A Thousand Years Tradition of Scaring Children at Bedtime
Continues for Children of All Ages

News of the discovery of 500 “new” fairy tales collected over 150 years ago in Germany and locked away in a forgotten archive has me thinking about the enduring importance of these narrative treasures in the lives of human societies worldwide. My worry, have fairy tales been marginalized by modernism?

Do you remember being read fairy tales as a child? Or was your earliest immersion into children’s literature dominated by Dr. Seuss and The Magic Treehouse series? And how long was it before a Harry Potter novel or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and other TV cartoon characters captured your imagination and supplanted parents as curators of storytelling time? Has something been lost in the shift away from the classic fairy tales toward a less “upsetting” childhood syllabus? Has a part of our identity been denied us, an important anchoring to our past generations and their most basic teachings been allowed to come undone and set us adrift?

Check out this chart I found from a few years ago

Top Bedtime Stories of 2008

  1. The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Eric Carle (1969)

  2. Mr Men, Roger Hargreaves (1971)

  3. The Gruffalo, Julia Donaldson (1999)

  4. Winnie the Pooh, A.A. Milne (1926)

  5. Aliens Love Underpants, Claire Freedman & Ben Cort (2007)

  6. Thomas and Friends from The Railway Series, Rev.W.Awdry (1945)

  7. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame (1908)

  8. What a Noisy Pinky Ponk!, Andrew Davenport (2008)

  9. Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Robert Southey (1837)

Top 10 Fairy Tales We No Longer Read

  1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

  2. Hansel and Gretel

  3. Cinderella

  4. Little Red Riding Hood

  5. The Gingerbread Man

  6. Jack and the Beanstalk

  7. Sleeping Beauty

  8. Beauty and the Beast

  9. Goldilocks and the Three Bears

  10. The Emperor's New Clothes

From a poll of 3,000 British parents, by TheBabyWebsite.com

At some point along the way, parents were told that fairy tales are too violent for children’s bedtimes, a sure cause of fright and insomnia, a possible cause of more serious psychic trauma. Even when classic tales like “Peter Pan” are given a Walt Disney film treatment, all of the much darker parts of the story are “disappeared” to deliver a more harmless and more commercial product. (Tip to the wise reader: Be sure at some point in your adulthood to treat yourself to the more satisfying original sources of everything you’ve ever enjoyed as a movie or TV show; whether it’s “Peter Pan,” “Dracula,” or “James Bond,” you’ll be glad you did.)

Societies tend to censor in their pursuit of public tranquility, but it’s hard to keep a good story down (suppressed). Fairy tales keep reemerging at regular intervals in new, transformed, even futurist iterations. The basic lessons these stories teach are simply too resonant with the vibrations of the basic questions in our lives recurring generation after generation, to not be as a riveting and relevant as when they were first circulated in voices by candlelight. This week it’s the opening of “Snow White and the Huntsman.” Early reviews indicate that the film improves upon the main “lesson” of physical beauty possibly disguising a black heart together with inner goodness being the truest beauty has been improved upon. According to early reviewers this updated version emphasizes the severity of the overemphasis on attractiveness in women’s lives generally and the modern woman’s struggle to be herself and rise by her own abilities rather than on her looks. What on it’s trailer surface looks to be just the sort of summer fantasy and action entertainment I’ll certainly enjoy on Thursday midnight – also presents some important life lessons that younger viewers need to know. The fairy tale, and its sacred mission, lives!

It’s not just in new retellings of classic fairy tales that this desire to revisit these stories resurfaces in later adulthood. The current inundation of competing movie superhero canons seems to reflect the need to sort out basic human questions about right and wrong, patriotism and treason, honor and deceit, valor and cowardice, etc. Yes, I am especially thinking of Joss Whedon's wonderful Avengers screenplay. The complexity and gray areas that make these issues so difficult in adulthood makes our basic grounding in the ethics and absolutes of a childhood fairy tale “education’ all the more important.

Fairy tales forewarn and prepare us for a life that will be loaded with dangers – but dangers that can be intelligently calibrated so that we’ll know when we must be brave and fight despite the odds, and when we should retreat to seek a safer way around. Moving beyond films, I am hopeful an upcoming video game being developed by Krillbrite entitled "Among The Sleep" brings this classic fairy tale aesthetic to the gaming medium with a compelling and rich narrative to go with it. I also believe the Latin American literary movement known as “magical realism,” exemplified in novels like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” is another example of the reemergence of the fairy tale in “adult” storytelling. Not to be confused with “surrealism,” in “magical realism” the narrative remains absolutely realistic – but with the moments of magical epiphany just as emphatically asserted to be “real.” The effect is a powerful statement that there is more to life than what the controlling “order” demands life must be limited to. The novels of Isabel Allende also comes to mind as examples of "magical realism”. In his “real” fairy tales, Marquez teaches that there is real magic in our lives, but it is only attainable by those with the truest and most faithful hearts.