Friday, February 24, 2012

The Grim Truth of Grimm's Fairy Tales

In a Facebook post from a friend, I received a link to the Inspiration Soup site at http://, and as the full link suggests, I found a brief article about the number of parents who no longer read Grimm’s version of fairy tales to their children because, the parents believe, the tales do not teach lessons that parents are comfortable sharing.


If you are a long-suffering reader of my blog, you will know that I advocate the use of fairy tales for analysis and lessons in big ideas about the human experience. Consequently, I had to learn more about these parents and did when I looked at the source cited by Inspiration Soup, an online article from The Telegraph, February 12, 2012, found at that/9078489/Fairytales-too-scary-for-modern-children-say-parents.html.


According to The Telegraph article, approximately 20% of parents surveyed said that they found too many grim messages and elements in Grimm. I must agree. These German tales are cautionary. They are the collected wisdom and fears of generations, gathered and shaped by the brothers Grimm for publication in 1812. But they have also been told, retold, animated, illustrated, sanitized, and stripped bare. They have never been buried or ignored because, in my opinion, they speak the human experience that is, I grant, often fraught with predation.


So, dear readers, let us venture into the early German forests and examine the tales that parents find objectionable. Ranking tenth out of ten, according to the Fairy Tale Survey, is "Queen Bee," the full text of which can be read at http://www.authorama .com/grimms-fairy-tales-38.html. I will, however, provide a synopsis below.


            Once upon a time, two brothers left behind a third brother when they set out to make their mark upon the world, but their judgment was poor and they wasted opportunities. In disgrace, the brothers could not return home, but the brother they left behind did not forsake them. He found them and suggested that they make their way in the world together.


            The first two, older brothers scoff at the third, defined as a dwarf and described as being ‘little, insignificant, young’ and ‘simple.’  The brothers believe themselves superior to the smaller brother, but having little choice, agree to travel with him.


            First, they encounter an ant hill. The older, foolish brothers want to tear it down and watch the ants panic, but the youngest brother advises them to leave the ants in peace.


            Next they see two ducks swimming. The older brothers want to kill and feast upon the ducks, but the young brother recommends that they let the ducks live.


            A third temptation is a honey-filled tree. The older brothers want to burn the bees from their hive and take the honey, but, as you surely know by now, the young brother stops them, again advising his brothers to live and let live.


            At last, the brothers come upon an enormous estate where marble horses stand on the grounds. Inside is a wizened old man who feeds them richly, then shows them to fine suites. In the morning, he offers the oldest brother a challenge: find 1,000 lost pearls by nightfall, but if he fails, he will be turned to stone. He fails.


            The second brother tries for the prize the next day, but he too becomes a marble statue by day’s end. When the third brother accepts the challenge, he quickly realizes that the task is impossible--until the ants he had saved come to him. Five thousand ants quickly retrieve 1,000 pearls, and the dwarf survives.


            On the next day, he must find the key to unlock the princess’s bed chamber. He expects to become marble by twilight, but the ducks serve him by diving for the key.


            The next, final challenge is even trickier. The dwarf must determine which of three beautiful women is the youngest. He has only vague clues to help him: the oldest woman ate sugar, the middle tasted a sugar-syrup, and the youngest enjoyed honey. Of course, the Queen Bee of the story’s title comes to the dwarf’s aid, sniffing the honey on the lips of one and cuing the dwarf to her identity.


            The dwarf thus wins the grand prize: the enchantment fades, all marble sculptures live again, the dwarf becomes king, and marries the most beautiful of the three women. The brothers live well, each married to the other two noble ladies, but they never rule. They are led by the least--in stature only.


I hope your reaction is to ask, “What could parents object to in ‘Queen Bee?’”


Parents cite the political incorrectness of the tale. Dwarf is a dated term, and worse, he is described as being “simple.”


As I proceed, please understand that I object to many terms and words that we once deemed appropriate. As a teacher, I reminded students not to describe an action or idea as retarded. We know better now. We know that some of the purest souls, the kindest and most optimistic people among us may not have the highest IQs. Their gifts are different and often greater.


The world evolves and as it does, its inhabitants rethink, reevaluate, and revise their standards and norms. We are much better than we once were. Why once upon a time, prisoners in London were not fed. The kingdom did not consider food as one of its responsibilities for condemned men and women. Consequently, those cartoons showing skeletal hands extended palm-upward from between iron bars are based upon factual history, and consequently, only one in four prisoners ever actually climbed to the scaffold awaiting a rope around his neck.


I’m ever so grateful for the evolution in prison reform, ever so proud to live among people who are more humane, and ever so hopeful that we become more so each and every day, month, year and era. Our ancestors were not as enlightened as we are, and our progeny will be much more enlightened than we--I hope!


Thus, Grimm described the smallest brother as a dwarf, a term we speak comfortably within the realms of Tolkien or Rowling, but eschew in everyday usage. Children, however, can learn fine distinctions and can be taught to appreciate the mythology of dwarfs as readily as that of Santa, Easter bunnies, and tooth fairies. A Norse and Germanic dwarf was often associated with wisdom and good fortune, just as the third brother is.


More important, of course, is the fact that the different brother, the one overlooked and excluded by his older brothers, has a gift we seek to cultivate in children: empathy. In his heart, he is the tallest, largest, more powerful. That is his simplicity: live well, devoid of cruelty, asking for nothing in return, yet receiving untold reward in exchange for a good, well-intentioned life.


“Queen Bee” teaches a lovely, important lesson, one that literature unfolds again and again. Many of you must be thinking of the Bible for it develops the same theme in many books and chapters. Others may recall that one literary theme in Harper Lee’s wonderful book, To Kill a Mockingbird, is to empathize, to walk in the shoes of others in order to understand them. It’s a timeless lesson, oft repeated so read “Queen Bee” to your children. Talk with them about treating all creatures gently, with compassion. Discuss the words “dwarf” and “simple.” Enjoy and savor those moments because, I promise you, those moments endure. So make great memories, even with Grimm.


Reading Challenge:


Read several fairy tales by Grimm. Another site where you can discover them is http://www.


Writing Challenge:


To familiarize yourself with writing and expressing big ideas found in literature, re-read some or all of the posts beginning September 3, 2010 and continuing through February 4, 2011. These explain and illustrate literary archetypes and themes. Once you are confident, write theme statements for the fairy tales you read for the Reading Challenge above.


GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):


Some of you may have winced when you read the word dwarfs in this post. You probably thought you’d found another typographical or usage error, but in fact, dwarfs is a legitimate spelling. Indeed dwarfs was the correct spelling until J. R. R. Tolkien elected to spell the plural form of dwarf as dwarves. Now we have two plural forms, each considered correct, one historical and the other quite recent. Let this be a lesson in the power of usage to change rules.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Big Ideas Gleaned from Reality TV

In a recent post written for (posted January 13, 2012), I indicted reality TV, urging viewers not to support the genre and citing several objections, including:


·      the absence of boundaries between what people may do behind closed doors and for cameras,

·      the overall snarky, belittling nature of human interaction, and

·      the operational standard of winning by any means necessary.


Now I must grovel before you, my knees in the grit, and confess: in spite of that post disavowing reality TV, I do, in fact, watch some reality TV. But wait, before you cast me off, allow me to explain.


I watch Halloween Wars, Cupcake Wars, and Chopped semi-faithfully, recording new episodes in order to fast-forward through some of the preparation. I try to imagine whether or not I could use the occasional bizarre ingredient with grace and creativity in impossibly brief, stress-filled blocks of time to produce something that measures up to the demanding judges’ expectations.


My judgment? I don’t think I could perform as well as any one of the contestants, and that is the primary reason for my interest in these shows. Any one of the contestants is a food artist, confident and daring enough to prove his and her talents in a very public arena. Each one, even those who fall short of the big prize, deserves admiration because every contestant, like kids who spell tricky words and athletes who kick, throw, catch, and hit balls of different sizes, refuses to shrink from the ultimate test. So watching these reality programs is another way of bearing witness to courage and triumph. These programs are also a way to practice deducing big ideas, also known as literary themes, from human experience.


One lesson, other than courage and triumph, drawn from these programs is that talking back to authority is risky. The contestants who accept criticism graciously without unnecessary explanation or defensiveness are more likely to win the round. I have seen more than one chef on Chopped defend an oversight or omission by asking for just a bit more time. Doing so is akin to a downhill skier declaring that he could have succeeded if he had not had to navigate such a steep mountain. Contestants should remember that the contest parameters are pre-set, defined; one either measures up or doesn’t. Not to do so is to be cut from the herd.


I’ve also seen contestants on Halloween Wars crack under pressure. A couple of them have even stormed off the set, leaving team-members to lose if they cannot fill the vacuum left in the wake of the temperamental one. That those teammates do not also storm and stomp is a credit to them, and a second lesson to draw from these reality programs. Those who can take setbacks and persevere will earn rewards in the form of second-chances, praise, and possibly big money.


A third lesson has to do with human relations. The competitors who are insensitive to others tend to lose. One guy made a lot of noise as he planned and stirred. Another bragged that his skills were superior to all others’. Such confidence crosses the line into the territory of hubris, and almost always, unless that contestant learns and embraces humility before the hour ends, the judges will prick the balloon of his ego for him.


I have also observed that the winners tend to be in the service of something greater than themselves: another challenge, a bigger mountain, or an expansion of their business. Usually these winners strive to pay back someone who believed in them--a parent, a partner, a co-worker. In other words, they are hopeful and thankful. None of them says that he will never bake or cook again if he loses. Each of them seems determined to try again, maybe even, if invited, on the same show in the same circumstances.


The producers of these programs include some of the snarky features of the worst in reality TV. They capture eyes rolling when another contestant’s product earns praise; they film eyes cut and heads turned to catch a glimpse of a quivering lip or tiny tear after a contestant receives harsh critiques, and if there are a few fissures in a contestant’s demeanor, those cracks will make the final program. Still these are secondary to the amazing skill and character that 98% of the contestants demonstrate. I usually fast-forward through that other stuff anyway.


I know cooking shows may not be your taste, but I invite you to try one now and then. I find--and this is my final lesson--that they embolden me to experiment with my own, original recipes. They also remind me of the Japanese precept: first feed the soul with foods beautifully presented, then feed the appetite. I could do much better with that one, and these chefs and bakers show me the way. Finally, these shows remind me of the exquisite language that writers choose to convey the same points, and I turn off the TV, switching to books and poetry instead.


Reading Challenge:


For each one of those literary themes printed in bold font in the essay above, list one or more works of literature that develop the same theme.


Writing Challenge:


Choose one of the literary themes in bold font from the essay above and build your own story or poem to reveal that theme.


GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): A Personal Pet Peeve


How dare you suggest that you cut me loose?! I cut you loose and was quite content to lose you! I can lose or misplace car keys just as easily as I can lose you even though I still know perfectly well where you are. All I need to say is ‘Get lost, and don’t come back!’


By the way, in that speech above, the s in loose sounds like an s; the s in lose sounds like a z. Few people mispronounce the words, but many people spell them incorrectly.


The adjective loose spelled with two o’s means:


·      free or released from fastening or attachment: a loose end.
·      free from anything that binds or restrains; unfettered: loose cats prowling around in alleyways at night.
·      uncombined, as a chemical element.
·      not bound together: to wear one's hair loose.
·      not put up in a package or other container: loose mushrooms.

The verb loose spelled with two o’s means:


·      to let loose; free from bonds or restraint.
·      to release, as from constraint, obligation, or penalty.
·      Chiefly Nautical . to set free from fastening or attachment: to loose a boat from its moorings.
·      to unfasten, undo, or untie, as a bond, fetter, or knot.
·      to shoot; discharge; let fly: to loose missiles at the invaders.


The word loose in idiomatic expressions means:

·      break loose, to free oneself; escape: The convicts broke loose.
·      cast loose: a. to loosen or unfasten, as a ship from a mooring and  b. to send forth; set adrift or free: He was cast loose at an early age to make his own way in the world.
·      cut loose: a. to release from domination or control, b. to become free, independent, etc. and c. to revel without restraint: After the rodeo they headed into town to cut loose.
·      hang / stay loose, Slang . to remain relaxed and unperturbed.
·      let loose: a. to free or become free and  b. to yield; give way: The guardrail let loose and we very nearly plunged over the edge.

The verb lose, spelled with one o, means:


·      to come to be without (something in one's possession or care), through accident, theft, etc., so that there is little or no prospect of recovery: I'm sure I've merely misplaced my hat, not lost it.
·      to fail inadvertently to retain (something) in such a way that it cannot be immediately recovered: I just lost a dime under this sofa.
·      to suffer the deprivation of: to lose one's job; to lose one's life.
·      to be bereaved of by death: to lose a sister.
·      to fail to keep, preserve, or maintain: to lose one's balance; to lose one's figure.
·      to suffer loss: to lose on a contract.
·      to suffer defeat or fail to win, as in a contest, race, or game: We played well, but we lost.
·      to depreciate in effectiveness or in some other essential quality: a classic that loses in translation
·      (of a clock, watch, etc.) to run slow.

The word lose, spelled with one o, may appear in two idiomatic expressions: lose out and lose face.

Definitions and illustrations are from I am grateful for them.

Friday, February 10, 2012

"Barter" by Sara Teasdale

Valentine’s Day, for one my age, is no more immune to inspiring thoughts of hearts, flowers, love and ecstasy in me than in the lonely teenager longing for one special someone. My thoughts, however, stretch further than the dear and loving husband whose promise continues after more than thirty years. I think of the love between parent and child as well, not only because I am a mother to a wonderful daughter, but also because my wonderful daughter expects a daughter of her own in early summer. She and her husband will begin the journey through nights cut into pieces by baby’s needs, hearts stretched beyond imaginings, and aches deeper than the deepest crevasse when that child is in pain. And so, for this post, I offer a poetic valentine, not one of my own, but one that speaks to the largesse of love, of universal love, of love that exists each day, all day, long after I have come and gone in this world. Savor “Barter” by Sara Teasdale.

    Life has loveliness to sell,
      All beautiful and splendid things,
    Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
      Soaring fire that sways and sings,
    And children's faces looking up
    Holding wonder like a cup.

    Life has loveliness to sell,
      Music like a curve of gold,
    Scent of pine trees in the rain,
      Eyes that love you, arms that hold,
    And for your spirit's still delight,
    Holy thoughts that star the night.

    Spend all you have for loveliness,
      Buy it and never count the cost;
    For one white singing hour of peace
      Count many a year of strife well lost,
    And for a breath of ecstasy
    Give all you have been, or could be.

    Dear Readers, as Valentine’s Day approaches, love life itself and see the tokens of love that life makes available. Sara Teasdale lists some of those tokens for us.

·      Blue waves whitened on a cliff
·      Soaring fires
·      The wonder of children
·      Music
·      The scent of pine trees
·      Loving eyes
·      Arms that enfold
·      Sacred thought

The price of these cannot be measured, but the price should be paid: Give all you have been, or could be.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Reading Challenge:

Read Calvin Trillin’s love song for his dear wife in About Alice.

Writing Challenge:

Write an essay or story that proves the following: “Success in marriage is much more than finding the right person; it is a matter of being the right person.” (Variously attributed, including as an Arabian proverb)

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): Commonly Confused Words

When I enrolled in the course, I never expected the blood to course through my veins so hotly. I found the instructor’s conservative discourse at odds with my own progressive leanings, so much so that his words were as coarse as sand and pebbles under my tender feet.

Choose “u” in course for nouns that refer to:

·      a direction or route taken or to be taken.
·      the path, route, or channel along which anything moves: the course of a stream.
·      advance or progression in a particular direction; forward or onward movement.
·      the continuous passage or progress through time or a succession of stages: in the course of a year; in the course of the battle.
·      the track, ground, water, etc., on which a race is run, sailed, etc.: One runner fell halfway around the course.

Choose “u” in course for verbs that refer to:

·     to run through or over.
·     to chase; pursue.
·     to hunt (game) with dogs by sight rather than by scent.
·     to cause (dogs) to pursue game by sight rather than by scent.
·     to follow a course; direct one's course.
·     to run, race, or move swiftly: The blood of ancient emperors courses through his veins.

Choose “u” in course for idioms:
·      in due course, in the proper or natural order of events; eventually: They will get their comeuppance in due course.
·      of course, certainly; definitely: Of course I'll come to the party. Or, in the usual or natural order of things: Extra services are charged for, of course.

Choose an “a” in coarse for adjectives:

·      composed of relatively large parts or particles: The beach had rough, coarse sand.
·      lacking in fineness or delicacy of texture, structure, etc.: The stiff, coarse fabric irritated her skin.
·      harsh; grating.
·      lacking delicacy, taste, or refinement; unpolished: He had coarse manners but an absolutely first-rate mind.
·      of inferior or faulty quality; common; base.

Thanks to for the definitions above.