We are a household divided when it comes to fairy tales. My husband really dislikes a number of the well-known ones. Disliked them as a child. Still dislikes them. I try to be the one to read them (though he bravely reads on). We’ve taken the view that whatever we think of an individual story, fairy tales and folklore form part of the literary backdrop to our lives and our literature. So by equipping our kids with a working knowledge of fairy tales and folklore (and mythology, world religions and Shakespeare – more on these elsewhere) we give them access to cultural riches, references and allusions – and a whole host of strange and, honestly quite disturbing and apparently developmentally really important, story lines. From witches who eat children to kissing sleeping girls or falling in love with someone apparently dead (if you want to freak yourself out, try the brilliant but deeply weird graphic novel Snow, Glass, Apples by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran – strictly one for the grown-ups), fairy tales contain a lot of difficult material. That shouldn’t be a surprise, they were old tales before the Grimm brothers and others started collecting them; variants are found in cultures all over the world. These were never just children’s stories.
I had a little dig into the origins and meanings of fairy tales, and if you’re interested, the one I love is Maria Tatar’s collection The Classic Fairy Tales published by Norton. It includes multiple versions of the classic tales from around the world so you can see the variations and similarities, with essays by Bruno Bettelheim, Marina Warner, Jack Zipes and others – well worth reading. And I have Philip Pullman’s Daemon Voices on Stories and Storytelling lined up next.
For me, with all their difficult points, fairy tales are a vehicle for the imagination, a place to face and defeat monsters, and a great opportunity to talk about different versions, traditional oral storytelling and then let your children loose to mash them up and build their own stories. We have a recurring bathtime game with a shaving mirror in which the wicked queen is told that ‘the child, Lydia Purple, is more cozy than thou!’ and a whole series of stories about Little Red Riding Hood, Little Blue Riding Hood and Little Purple Riding Hood (and other, similarly named friends) who insist to all comers (mainly wolves) that it’s their forest and they will play where they like and not get eaten. (And the girls rush at the wolves with sticks, and the wolves run away. And the wolves want to go back and eat them because the girls look so tasty but they are scared to because the girls are so fierce – says Lydia.)