This weekly blog is a free resource for those who would like to begin a writing habit or simply sharpen their skills. Because writers are readers, posts will also offer insights about literature and strategies for literary analysis.
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://
imaginationsoup.net/2012/02/fairy-tales-are-essential-to-childhood, 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 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howabout 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
“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.
Read several fairy tales by Grimm. Another site where you can discover
them is http://www. nationalgeographic.com/grimm/index2.html.
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.
(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.