Debate: Fairy tales, are they still relevant?
Sunday 04 April 1999
launching a comic based on fairy tales, but are they still relevant?
Absolutely, says Adele Geras; they teach us about life. No they don't, says Ross
Clarke; they just scare kids into conforming
HUMAN BEINGS need fairy tales. They need them to reflect their own experience; to explain a mysterious universe; to introduce them to places and people they haven't met before; to enable them to live vicariously; to provide hope; to show them how to cope with whatever life throws at them; to reveal possibilities. Children are human beings who haven't been in the world for very long. They are not, however, stupid. Their youth means that the intricacies of, say, investment banking may be beyond them, but they will know the deep and basic feelings extremely well. From a very early age, they understand jealousy, sadness, anger, fear and wonder and therefore they can enjoy fairy tale and doing without them would be a deprivation
Fairy tale is a term used loosely to take in everything from The Little Red Hen to the grimmer tales collected by the Brothers Grimm, to Hans Christian Andersen and stories like The Snow Queen. These narratives were not written for children. Some of their subject matter is hideous. Even a tale like Hansel and Gretel is about famine, and has a denouement that is so cruel that many a parent might shy away from reading it. What this means is that a parent has to be careful. Some children - some people - are more squeamish than others. One of my daughters had to cover up an alphabet wall-frieze because she was frightened of the picture of quintuplets that went with the letter Q.
But how seriously can we expect a modern child to take tales of magical transformation or mythical ordeals which have little to do with real life? I would say that fairy tales give children a sort of second opinion: another perspective on almost everything, from nasty parents to how to deal with bullies. Virtue and hard work and honesty are rewarded as they often are not in daily life, but people need more than facts. There's such a thing as poetic truth, and much pleasure to be found in fantasy and wish fulfillment.
The language of social realism can be gritty and moving, but is also, often, impoverished and cliched. It's easy, though, to find retellings of fairy tales in which children are exposed to words and pictures that are "magic casements" opening on a universe full of the most extraordinary things. These will add a new depth to their lives.
Fairy tales are ancient. They cross barriers of time and place. There is a Cinderella story for every culture on the planet. They teach and entertain. They chill us to the bone and fill the mind with marvels. From Jean Cocteau to Angela Carter, from Jon Scieszka to Stephen Sondheim they have provided inspiration for artists. Put them before your children. Let them choose.
Adele Geras is an author. She retold traditional tales in `Beauty and the Beast and Other Stories' (Puffin).
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