Happily ever after?

Which fairy tale is the greatest of them all? Sally Feldman on enduring themes

June 12, 2014

Reading fairy stories to children is harmful, warned the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins last week. Speaking at the Times Cheltenham Science Festival, he condemned fairy stories for instilling in young children a false belief in the supernatural. It was, he claimed, “pernicious” to teach children about facts that were “statistically improbable” such as a frog turning into a prince.

Dawkins, a prominent atheist, has also repeatedly claimed that bringing up children to believe in God is tantamount to child abuse. What we should be doing instead, he maintains, is “fostering a spirit of scepticism”.

And in this relentless quest for rationalism he fits neatly into the time-honoured tradition of the Enlightenment. Kant believed that fairy tales impeded the proper development of reason. According to Locke, they provided undesirable, confusing examples. Rousseau proposed in Émile, or Treatise on Education, that children should be discouraged from reading stories at all. Recalling his own childhood, he wrote that they “gave me bizarre and romantic notions of human life, which experience and reflection have never been able to cure me of”. He allows Émile just one book: Robinson Crusoe, since that contains useful tips for survival in nature.

For Snow White, Cinderella and Rapunzel there was really only one fate, their choice of a partner their only decision

Not all dedicated rationalists would agree, though. “If you want your children to be intelligent,” Albert Einstein once remarked, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

And the thoroughly atheist children’s writer Philip Pullman, who recently published his own retelling of 50 Brothers Grimm fairy tales, wholeheartedly agrees. “Fairy stories loosen the chains of the imagination,” he told a national newspaper. “They give you things to think with – images to think with – and the sense that all kinds of things are possible. While at the same time being ridiculous or terrifying or consolatory. Or something else altogether, as well.” That “something else” is the key to the endurance, the sheer ubiquity of the fairy tale. Of the more than 400 versions of Cinderella, from all over the world, the first recorded one originated from China around AD 850. So these stories lie deep in the seams of our consciousness and they bear endless repeating and reinventing. But you have to get them right or they lose their potency. Consider, for example, Disney’s Maleficent, the latest in a long line of cinematic retellings. Angelina Jolie gives us a contemporary take on the wicked fairy in Sleeping Beauty. Instead of being a petulant old crone, cross at being left off a party guest list, she’s a wronged lover out for revenge.

But it doesn’t quite ring true. Deep down, we want our witches to be not just bad, but the embodiment of evil. Two recent cinematic retellings of Snow White both delight in demonising the wicked queen, the stepmother from hell. Julia Roberts, in Mirror Mirror, manages to reek of malevolence, while Charlize Theron conveys even more menace in Snow White and the Huntsman. In both films the monstrous queen retains that satanic aura that is so central to the classic story.

No wonder so many feminists deplore what they see as rampant misogyny. Others, though, recognise that somehow children need to be frightened as a way of resolving their own terrors. A.S. Byatt’s Little Black Book of Stories, for example, teems with delicious fears. Confronting a monster in the forest, her heroines feel “a frisson of fear and terror that made them wriggle with pleasure”. The novelist Angela Carter, too, has rekindled the primeval terrors of the fairy tale world in her own tales of bloody chambers and rampant wolves. Marina Warner said that Carter’s retellings “lift the barriers that had come down to ringfence them for the polite bourgeois nursery, that setting for the ‘toilet training of the id’ ”.

Nonetheless, fairy tales don’t do a lot for the image of the older woman. And this, according to Jack Zipes in his book, The Irresistible Fairy Tale: the Cultural and Social History of a Genre, is all the fault of Christianity, whose “great accomplishment was the transformation of women with magical powers into demonic and malevolent figures, whether real or fictitious”.

And certainly in the Grimms’ canon, all older women are pretty witch-like. Good older women are always dead. Mothers have no place (hardly surprising, since death in childbirth was very common until quite recently), but stepmothers with cunning plans for their charges abound. So in Cinderella, the stepmother has a powerful fiscal motive for her monstrous cruelty: she wishes to safeguard her own daughters’ inheritance.

But for all the speculations and endless reinterpretations, the real key to why these stories are so profoundly embedded in our psyches is that all of them are essentially about growing up. In Snow White, for example, the mirror’s declaration that the queen is no longer the most beautiful in the land is the pivotal moment. It conveys Snow White’s arrival at adolescence: that no-man’s-land between childhood and adulthood where a young woman hovers between the protection of a father and that of a husband. For Snow White, Cinderella, Rapunzel and those 12 endlessly dancing princesses, there was really only one fate, their choice of a partner their only, and certainly their most crucial, decision.

Today’s young women have infinitely wider options. But they still have that crossroads to face. These days, though, they have a different point of departure for making their choices and achieving their transition to adulthood. Each year, freshers come to us as bright-eyed, innocent virgin princesses – and leave us as fully rounded grown-ups ready to face the real world. An offer of a place at university is an invitation to the ball.

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