If you'd asked me a couple of years back, I'd have told you vaguely that I liked fairy tales. I liked the idea of them, and had fond memories of stories with my grandmother, and of one particular book of illustrated Grimm tales (I think) with the most perfect, detailed pictures you could imagine. I can still bring to mind the gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel, such detail on the cakes and sweets and biscuits, oh, and the frog sitting by the princess's golden plate and asking, horror of horrors, to drink from her golden cup - in the picture there was drool dripping from his mouth, and horror on her princessy face. I remember a boy covered in treacle and feathers, too, though I've no idea what the story might have been.
It's only getting back to them now (and sadly, not in such a beautiful edition) with a nearly-four-year-old that I realise how crude the basic premise is in so many of the classic fairy stories.
Princess and the pea - prince waits in his castle, auditioning princesses, hoping to find one of unprecedented fragility and girliness
Princess and the frog -
Rumpelstiltskin - dad sells his daughter to a king, who locks her up, sets her impossible tasks, and says if she's really really good then eventually he might marry her. (No wonder she promises she'll give his baby away to a funny little stranger)
I could go on, but it's been done before, and with greater skill. It's easy to defend them as just stories, as being simple fun and as also having other more uplifting messages (the princess made a promise to the frog, and you must always keep promises; Rumpelstiltskin was foolish enough to offer a loophole, and you must always take advantage of loopholes). But I really do fear the way we've internalised these messages. Most right-thinking modern people wouldn't agree to the idea that women should wait to be chosen by a man, but we can't stay away from this narrative, the one where the ultimate reward is marriage, obviously to a prince. Sleeping Beauty has her fate set from the beginning, and her redemption is through the kiss of a stranger who she ends up shackled to - she is the powerless woman, her whole life's structure fixed, only freed by a man who effectively gives her the freedom that should have been hers.
I'm struggling to put any of this in an original way, but it's an honest reflection of my unease with fairy tales, and my difficulty with sharing them with my boy. He questions so much but this is also the time when all his values are being shaped, when he is so receptive to everything that comes into his world. I'd not show him violence on the television, or swear in front of him; I try to model gentle and respective interactions with people and ways of talking about them. And yet here the only goal, if you're a woman, is to find someone who will marry you and keep you in style, and if you're a man you only want the princesses, the beautiful, unachievable, hyper-feminine ones, who come with a dowry.
I don't know, in real life, mothers of girls who tell them they need to find a prince. But if we don't argue with the stories, point out the problems and the stupid assumptions and the ridiculous value systems embedded in them, we're not doing right by our children. We tell them not to worry, ogres aren't real, trolls aren't real, witches aren't real; we should add that princes who make it all ok aren't real, women who are worthwhile just because they're pretty aren't real, and there are better ways to start a relationship than being rescued from a dragon.
The Forgotten and the Fantastical is now available to buy from The Mother’s Milk Bookshop (as a paperback and PDF) and as a paperback from Amazon.
It can also be ordered via your local bookshop.
Any comments on the following fab posts would be much appreciated:In ‘Imagination is quantum ergo fairies are real’, Ana, at Colouring Outside the Lines, explains why we should all believe in fairies and encourage our children to do the same.
‘Wings’ — Rebecca at Growing a Girl Against the Grain shares a poem about her daughter and explains the fairy tale-esque way in which her name was chosen.
In ‘Red Riding Hood Reimagined’ author Rebecca Ann Smith shares her poem ‘Grandma’.
Writer Clare Cooper explores the messages the hit movie Frozen offers to our daughters about women’s experiences of love and power in her Beautiful Beginnings blog post ‘Frozen: Princesses, power and exploring the sacred feminine.’
‘Changing Fairy Tales’ — Helen at Young Middle Age explains how having young children has given her a new caution about fairy tales.
In ‘The Art of Faerie’ Marija Smits waxes lyrical about fairy tale illustrations.
‘The Origins of The Forgotten and the Fantastical’ — Teika Bellamy shares her introduction from the latest collection of fairy tales for an adult audience published by Mother’s Milk Books.