I usually call on a serious looking girl first. But I know I have. And maybe some of you have, too.
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In fairy tales, as in dreams, we are every character. Cinderella is so enduringly popular not because of her clearly delineated character traits, but because every child has felt neglected or belittled. She is not a character you would recognize on the street, or want to have a play-date with, like Huckleberry Finn.
Details are scarce and carefully chosen. Cinderella is an empty box that the child puts himself in. Fairy tales share the archetypal structure of every story of growth. The hero is faced with a problem. To solve or escape it, she must leave home and enter the great wide world.
Fairy Tales and Modern Stories
Out there, she overcomes the problem and, armed with her solution, returns either to her old home or to a new and better one. In most fairy tales, the great wide world takes the form of a forest. Where tears are transformed into blood. This physicalization of emotion is so powerful for children because every child has fallen and bruised himself.
Every child has felt hungry, even if only in our well-fed, First World way. Every child has had a cut that has bled. And so every child knows that the bruise stops hurting, the food does eventually come, the blood clots, scabs over, heals. When a child reads about emotional pain—betrayal and loneliness and anger at parents— in terms of blood, he comes to understand that those pains too will heal, that salty tears also dry.
[Essay] The Story of Storytelling | Harper's Magazine
Realism means that the world is dull and full of routine, but that the soul is sick and screaming. The problem of the fairy tale is—what will a healthy man do with a fantastic world? The problem of the modern novel is—what will a madman do with a dull world? From their perspective, they are the only ones who make any sense, and everyone else, adults in particular, are shadowy incomprehensibles. I tend to agree with children on this point. He needs ideas on how to bring his inner house into order.
When I share the real, old, Grimm tales with children, I see them gasp and laugh and clasp their hands together and stare so hard I think they might fall over. But does this mean that children are benefitting emotionally? Or are they merely titillated? Children know what they need. Not that they are errorless—we still have to grab their hands before they rush into the street; we still must help them overcome their fear of the first day of school.
But children, much more than adults, are unconsciously in tune with the developmental needs of their bodies and minds. Their play is more educational and emotionally salutary than anything a teacher or psychologist could prescribe. When a child is reading a book that he finds upsetting, he closes it and puts it aside this is one structural advantage of books over movies, which move so swiftly and are so hard to turn off. And when the book contains new and needed wisdom, he will demand it again and again, until its lessons are mastered much to the chagrin of the sleepy parent.
One afternoon, I was working in the hallway outside of my classroom.
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- The Story of Storytelling.
Suddenly, a girl I did not know appeared and approached me. She could have said a lot of things. For what she did was throw her arms around my neck and squeeze me fiercely.
Why Children should not read grimm fairytales
Usually, the symbolic meaning of literary imagery is up for debate, but years of telling and retelling have worn the significance of fairytales deep into the narrative woodwork: Archetypes like witches, stepmothers, and princesses take on an almost unambiguous valence. New retellings like Snow White and the Huntsman are novel in that they represent a break with this familiar language , logic, and sensibility. Their tone is adult, and they are hard-hitting, even investigative: They promise to let us in on a secret, to complicate what always appeared so straightforward, to mature what always appeared so infantile.
Many of the refurbished stories have a touch of exclusivity, of revelation, about them. Adaptations are always implicitly paired with the stories that inspired them, always haunted by the ghosts of their originals, and it is for this reason that they manage to surprise us so thoroughly whenever they stray from their source material. But more than tone, substance distinguishes these retellings. The new accounts are three-dimensional sometimes literally— Maleficent and Hansel and Gretel: Witchhunters are both in 3D , and they realize a personal vision in place of an anonymous cultural imperative.
Characters who once helplessly enacted their assigned roles are reclaiming some measure of agency.
But in Maleficent , we learn her back-story—and come to find her sympathetic, even relatable. In Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman , Snow White undergoes a similar transformation, this time from archetypal damsel in distress into an autonomous figure with no shortage of sword-fighting skills. Like the new Maleficent, the new Snow White is forward, intrepid, and assertive.
Perhaps most striking are Hansel and Gretel, whom we know as helpless if clever children—and who become a physical force to be reckoned with in Hansel and Gretel: Witchhunters , where they make use of high-tech weapons in their fight against a league of evil witches. Our sensitivity to deviations is heightened, and each small challenge to the established framework ripples throughout the narrative, shocking us at every turn. This is a first for fairytales, where originality is a relatively recent virtue.
The first big names associated with folklore saw themselves as collectors or historians, sometimes ethnographers, but rarely as creative agents. Their job was to give voice to collective fantasies, to report back from the dreamscape of the public psyche, not to invent or fabricate. They did not construct so much as transmit or transcribe. In their quest to solidify German national and literary identity, they consulted commoners, seeking to establish the outlines of a universally German folk tradition.
Flat, affectless, and unpretentious, proceeding with the certainty of a sleepwalker or the inevitability of a dream, they offer no explanations, no apologies.