When I was small it was believed in high-minded progressive circles that fairy tales were unsuitable for children. “Does not Cinderella interject a social and economic situation which is both confusing and vicious?… Does not ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ delay a child’s rationalizing of the world and leave him longer than is desirable without the beginnings of scientific standards?” as one child education expert, Lucy Sprague Mitchell, put it in the Foreword to her Here and Now Story Book, which I received for my fifth birthday. It would be much better, she and her colleagues thought, for children to read simple, pleasant, realistic stories which would help to prepare us for the adult world.
Mrs. Mitchell’s own contribution to literature was a squat volume, sunny orange in color, with an idealized city scene on the cover. Inside I could read about The Grocery Man (“This is John’s Mother. Good Morning, Mr. Grocery Man”) and How Spot Found a Home. The children and parents in these stories were exactly like the ones I knew, only more boring. They never did anything really wrong, and nothing dangerous or surprising ever happened to them—no more than it did to Dick and Jane, whom I and my friends were soon to meet in first grade.
After we grew up, of course, we found out how unrealistic these stories had been. The simple, pleasant adult society they had prepared us for did not exist. The fairy tales had been right all along—the world was full of hostile, stupid giants and perilous castles and people who abandoned their children in the nearest forest. To succeed in this world you needed some special skill or patronage, plus remarkable luck; and it didn’t hurt to be very good-looking. The other qualities that counted were wit, boldness, stubborn persistence, and an eye for the main chance. Kindness to those in trouble was also advisable—you never knew who might be useful to you later on.
The fairy tales were also way ahead of Mrs. Mitchell with respect to women’s liberation. In her stories men drove wagons and engines and boats, built houses, worked in stores, and ran factories; women did nothing except look after children and go shopping. The traditional folk tale, on the other hand, is one of the few sorts of classic children’s literature of which a radical feminist would approve. Most of these stories are in the literal sense old wives’ tales. Throughout Europe (except in Ireland) the storytellers from whom the Grimm Brothers and their followers heard them were most often women; in some areas, they were all women.
Quite logically, writers like Robert Graves have seen in many familiar fairy tales survivals of an older matriarchal culture and faith. These stories suggest a society in which women are as competent and active as men, at every age and in every class. Gretel, not Hansel, defeats the Witch; and for every clever youngest son there is a youngest daughter equally resourceful. The contrast is greatest in…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.