Fairy Tale Controversy, Part 2: Coming to America

In my last commentary I talked about the opposition that rose up in Britain against fairy tales as suitable literature for children. Another stronghold of anti-fairy tale sentiment lay across the ocean in America. The New World objections to Old World tales tell us much about the psychology of the new frontier nation.

In 1900 L. Frank Baum put the prevailing sentiment into words in his introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a book hailed by many as the first truly American fairy tale:

“… the old-time fairy tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as ‘historical’ in the children’s library; for the time has come for a series of newer ‘wonder tales’ in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incident devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality, therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder-tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident.
    Having this thought in mind, the story of ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ was written solely to pleasure children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out.” ¹

A bold aspiration, though a few ‘horrible and blood-curdling’ incidents still occur… the Tin Woodsman chops his way through many a foe, and even the kind Scarecrow breaks the necks of forty crows with his bare hands at one sitting. It would seem that Americans may not have been fond of ‘horror’, but they really didn’t mind ‘violence’. (Though the back-history of the Tin Woodsman, in which he chops off his own limbs one by one, definitely qualifies as a horror story.)

Americans felt uneasy with European fairy tales on several fronts. First of all, why would the proud citizens of a new republic fill their children’s heads with stories of kings, queens, princes and princesses? The way to good fortune in the new land was through hard work, not marrying a prince or flattering a king. And wasn’t good farmland, or a successful business, a helpful mate and rosy-cheeked offspring more honourable goals than golden eggs or a coach-and-four?

Then there’s the vice. In an excellent essay “America as Fairy Tale”, Selma G. Lanes writes:

“One of the charms of the conventional fairy tale was its casual acceptance of human beings with all their inherent imperfections: boastfulness, selfishness, sloth, vanity. The doctrine of the perfectibility of man, an outgrowth of the eighteenth century’s Age of Reason, came too late to infect the traditional fairy tale, an inheritance from the oral tradition.” ²

The United States’ very reason for being, its democratic ideal had as its very foundation the rationalism of the Age of Reason. So it’s not surprising that the bold and headstrong pioneers of that new land would resist any decadent, Old World stories for their children. Evil seemed a little too ever-present in them, an inescapable fact of life. It was not always obvious that Good was stronger than Evil. In Lanes’ words:

“It was the very evenness of the match [between Good and Evil] which gave these tales their powerful narrative hold over the reader. Through the years, Americans have always been somewhat reluctant about giving wickedness its due.” ³

Indeed, the Grimms’ collection in its entirety (200 stories) can be seen “as a kind of pagan Bible, garbled and altered by being passed down orally through many generations but still full of the half-animal gods and familiar spirits of pre-Christian Europe – haunted wells and forests, elves, witches, ancient superstitions and rituals.”⁴  It’s enough to give a poor Puritan the heeby-jeebies.

Opposition to fairy tales was further motivated by simple American xenophobia, as the most famous collections, Perrault’s and Grimms’, were seen as particularly French and German. Perrault wrote his tales primarily for the king’s court of Versailles, and the Grimms were proud nationalists, eager to present their stories as a uniquely German cultural treasure. In response many Americans, suspicious of anything European, “… considered fairy tales frivolous, subversive, pagan, escapist, and potentially dangerous for the health and sanity of children…” ⁵

Then in 1937 Walt Disney released his triumphant Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first full-length animated feature film, based upon a European fairy tale, but rendered most definitely in an American style. Disney’s changes to the story – the slapstick humour, the cutesy animals, the pop songs, the manner of speech, even the character design – all made the film, and therefore the story, resolutely American.

“The features of Snow White and her Prince Charming represent the all-American ‘healthy’ ideals of beauty, prefiguring the Barbie Ken dolls by a good twenty-five years, and the language and jokes in the film are clearly tied to American idioms and customs.” ⁶

Walt’s instincts and timing were perfect, for the Great Depression had made people hungry for fantasy and ‘happily ever after’, and so his audience embraced his version of the fairy tale without reservation. In fact, Disney seemed to have what Richard Schickel calls an almost “mystic bond” with the moods and styles and attitudes of middle America. “When we seemed to demand an optimistic myth he gave us the unconquerable Mouse. When we seemed to demand the sense of continuity implicit in reminders of our past, he gave us fairy tales in a form we could easily accept.” ⁷

Interestingly enough, at the exact same time Americans were accepting the Grimms’ tales as more universal than strictly German, the Nazis were attempting to go in the opposite direction and re-Aryanize the tales, to once again celebrate them as a uniquely German cultural artifact. ⁸  After the war there was a further, curious twist:

“For a brief period in 1945, the occupation forces, led by the British, sought to ban the publication of the Grimms’ fairy tales. They attributed many of the atrocities and crimes committed by the Nazis to the horror and cruelty of the tales. Moreover, they asserted that the tales had given German children a false impression of the world that had made them susceptible to lies and irrationality.” ⁹

It was a bit of a stretch – the ban didn’t last long. The fact of the matter was that fairy tales offer hope, and in hard times of depression and war, people look for hope, they live on hope in whatever form they can find it. They desperately want to believe that good people who work hard will be rewarded in the end. Simple enough, but not many sensed this desire as completely as Walt Disney and not many capitalized so thoroughly upon it.

[ Read previous commentary Fairy Tale Controversy, Part 1. ]


¹ L. Frank Baum, Introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Chicago: George M. Hill, 1900)

² Selma G. Lanes, Down the Rabbit Hole; Adventures and Misadventures in the Realm of Children’s Literature. (New York: Atheneum, 1971) p. 93

³ Ibid., p. 104

⁴ Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell the Grown-ups. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1990) pp. 26-27

⁵  Jack Zipes, Sticks and Stones: the troublesome success of children’s literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter. (New York: Routledge, 2001) p. 84

⁶ Ibid., p. 84

⁷ Richard Schickel, The Disney Version: the Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney (Revised and Updated), (New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1968, 1985) p. 361

⁸ Op. cit., Zipes, p. 85

⁹ Ibid., pp. 99-100


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