“Why should the mind be filled with fantastic visions, instead of useful knowledge? Why should so much valuable time be lost? Why should we vitiate their taste, and spoil their appetite, by suffering them to feed upon sweetmeats?” – Maria Edgeworth, Preface to The Parent’s Assistant (1796) ¹
Fairy tales go back a long way. Early versions of “Beauty and the Beast” were told in classical Greece and ancient India.² A written version of “Sleeping Beauty” exists from the 20th Dynasty in Egypt.³ It’s truly astonishing how similar folk and fairy tales are across all cultures, sharing plotlines, characters, themes and motifs. The most well-known stories today are only a tiny fraction of thousands of stories from all parts of the globe, and come to us largely from two publications: Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé by Charles Perrault (1696) and the German collections of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (1812-1857).
Traditional folk and fairy tales were not originally intended to be entertainment for the young. They were told to general audiences, at a time when no great distinction was made between children and adults. However, with the introduction of the printing press, the collection and publication of these tales coincided neatly with the ‘invention’ of children’s literature.
Perrault and the Grimms wrote for adult audiences, but children clamoured for the stories and fairy tales soon came to be regarded as somehow below the interest of grownups. In fact there was much criticism of the early editions of the Grimms as being totally unsuitable for children – a strange charge, since they were primarily scholarly, ethnographic works. In response, the brothers strove to alter the tales to make them more edifying for youngsters: changing wicked mothers into stepmothers, removing sexual innuendo, and actually heightening the violence, to more firmly punish evildoers. (Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was a staple in nurseries at the time, so dismemberment and torture probably held little terror for children.)
It’s not hard to understand why children in the 1700s and 1800s would have gobbled up fairy tales so eagerly. The prevailing reading materials given to the young at that time were religious tracts: either Puritannical/meek and dull, or Evangelical/fiery and terrifying, as threats of hellfire were thought to be the best tonic for naughtiness.
A sample title from 1672: “A Token For Children: Being An Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy and Exemplary Lives, and Joyful Deaths of Several Young Children”.⁴ Yikes.
Even Aesop’s fables were condemned by the Puritans as “irrational, dangerously imaginative and immoral,”⁵ as they featured:
“… animals being able to speake, a gross falsity to nature which has troubled every author of this period…” – Lady Eleanor Fenn (1743-1813)⁶
Weary of their Sunday School literature, children began seizing upon books written for adults. In particular Pilgrim’s Progress (1671), Robinson Crusoe (1719), and Gulliver’s Travels (1726) were tremendously popular with generations of children before they received any great literature written specifically for them. Pilgrim’s Progress in particular attracted readers for over 200 years.⁷
By the mid- 1700s an English translation of Perrault’s fairy tales arrived in England, and it became extremely popular, to the dismay of many educators and parents, as the tales were seen as, at best silly and useless, and at worst immoral (and French!). Too haphazard in moral instruction for religious minds, they were also frowned upon by secular educators for being unscientific and confusing truth with fiction.
By the time the Grimms presented their Kinder- und Hausmärchen in 1812, opposition to fairy tales was beginning to fade, but sentiment against them was strong in its day…
The most quotable of the critics has to be the author and educational authority Sarah Trimmer (1741-1810):
“The terrific image which tales of this nature present to the imagination, usually make deep impressions, and injure the tender minds of children, by exciting unreasonable and groundless fears.”⁸
[Cinderella] “… paints some of the worst passions that can enter into the human breast, and of which little children should, if possible, be totally ignorant; such as envy, jealousy, a dislike of step-mothers and half-sisters, vanity, a love of dress, etc.” ⁹
(So little ones, when shielded from fairy tales, knew nothing about envy, jealousy, or vanity!! What marvellous children must have lived back then!)
In general, Sarah Trimmer cautioned parents against allowing their children to hear or read fairy tales, in Alison Lurie’s words “because they taught ambition, violence, a love of wealth, and the desire to marry above one’s station.” ¹⁰
There was not much that Sarah Trimmer approved of. From A Critical History of Children’s Literature:
“Robinson Crusoe… would lead, she declared, ‘to an early taste for a rambling life and a desire for adventures.’ So little did she really know children that she did not realize that this last is an inevitable factor in every child’s make-up. Mother Goose was only fit to ‘fill the minds of children with confused notions of wonderful and supernatural events.’ ” ¹¹
Modern readers should not, however, be too smug and superior about the alarmist advice of Mrs. Trimmer. How will future readers regard our current anxieties about the violence in these same tales, or the damage that princess stories might be doing to our daughters? (Beware encouraging the “love of dress”!)
Fairy tales are still under attack, from the ‘sanitizing influences’ of anxious parents and the various purveyors of children’s ‘edu-tainment’. As historian Humphrey Carpenter puts it,
“[T]here has been a resurgence of an old, familiar element in the children’s literary world. Just as Mrs Sarah Trimmer, the evangelicals, and the pioneers of the Sunday School movement concerned themselves, at the beginning of the 19th century, with purging children’s fiction of all that seemed antagonistic to religion or to a stable social order, so modern authorities in children’s books (librarians, teachers, critics and publishers) seize on the banners of Sexism and Racism, apparently in the belief that simply by ridding children’s stories of these undesirable elements, and commissioning books that preach the opposite viewpoint, all will be well. So far this witch-hunt has been about as profitable for children’s reading matter as was the invention of the Sunday School pamphlet.”¹²
For a full hundred years claims have been made that fairy tales will soon fade away, being irrelevant and obsolete remnants of the distant past. And yet they continue to grip the public imagination, even in their most contaminated, Disneyfied forms.
Here novelist Kurt Vonnegut speaks about one of the most enduring of the fairy tale plots:
Indeed, the first fairy tale collections had a profound influence on all literature to come after.
“… the fairy tale shaped the Victorian novel so definitively that adult fiction became in a sense children’s fiction – a natural development in a culture which made much of childhood. The invention of a literature for children was the apotheosis of a trend.”¹³
This ‘invention’ was further advanced by Charles Kingsley, George MacDonald, Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Kenneth Grahame, J. M. Barrie, Beatrix Potter, E. Nesbit, Frances Hodgson Burnett, A.A. Milne and others, in what has been called the Golden Age of children’s literature in Britain.
I have neglected to mention that the fairy tale has always been strenuously defended by writers and intellectuals, by Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Lamb, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and many others. I will end with a couple quotes, which put the case far better than I can.
“That which is vital in literature or tradition, which has survived the obscurity and wreckage of the past, whether as legend, or ballad, or mere nursery rhyme, has survived in right of some intrinsic merit of its own, and will not be snuffed out of existence by and of our precautionary or hygienic measures.” – Agnes Repplier ¹⁴
“In a utilitarian age, of all other times, it is a matter of great importance that Fairy Tales should be respected.” – Charles Dickens ¹⁵
¹ Meigs, Cornelia, et al (Anne Thaxter Eaton, Elizabeth Nesbitt, Ruth Hill Viguers) A Critical History of Children’s Literature, Revised Edition (London: Macmillan, 1969) p. 98
² Lurie, Alison. Don’t Tell the Grown-ups. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1990) p. 16
³ Sale, Roger. Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E. B. White. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978) p. 49
⁴ Demers, Patricia & Moyles, Gordon, eds. From Instruction to Delight: An Anthology of Children’s Literature to 1850. (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1982) p. 45
⁵ Wullschläger, Jackie. Inventing Wonderland: The Lives and Fantasies of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, J.M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame, and A.A. Milne (London: Methuen, 1995) p. 97
⁶ Op. cit. Meigs, p. 72
⁷ Carpenter, Humphrey. Secret Gardens: The Golden Age of Children’s Literature. (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1985) p. 3
⁸ Ibid. Carpenter, p. 3
⁹ Op. cit. Lurie, p. 17
¹⁰ Ibid., Lurie, p. 17. It’s interesting that modern critics of the same tales are no longer bothered by ambition and a love of wealth, and a desire to marry above one’s station has become a celebrated and encouraged notion.
¹¹ Op. cit., Meigs, p. 72
¹² Op. cit., Carpenter, p. 222
¹³ Op. cit., Wullschläger, p. 101
¹⁴ Op. cit., Meigs, p. 289
¹⁵ Op. cit., Wullschläger, p. 101