, perhaps too strong for children, especially young impressionable ones. Notice the following quote: “Some of these stories were considered to be too violent for children. The brothers tried to explain to their critics that although many of the stories appealed to children, Household Tales was not really created for them. It was created for the brothers’ fellow scholars and to help preserve the German heritage. But in years to come, some of those early stories would appear in later editions of the book significantly changed to make them more acceptable to children and their parents. A few of the more violent tales were dropped entirely.” 1
The Grimm brothers (who lived in the late 1700’s ~ middle 1800’s) were the fathers of the modern day fairy tale. Their life work was to capture the oral stories and folklore of their German heritage, and to preserve them (and their heritage) in written form. Their collection of stories and fairy tales read as a who’s who of the tales we all have come to know and enjoy, though most of us have only been exposed to the Disney versions of these tales. Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Cap (Little Red Riding Hood), Rumpelstiltskin, Tom Thumb, Rapunzel and Snow White are among the many titles in their library. It is not my purpose in this essay to undergo an exhaustive study of the Grimm brother’s biographies, reasons for writing or to show a complete list of their works, though I thought a few words were necessary to set the stage. The stories that we have all heard, and know from childhood do not include much of the harsh content as the original Grimm’s versions. To help demonstrate this, let us compare the story of Cinderella, the version we all know and love, to the Grimm’s version.
. The theme of the story is very much the same in both versions; unlikely young woman goes to the ball, dances with the Prince, loses her shoe…and ends up happily ever after, married to the Prince. In one version, the story begins in the usual fashion: “Once upon a time there was a little girl whose dear mother died and whose father married for his second wife…” 2 Tragic as the death of the mother is, the writer does not dwell on it. She immediately goes into the meat of the story. Compare this opening to the Grimm’s version: “The wife of a rich man fell sick, and as she felt that her end was drawing near, she called her only daughter to her bedside and said, "Dear child, be good and pious, and then the good God will always protect thee, and I will look down on thee from heaven and be near thee." Thereupon she closed her eyes and departed. Every day the maiden went out to her mother's grave and wept…” 3 The Grimm version details the death of the mother along with her last words to her daughter. Then they tell how the little girl is devastated by the loss of her mother. She is heartbroken. She visits the grave of her mother every day and cries. This goes on, according to the Grimm version, for at least two seasons (winter and spring). Is this the sort of bedtime tale that we want our children thinking about?
I am not in opposition to writing about or even discussing death with children. My question is how and when this discussion should take place. Telling a little child about a loved one dying is one thing…but relating death to perpetual pain and tears may not be in the best interest of the child. Cinderella cries everyday for her mother. We need to be careful how our children are exposed to this kind of sensitive material. Keep in mind this detail was not meant to harm children or their mental well-being. It was meant to be entertainment for adults as well as convey its morals and subliminal meanings though its symbolism. A second example from the same story, Cinderella, is seen when the King’s son determines to marry the maiden who can wear the (glass) slipper. The Disney version, along with the tamer versions, simply tells us that the step-sister’s feet were just too big to get the slipper on. Try as they did, they just could not squeeze that much foot into the dainty shoe. But the Grimm’s have a different tale to tell. I was shocked when I read their version. The slipper that is lost is a golden slipper not glass, however; it is not the material of which the slipper is made that is objectionable. It is the graphic depiction of how the step-sisters make the shoe fit that is troublesome.
Picking up the story as the first step-sister tries on the shoe: “…but she could not get her big toe into it, and the shoe was too small for her. Then her mother gave her a knife and said, "Cut the toe off; when thou art Queen thou wilt have no more need to go on foot." The maiden cut the toe off, forced the foot into the shoe, swallowed the pain…” 4 Ouch! The evil Step-Mother instructs her child to cut off her big toe! The story goes on. The Prince and the girl (without her big toe) begin to ride off into the sunset. He…“looked at her foot and saw how the blood was streaming from it.” 5 The Prince returns the imposter and the same sort of thing happens with the other Step-Sister as well, though this one is told to cut off a piece of her heel! Blood again pours out of the shoe and stains her white stocking! Yuck! Again I ask; is this the sort of thing our children should be taught? What is the underlying message here? If you are too big or fat it is Okay to just cut off the unwanted flesh or appendages? It is Okay to tell a lie, cheat, and deceive others in order to bring about a desired outcome? These are great morals and lessons for our children, yes?
Are the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm too harsh for children? Are these (sometimes) bloody tales suitable for children? Do they provide a calming affect on children and a voice of comfort at bedtime or do they in fact disturb the child? There is no doubt that these tales provide entertainment. I found many of the Grimm’s versions very interesting. I found some of the imagery a bit gross. Toes cut off and heels butchered so shoes will fit better. We read about eyes being poked out and thrown at people. We even see old women engaged in cannibalism. These things may be interesting…but who should the audience be? In my opinion, fairy tales and children’s stories should not have such graphic violence. Killing someone is not the sort of subject matter that we should engrain in our children. I believe that we (Baby Boomers) have become desensitized due to the constant flood of violent behavior we see everyday. Our TV’s are filled with it. The movies we watch, the video games we play and the books we read are just oozing blood from every pour. Children, in my view, are not just little adults. They take in a lot more than we realize. Contrary to what some experts say, children can not process all the information they take in correctly. Reading about the death of a mother, and learning that the way to deal with this is to cry everyday for months is not a healthy solution. Teaching children that everyone will end up happily ever after is setting them up for failure and depression. Fairy tales are great entertainment for kids…but let us stick to the tamer versions. Thanks Walt.
1 Johnson, Virginia. “Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm: Brothers and Best Friends.” Kid.Library Point. Rappahannock Regional Library, 07/07/2009. Web. 02/10/10. < http://kids.librarypoint.org/brothers_grimm > 2 Bates, Katharine Lee. “ Once Upon A Time, A Book of Old-Time Fairy Tales ,” Checkerboard Press, New York, 1993 edition, pg 79 3 Barancik, Steve. Cinderella, Brothers Grimm fairy tale #21. Best Children’s Books.com. 2006 ~ 2010. N.pag. Web. 01/29/2010. < http://www.best-childrens-books.com/cinderella-fairy-tale.html#cinderella > 4 Barancik, Steve. Cinderella, Brothers Grimm fairy tale #21. Best Children’s Books.com. 2006 ~ 2010. N.pag. Web. 02/01/2010. < http://www.best-childrens-books.com/cinderella-fairy-tale.html#cinderella > 5 Barancik, Steve. Cinderella, Brothers Grimm fairy tale #21. Best Children’s Books.com. 2006 ~ 2010. N.pag. Web. 02/02/2010. < http://www.best-childrens-books.com/cinderella-fairy-tale.html#cinderella > John, Elton. “Funeral for a Friend.” Goodbye Yellow Brick Road . John. 1973. Web.