Home Arts & Lit Should we tell children the more gruesome original fairy tales?

Should we tell children the more gruesome original fairy tales?

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Nickie Shobeiry grew up with fairy tales which were rather different to those many of us might have been familiar with as children. Here she looks at the differences between the two versions of these popular stories and considers which we should be telling to our children…

What happened within the walls of this fairytale castle? The answer varies dramatically depending on the type of tale you choose to look at...  Image Credit: Jack Luke
What happened within the walls of this fairytale castle? The answer varies dramatically depending on the type of tale you choose to look at…
Image Credit: Jack Luke

Evil stepmothers. Damsels in distress. Heroic princes.

These are characters we recall like rosy-cheeked childhood friends. Themes of good and bad, triumph and valiance sewn together through years of story-telling, fit for the ears of our little ones. What we don’t expect to find, in the midst of white stockings and grand castles, is torture, rape, and all-round debauchery.

For some children, Snow White’s evil step-mother wanted her entrails in a box so she could devour them in a jealous, cannibalistic frenzy; but, in return, cunning Snow has her dance in hot iron shoes until she drops dead – so, you know, it sort of evens out.

On the note of shoes, Cinderella’s step-sisters happily cut off their heels and toes to fit into that pesky glass slipper, managing to fool the prince; that is, until doves begin pecking out their eyes – just in case the rivers of blood flowing from their maimed feet wasn’t enough of a give-away.

Sleeping Beauty was raped. Rapunzel was kidnapped over some stolen cabbage. Rumpelstiltskin got so mad he tore himself in two – or, if you prefer, got so angry he launched himself into his enemy’s vagina… and then got stuck. The little mermaid died excruciatingly, turning into sea foam. The Pied Piper drowned all the little children. Hansel and Gretel slit the devil’s wife’s throat (you read that correctly).

Happily ever after, indeed.

Clearly, it seems that our ancestors had a passion for the more sinister things in life; and really, whilst you can argue that it’s no wonder, since the Great Plague isn’t exactly known for its party atmosphere, we can’t ignore our own modern story telling: films, books, videogames – all of these encompass a level of violence that’d make Caligula proud.

So, it looks like we’re all just a tad defiled, with an ‘it’s-so-bad-I-can’t-stop-looking’ attitude towards gore. Why, then, have we ‘cleaned up’ fairytales so much? Why is it such a shock that, yes, Red Riding hood was torn to pieces, and there was no well-timed huntsman to save the day?

In my more innocent, cartoon-fuelled years, I was exposed to the original versions of these tales (apparently, ‘no guts, no glory’ was taken a bit too literally in my household). A few science-experiment mishaps aside, I reckon I was pretty normal, even though my little brain was handling stories that, today, make me shudder. Fall into a coma for one hundred years and then wake up with twins? Not quite in the mood today, thanks.

Yet, perhaps it’s because of our adult ego that we can feel disgust, and simultaneous lust for these stories. I definitely remember pondering over the gruesome tales as a child, but I wouldn’t label my emotions as ‘disturbed’, but rather, as contemplating. Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim has said that the scarier parts of fairy tales are what allow children to work through their anxieties; they provide a realm where youngsters are free to muddle through their feelings, and come out saner because of it – in theory.

Could encountering the more gruesome versions of the stories actually be psychologically beneficial for children? Image Credit: Frisjes
Could encountering the more gruesome versions of the stories actually be psychologically beneficial for children?
Image Credit: Frisjes

So, keeping this in mind, should we expose young children to the original tales in all their raging, bloodstained splendour? Well, some may argue that it’s cruel and unnecessary; who would want to tell their wide-eyed sweetheart that Prince Charming was more a dirty dog who couldn’t keep it in his pants? Conversely, others may argue that it’s dishonest not to tell our little critters the truth of the world. If you’ll consider me your guinea-pig, I can (almost) guarantee that I came out just fine, despite hearing that Snow White’s prince wanted to haul her outwardly-dead body off to his castle.

Whatever the mysterious answer is to child-rearing, it’s probably worth mentioning that the very original fairy-tales were not meant for children at all; traditionally, women would tell them to each other for entertainment, sort of like a 17th century after-hours horror special. It wasn’t until the Brothers Grimm came along and ‘sanitized’ the stories (that is, removed the sex and amped up the violence because “the kids’ll love it!”) that fairy-tales became exclusively for children – not to mention the avalanche of brightly-coloured, trip-inducing merchandise that came tumbling down onto society’s head, thanks to Mr Walt Disney in later years.

Commercial value aside, fairy tales are our myths – and as author Joseph Campbell says, the function of myths is to ‘carry the human spirit forward’; it is through story-telling that we can connect and dip into thousands of years of wisdom and consciousness. Is it really a coincidence that the same fairytales, with the same themes, appear again and again in cultures across the globe?

Whether or not we decide to tell our children these stories in their original versions is one thing, but I whole-heartedly believe we must take the time to re-visit these little fantasy worlds one more time, and put our egos aside as we do.

Nickie Shobeiry

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