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.