Debate: Fairy tales, are they still relevant?
Ross Clark is a journalist who has written extensively for the Times of London, the Sunday Telegraph, the Mail on Sunday, and The Spectator. He is the author of How to Label a Goat: The Silly Rules and Regulations That Are Strangling Britain and The Great Before, a satire on the anti-globalization movement
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
IN THE reactionary mindset, everything was better in the good old days. But nothing quite stirs a fit of nostalgia in the British as much as a fairy story. The tales your mom sat and read you at the end of your bed are supposed to be about comfort and innocence. Think of Little Red Riding-Hood and you remember your fluffy dressing gown; think of The Three Little Pigs and you think of your tumbledown childhood home. And you don't get stories like that any more, says the reactionary. Childrens' books these days are about indoctrinating youngsters with the strictures of political correctness.
Yet what is a fairy story if it is not a form of indoctrination, political correctness 19th-century style? Pick up one of those nauseating tales about princesses being picky about their choice of prince and what you are really reading is an attempt to bolster the standing of all those little teutonic monarchies against the growing clamour for democracy then taking hold in Europe. In your childhood reading do you ever remember a princess falling in love with a commoner? Of course you don't - anything less than a prince would have broken the social code which little Germanic children were supposed to accept without question. It is sad that generations of children have read Struwwelpeter without realising its true meaning: it was intended as a satire of the children's morality tales that so offended its author, Dr Heinrich Hoffmann.
There is nothing innocent about fairy stories. Quite the opposite; they introduce a child to the ways of the world in the most vicious fashion. Ogres and wolves are just child abusers in disguise, waiting on every corner to gobble you up. Next time you read your child a fairy tale, look at the bloated, unkempt faces of the hot goblins: don't they remind you of every photofit of a child abuser you've ever seen? But that is their intention: fairy tales are nothing more than a brutal way of saying keep with your mummy and don't talk to strangers. No wonder my three-year-old son wakes up with nightmares - "I'm dreaming of the wolf" - whenever he is read a traditional children's tale.
If social realism has taken over from the hell that is fairytale land, then good. I have never understood why straightforward, factual children's tales so offend the reactionaries. If you can introduce children to death and destruction in the enchanted forest, you can introduce them to life on an Islington council estate - and have a worthwhile conversation with them afterwards. It isn't true that socially real tales don't stimulate a child's imagination; the only thing they don't do is smother the child's imagination with the weird ideas of an overgrown child: the fairy tale author.
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