Once Upon A Timeless Tale

It’s no secret that our bookshelves are heavily laden with children’s books. The shelves sag from their weight. Yet despite the variety of quality, modern, interesting and quirky books in our collection, it is repeatedly the fairy tales that are selected by small hands.

It intrigues me. Why? Some are so gruesome. So dark. Most are set in bygone eras, that are surely not relatable for our kids.

And yet they go back for more.

I’ve thought long and hard about their attraction, and about their endurance through time.

Is it their rhythmic nature? Three bowls of soup, three chairs, three beds etc.

Or their moralistic, purposeful nature? Don’t talk to wolves etc.

Is it their goriness, and darkness kids are so sheltered from in early years, yet are so clearly drawn to?

Is it their magic, other-worldliness? From what I know of early childhood, children are drawn to magic. Their little imaginations take hold of an impossible idea, like a talking wolf or a fairy godmother, and let themselves soar.

You may have heard that Richard Dawkins recently questioned whether it was possibly ‘harmful’ to read fairy tales to children.

‘I think it’s rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism – we get enough of that anyway,’ he said.

Dawkins’ comments were followed by a wave of hysteria and outcry. But fairy tales inspire imagination and wonder, the rebuttal sang.

Dawkins himself later commented that he was misrepresented. Like many of the rest of us, he too feels fairy tales are important.

‘I did not, and will not, condemn fairy tales,’ said Dawkins. ‘My whole life has been given over to stimulating the imagination, and in childhood years, fairy stories can do that.’

Clearly, the magic and wonder of these tales is significant.

But I feel that although fairy tales play with supernatural concepts, have archetypal characters and are set in other worlds, they are deeply human, and it is this that makes them so attractive.

At the heart of most fairy tales is a moral, yes, but there’s also a subtle and complex character flaw or problem that needs to be resolved.

Think of naive, trusting Red Riding Hood, the fiercely jealous step mother of Snow White, or the calculating, canny yet well-intentioned mother-in-law-to-be of the Princess and the Pea. And how relatable in fact is the ugly little duckling, who exists on the fringes of his social world, an outcast because of his looks?

I think as well as craving magic, children are drawn like magnets to the complexity and the humanness of these stories. Remember too that the tales were initially orated from one person to another, passed down through generations, until they were captured in writing. These are human traits that ascend advances in technology, and other cultural developments.

Margrete Lamond, publisher at Little Hare, realised there was a distinct gap in the market between high-end luxury-gift collections of folk and fairy tales, and the cheap Disney-inspired versions that were not true to the originals.

This year, Little Hare released the Once Upon A Timeless Tale series to address this. Margrete  describes the series as a ‘classic, collectible set of fairy tales with high production values, beautiful illustrations and a sense of traditional oral storytelling in the style of writing.’

Once Upon A Timeless Tale The stories are depicted by some of the industry’s best known illustrators, like Anna Walker, Anna Pignataro and Cécile Becq. 

Detail from Puss In Boots, Cécile Becq

Detail from Puss In Boots, Cécile Becq

Margrete herself retells the fairy tales. She tried to source the very early versions, and translated from original languages to find the most authentic voice.

From all the versions of fairy tales we have in our collection, these are by far and away my favourite.

Detail from The Ugly Duckling, Jonathan Bentley

Detail from The Ugly Duckling, Jonathan Bentley

They resolve some of the inexplicable threads other versions leave hanging. For example, Goldilocks has a clear motive when entering the house of the bears.

She was wandering through the forest when she chanced upon a house. She politely knocked, but there was no answer and when she pushed, the door opened, so she went in. Goldilocks wondered why the door was left unlocked, and why three bowls of porridge were left standing on the table, but because she loved the smell of porridge, she was drawn in, and curiosity tempted her to taste from each bowl.

Detail from Little Red Riding Hood, Anna Pignataro

Detail from Little Red Riding Hood, Anna Pignataro

I also love their playfulness.

‘That should teach you’ said the grandmother, ‘not to talk to wolves.’
‘It should teach the wolf,’ said Red Riding Hood, ‘not to talk to little girls.’
And once they had agreed on this, everyone lived happily ever after.’

I also like that Puss In Boots is a smart and sassy lady cat with fine red boots.

I guess the clue to the endurance of fairy tales is in the title of this series – they are timeless. No matter what goes on in our busy, ever-changing world, the fairy story still rings true, in a magical sort of way.

The books can be purchased here.

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Just one more fairy tale

This is the first post in the Nourishing Little Readers series, which will run on Fridays at Heart Mama. I want to use this space to review children’s books and talk about reading with children.

In our house, walls are lined with books, and we spend hours, some days, ensconced on the couch, reading book after book after book. Just one more. Just one more. We read picture books and classics, like Wind In The Willows, Pippi Longstocking and Alice in Wonderland. My husband reads books in Dutch.

Lately, my daughter and I have been sitting in bodies of water (the lake, the bath), facing each other, telling each other imaginary tales. We weave worlds from our imagination. She pulls an invisible book from the invisible shelf – Read this one. What’s it about? and she listens and asks questions and makes changes. Just one more, she asks, as the bath gets cold.

Her favourite tales are Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White. We read so many books, but she so often asks for the classics. They are more than classics; they are archetypes; stories told by peasants in the middle ages. Stories that carried messages, passed from mother to daughter to granddaughter, like wisdom. Children sitting in bodies of water – Just one more.

I think I read my favourite Edenland post last week. The Red Shoes. She wrote about her red shoes, and about lying in bed with her sons, telling them the original story of the red shoes. She reminded me that the fairy tales we know are watered down.

The real stories were full of dark themes, complex, dark humanness. When the story was still passed lip to lip, it was Snow White’s mother, not her step-mother, who wanted her dead. Snow White was only sixteen; a ripening, sexual being. Snow White’s mother felt threatened by her sexuality. The Queen demanded that a huntsman take Snow White into the woods, and bring back her liver and her lungs as proof of her death. The huntsman couldn’t bring himself to do it, and brought back the liver and lungs of a boar, which the Queen ate.

Snow White lived with the seven dwarves who made her clean their house and cook as payment for their protection. The Queen attempted to kill her daughter three times. When she eventually succeeded in killing Snow White, the handsome prince found her coffin. His kiss dislodged the poisoned apple, which had stuck in her throat, and Snow White awakened. They married, and the mother was punished for her evil deeds. She was made to dance for hours in heated iron shoes, until she burnt to death.

There are different versions. Mostly gruesome. Mostly heeding a warning. Be ware of your jealousy towards your daughter.

When Little Red Riding Hood was a peasant tale, the little girl wearing a red cape was seduced into her grandma’s bed by the wolf, who ate her. Grandma didn’t survive. Red Riding Hood didn’t either. In other versions, she led the wolf into believing she needed to go to the toilet, and escaped. Little Red Riding Hood was first written down by French author Charles Perrault. In his version, Riding Hood was tricked and killed by the wolf. The story became a moral tale; a warning not to talk to strangers, and to warn villagers of the dangers of the forest.

These stories are tepid when they make it into our children’s books, though there is horror enough. Grandmas are still eaten by wolves. Girls are still led into the forest to be killed by hunters. My just-three-year-old lays against me on the couch. Just one more. Why isn’t she horrified?

These stories carry darkness. Maybe children aren’t afraid of death. Maybe it is something we learn to be afraid of as we age.

My daughter recites fairy tales. Her gaze fixes as her mind draws from the Three Little Pigs, Snow White, Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks. The characters and events merge. Her versions are sweet and kind. Her little pigs build houses for the wolf after he tries to blow theirs down. Her Goldilocks leaves porridge for the three bears. I wonder about the morals to her stories.

Just one more, she says.

Do you read fairy tales to your children? Do you read the Disney version? Or glide over the horror, hoping your little one won’t notice? What is it about fairy tales that grip little imaginations?

{Linking with Grace for FYBF on With Some Grace}

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