Children hear ‘no’ all the time: no, you can’t have that; no, you can’t eat that; no, you can’t do that; no, you can’t stay up…. but then when someone reads them a fairy tale, it’s a world of ‘yes’: yes, you can fly; yes, you can talk to animals; yes, you can live under water; yes, you can be a child forever.
Fairy tales are the first books we read, and how odd that they (packed full of good advice) are so quickly dismissed. Please tell me the difference between Cat in the Hat and Risky Business. Please tell me how many environmentalists were created by The Lorax. Little Red Riding Hood is Medea.
Let’s not get caught in the Disney whirl-pool in which you don’t have a mother and you want a prince. Well, fine, various lovely dresses, some good songs, a few too many tales of passive women (Sleeping Beauty), some redressing of the passive women motif (Tangled, Lilo & Stitch, Mulan) and moving on.
Fairy tales ruthlessly show you the consequences of not behaving well (see Cinderella’s step-sisters), give you hope and courage to overcome adversity (Snow White), and most importantly, give you hope even if you don’t overcome adversity. Maybe you will be saved by a deus ex machina (The Snow Queen), maybe you won’t (Little Match Girl, The Steadfast Tin Soldier).
They teach you that to get what you want means sacrifice (The Little Mermaid), always remember important passwords (Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves), be nice to guests and don’t rush to judgement on your host (Beauty and the Beast) and that there is always a danger, even in paradise (Captain Hook). Keep looking until you find what you like (Goldilocks and the Three Bears), going on adventures is fun but hazardous (Sinbad, Jack and the Beanstalk), know your spouse before marriage (Bluebeard), don’t try to change your spouse (Selkies), and build a study house (Three Little Pigs). Be delicate (Princess and the Pea), but not too delicate because some people need a house dropped on them (The Wizard of Oz).
Think, darling, do you know a fairy tale that celebrates bad behavior? Is there one which commends selfishness, jealousy, gluttony, anger, pride, greed or sloth? Think, darling, of all those who were raised on Robin Hood, then promptly forgot that lesson and also forgot the lesson of the Lion and the Mouse. Think of those who have repeatedly killed their Goose that Laid Golden Eggs and those who are a Ferdinand the flower-sniffing Bull but try to be (or are forced to be) ferocious.
Of course, my favorite is Leo Lionni’s Frederick. How wisely it teaches us that everyone has different talents which are needed at different times. The original tale, The Ant and The Grasshopper, praised the hard-working Ant and castigated the lazy, singing Grasshopper, but in these dark times, we need colorful tellers of tales.
Read fairy tales and behave well.