A Week in Books: Madonna's fifth and final children's parable

A dozen years ago, Madonna famously wrapped her apparel-free, gym-hardened frame around various pieces of moodily-lit furniture in Sex, her slab of coffee-table porn. Nowadays, the Wiltshire businesswoman, châtelaine and Kabalist writes dinky little children's fables. They teach the value of caring and sharing with a sugary, simple-minded rectitude that might test the patience (and stomach) of a saint. In the dialectical vision of Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience (currently an inspiration for Patti Smith's Meltdown season on the South Bank), the lewd Ms Ciccone would appear a rather more innocent creature than the spotless Mrs Ritchie.

Madonna Ritchie has now released her fifth and final children's parable, Lotsa de Casha (Puffin, £12.99). It utterly defeats satire. The multi-millionaire author tells her young readers that money brings woe and that, "If you share what you have and put others before you, you will find happiness". To prove the point, the super-rich but melancholy merchant Lotsa de Casha, a "gloomy old sourpuss", gets mugged by a pair of Mockney low-lifes straight out of one of Mr Ritchie's cinematic entertainments: "We ain't asking you for yer money. We're taking it, yer Lordship." Do I detect a part for Vinnie Jones?

Poor Lotsa (who has not lost his fortune but just a purse of ready cash) then finds redemption as a hard-working removal man. Along the way, he chats in a comedy-show cod-Italian ("I'm a starving. I could eata a horse") that, from an author without the right credentials, might well cause offence. The Renaissance swagger of Rui Paes's fine artwork deserves a much better text.

As you might expect, it's howlingly egotistical, with concern for others' need a route to personal gratification rather than a virtue in itself. You could argue that Madonna naked - and true to a certain ideal of liberation and empowerment - made far more moral sense than Madonna in the costume-box nun's habit of her children's books.

Even worse, these trite homilies devalue the currency of the fairy-tale. All the darkness, danger and delirium of this tradition (which, in recent years, has excited writers such as Angela Carter and A S Byatt) is washed away in a tide of schmaltz. At least we have an antidote to hand.

Any reader who wants a taste of the bitter-sweet sources of the European folk story can now consult a terrific new edition of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's Selected Tales (Oxford World's Classics, £8.99). Forcefully translated, and brilliantly analysed, by Joyce Crick, these 82 tales plunge us back into the puzzling, bizarre and often hideously cruel forests of rural, feudal Germany. In this pre-Disney killing-ground, where luck, force and guile rule, the belly of the wolf in "Little Redcap" is sewn with stones, the false wife in "The Goose Girl" shut in "a barrel barbed inside with nails" and dragged by white horses, and the wicked queen in "Snow-White" "forced to put her feet into the red-hot shoes and dance until she fell to the ground dead".

Crick shows that a tension between respect for the savagery of the original tales and the milder conventions of the bourgeois nursery dates back to the first edition in 1812. Her robustly readable versions convey all the shocking strangeness of this world. I would recommend one, above all, to any plutocratic pop star with a yen for holiness - and there seem to be a bunch of them around.

In "The Tale of the Fisherman and his Wife", the hyper-ambitious heroine snaffles the cottage, the palace, the kingdom, the empire, even the Papacy itself, from the magic flounder. He has no quarrel with this extremely material girl. It's only when she wants "to become like God" that the wish-granting fish sends her smartly back to the squalid "piss-pot" where it all began.

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