And the moral of that story is…

Fairytales are strange beasts, aren’t they? When I asked about people’s reactions to Not Now Bernard, Rosie Hedger replied via Twitter:

Fils aîné was given a boxed set of Ladybird fairytales for his birthday so we’ve been reacquainting ourselves with them. These are, on the whole, fairly innocuous retellings without too many of the gory bits so there hasn’t been much scariness to contend with. Fils cadet did veto Hansel and Gretel with the decided opinion that “I think the witch isn’t good!” but that’s all.

Obviously, these stories have been handed down through the oral tradition, embellished, retold, adapted to meet different needs and so they can’t be expected to have the internal consistency of a tightly crafted modern novel but they’re still perplexing. While mon mari has been heard to mutter darkly about the crazy economics and poor business sense of the Elves and the Shoemaker, I have mainly been reading Jack and the Beanstalk and Rumpelstiltskin to fils cadet.

illustration from a book of fairy tales,

Jack making a quick getaway… (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, Jack and the Beanstalk. A lazy boy gets tricked into selling the family’s last resource for some beans. As you do. He sets off on an adventure which involves theft, handling stolen goods and finally murder, making his mother an accomplice in all these crimes. But that’s OK because the giant had stolen all the family’s wealth in the first place…

Rumpelstiltskin, Ladybird TalesOr what about Rumpelstiltskin? The stupidity of a girl’s boastful father sees her forced into marriage with an avaricious and capricious king. She makes a rash promise to the person whose skill has prevented her being killed by her husband for being unable to do the impossible, in the vague hope that she’ll never be called upon to keep it. But she is. She finds a way round it, Rumpelstiltskin stamps his foot through the floor in a temper tantrum. And they all lived happily ever after.

Huh? Yeah, yeah, I know I shouldn’t read too much into these things. But, huh? Why do we keep reading these stories to our children? It’s part of our cultural heritage, I know that. We love reworking these stories even as adults, as plenty of novels, films and TV series show, so there must be something to them. Perhaps it’s good to have a bit of moral ambiguity at an early age. A little safe scariness can be exciting and good always wins in the end…

What do you think? What’s the appeal for you?

About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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4 Responses to And the moral of that story is…

  1. That’s why they are so great. It’s the fantasy that helps the nature of fairy tales, plus generally good wins over evil. Must admit I read the less scary ones to the kids!

  2. Lucym808 says:

    I remember being terrified by Rumplestiltskin as a child, but mainly I think because the Ladybird illustrations were quite twisted and dark. Why do we carry on telling them? I guess because they’re so embedded in our cultural understanding. Although it could also be because it’s hard not to pick up a picture book and not find a reference in some way – how do you ‘get’ The Jolly Postman for example, without knowing about fairy tales?

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