I am one of those people that Tolkien mentions in his essay “On Fairy Stories” who loves fairy stories. As a child, I had the sense that most of the stories I was consuming were somehow clipped, cut, and cultivated for a “lesser” mind, or as Tolkien put it, “relegated to the nursery.” This is true of many tales: “Red Riding Hood,” for example, and its origins in “The Grandmother’s Tale.” Charles Perrault shaped the story into a simple moral about little girls needing to behave themselves, not talk to men, to be demure rather than bold so that they may avoid the “gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.” Later, the Grimms, with their love of folklore, presented another adaptation, which is not less moralizing, but has a happy ending instead.
While I was unfamiliar with “The Grandmother’s Tale” as a child, I did know of the many other versions of “Red Riding Hood.” The happy ending of the Grimm’s version settled wrong in my stomach. I was out for bloodier things, things which better mirrored my notion of reality: the hero doesn’t always win, cruelty abounds, and triumphs often require sacrifice.
That was why I loved Hans Christian Andersen when I was young. Rather than just retelling oral stories, the main body of Andersen’s works were his own invention. Each of his tales seemed so sad: the little mermaid sacrificing her voice to follow her prince, and then accepting her fate of death instead of murdering him to return to the sea; poor Elisa doomed to silence as she wove nettle sweaters for her brothers in order to give them back their human shape, but unable to finish them before the king’s archbishop ordered her death for witchcraft; Gerda’s trials and the sacrificing of her childhood in order to save Kay from the grasp of the Snow Queen. These stories tugged on my sense of injustice… and maybe my overinflated sense of drama and self-sacrifice.
Rereading “The Little Mermaid” today leaves feels different. Through many of Andersen’s narratives runs a martyr thread. Again and again, Andersen’s images rely on goodness being little, sweet, innocent. Too many ignorant angels smiling at the idea of the Christ child, after enduring hardship after hardship. I no longer see the sacrifices of Andersen’s little heroines as noble, but as self-effacing. Our mermaid gives up everything in order to convince a prince she hid from to love her, she bets her life on it. And beyond the tale itself, there is often a the moralist note for the children listening: be good, or you’ll hurt the chances of the little mermaid earning a soul!
These are the stories that are relegated to the nursery. These are the tales we put in children’s hands. We tell them they will be rewarded for ignorance, for being “good.” We tell them that to be considered good they need to have suffered injustly. I think these are dangerous ideas to put in a kid’s head. There are better stories to put into a child’s hands, that talk of real things, like risk and reward and danger. I think that most little children would do better tricking the bzou alongside a little girl than learning not to talk to men.