Thursday, April 23, 2015

Cultural Approaches to Fairy Tales

One of the books I've been reading lately is French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon. Although at first glance it has nothing to do with fairy tales, one passage intrigued me. The book is about one woman's story of moving her family to France and encountering firsthand some of the cultural differences between the French and North Americans-mainly concerning food, but how we train our kids to eat is reflective of our general ideas about children and parenting; and beliefs about children and parenting will have a lot of influence on our ideas about fairy tales-what is appropriate for children, how to introduce them to kids and encourage them to interact with the tales, etc.

When Le Billon's two daughters were 3 and 5, she tried to find children's books for them that would be the equivalent of the many American child-appropriate books. She asked for fairy tales in the bookstores, and was given translations of the famous Grimm and Andersen tales, but as many of us are aware, the average Grimm or Andersen tale would not be considered appropriate for such young children in America.

So she asked her native French father in law, "Back home, childhood is viewed as a really innocent time. There are lots of books about magic and make-believe. The French don't seem to have the same sorts of books."

Her father in law's reply was, "Kids aren't innocent. They're like little animals. If they aren't disciplined, they'll never learn to behave!"

Though that statement may seem shocking, it reflects the general attitude the French have about parenting, and about their children's entertainment. And the French are, in general, very loving parents-but they tend to parent more authoritatively (not authoritarian) then their American counterparts, who have grown more indulgent as a rule.

The book didn't go into more detail about the culture of childhood and what would be considered appropriate verses inappropriate in France, but it reminded me that the attitudes I have about fairy tales and children which I assume are "modern" are really very "American" as well. We often look at the historical emergence of childhood culture as a way of understanding how fairy tales would have been told and received differently in the time of the Grimms and before, but sometimes I forget that even among modern, similar cultures, there can be striking differences.


Maria Tatar and Jack Zipes-American fairy tale scholars

Even in the blogging world, I think most of us fairy tale bloggers are American (shout out to Amy Elize Brown of Asleep in the Woods, way to represent the Brits!). Even some of the biggest names in current fairy tale scholarship, like Jack Zipes and Maria Tatar, are American-with Marina Warner, another Brit, being an exception. Of course there's the whole language barrier, but it makes me wonder-what other books on fairy tale history and evolution are being published in other countries that we aren't aware of because they're not being translated into English? (Speaking as one of the, sadly, many Americans who is not fluent in any second languages). And my guess is that they would have very different opinions on many of the things we discuss-when it comes to evaluating different versions of fairy tales, and looking at the messages they contain, in addition to beliefs about child appropriateness.

I think most Americans would be shocked at the Frenchman's statement above that kids are little animals. And I think we might define "innocence" in kids a little differently, and believe me I've worked with kids enough to know they're not perfect!-but that's a whole other discussion.

Many parents and educators around the world probably have a very different attitude towards what children should and shouldn't be exposed to, and what they're able to handle. Much of the violence and sex of early fairy tales wouldn't have been hidden from children in earlier societies, and perhaps that's still true in many current cultures. For example, although Americans find the romance in fairy tales troubling in that we're worried our kids will become too consumed with finding a significant other, French parents have a different attitude towards children and romance-they actually encourage it, asking them who there "amoreuse" (boyfriend/girlfriend) is and thinking that young children in "relationships" are cute. Therefore, I'm guessing the fact that fairy tale characters tend to get married as part of their happily ever after is not necessarily troubling to them. Clearly, the entertainment available to French children (or not available, as mentioned above) contrasted with American children's books speaks volumes to the different values these cultures have.

Illustration-Eleanor Vere Boyle, "Wild Swans"

And this is just the difference between two relatively similar cultures-so often in fairy tale studies, European and American stories get lumped together under the term "Western"- so even outside of other major cultures, which we expect to have contrasting worldviews, we have to remember how vastly different each similar country's philosophies can be! Honestly, in this world of mass media and globalization, I tend to be very ignorant of how distinctly different two very developed countries can still be on such basic things as attitudes towards food and parenting. I would love to hear from readers and other bloggers around the world on this topic-how do people in different cultures handle fairy tales and telling them to their kids?


  1. Speaking as an Australian fairy tale blogger, who happens to be in America but is very clearly isn't American (I rarely have a single conversation that doesn't remind me of this - every day and that includes at home), I can say, there is a definite difference. My upbringing, however has the additional influence of spending the majority of my first decade in a Latin country, so even among my own countrymen I have a different way of seeing things. ;) While I'm completely fascinated by this as well, it tends to be a bit of a minefield trying to talk about it so I'm curious to see what others have to say abut it too.

    1.'re Australian?!? I had no idea! I thought you were part of the Australian Fairy Tale Society just to support fairy tales around the world!

    2. My non-secret identity has been revealed... :D

    3. I'm not going to lie, Gypsy. I didn't know either. All I knew was that you were out in L.A.

  2. I'm not a parent, so I can't talk about that part. However, the Frenchman's statement about children being "like little animals" does make me think of some of my favorite children's literature characters (who are, coincidentally, from over in Europe) and how flawed, impulsive and troublesome they can be. Peter Pan is one very notable example. Pan almost certainly is like an animal in a lot of ways. Also, the ever troublesome Pinocchio is a good example. So, if you pay attention to your children's literature, you can see the different attitudes come through in the depictions.

    1. You're completely right, although I think many Americans have the tendency to gloss over many of the more disturbing aspects of Pinocchio and Peter Pan and most Americans remember those stories as innocent tales about wonder and imagination and forget some of the weirder/darker aspects! General attitudes towards fairy tales and childhood even influence our memories and perceptions of childhood stories (and the evolution of the European stories to Disney of course partly explains this)

    2. I'm just going to "like" this conversation and sit here sipping my coffee and nodding my head, while you two chat.

    3. I'm not sure how much more there is to say. Oh well, I'll give it a try. I will start by saying that Americans tend to idealize anything we see as "untouched by the ills of modern society". Not just childhood but certain other cultures like how people view the Native Americans before the coming of the Europeans. Of course, it's more complicated than that. It's always more complicated than that. My readings into children's literature (which are ongoing, as "Fantasy Literature Rewind" shows) didn't leave me with the impression that children are "little animals" but the reminder that they're "little people". Maybe little people who know less about the world than we do and have less impulse control, but still people with all the good and bad that comes with it. Peter Pan may be a cocky brat who kills pirates and treats it like a game, but he's also someone who's been burned by his past. He ran away because he was afraid to grow up but eventually came back only to find that his mother had moved on without him and has harbored a grudge against mothers (at least those that aren't pretend) ever since. Pinocchio is a case of two people entering a family situation with false expectations. Gepetto builds Pinocchio to perform and make money (not unheard of, many people expected their children to support them to some extent back then). He doesn't expect that Pinocchio will be so much trouble. While Pinocchio, just gaining human shape, expects that he'll be able to do whatever he wants. However, he's completely unprepared for the ills of the world. Also, as bad as Pinocchio can be (and there's no denying that), he often seems to be punished in ways that far exceed the scope of his crimes. So, while he may seem like Bart Simpson one minute, he'll seem like the ever frustrated Charlie Brown the next. Even looking at the far more benign Alice from Lewis Carroll's Alice books, we see a character who's constantly in a state of confusion about the way the world around her works (granted, it's Wonderland and the Looking Glass Country, but the real world can be just as confusing). Heck, in Through the Looking Glass, her stated goal is to cross the giant chessboard and become a queen. However, when she manages it at the end, she finds it's nothing like what she thought. An "Into the Woods"-esque reminder that what you wish might not always be what you want. I think what I'm trying to say here is that from my own perspective, it serves as a reminder that it's a big, confusing world out there and none of us are perfect (or completely innocent) in it.

    4. Haha-first of all, I got a picture in my head of us all sitting around a table sipping coffee as Gypsy indicated, and I REALLY WANT TO DO THAT...

      And Adam yes-it's so true that we tend to idealize the past. I've always been frustrated with the general "ah, the good old days" idea, because I doubt that those people have a very good grasp of history. I also like your description of children as "little people", sure they're selfish but so are adults! We adults have just figured out ways of making it more subtle or culturally appropriate.

      And, I already left a comment on your Mulan post, but what a perfect example! How America can see the Mulan legend as being all about girl power, but China would have seen it as a tale more about obedience and honoring parents. In fact it's really interesting to compare Chinese tales with European-women in both societies, for the bulk of history, were expected to have similar roles of complete obedience without power. But in China you have these seemingly shocking "girl power" tales like Mulan and Li Chi. Even though European tales do have females who are willing to go and save the day, like Kate Crackernuts, I can't think of any that are the sword-wielding equivalent to modern feminist heroines. The Chinese heroines, as you mentioned in your post, didn't seem to alter the norms, but one can imagine they were a way for women to virtually escape and vicariously play the hero. (And just to put it out there I really don't know much at all about Chinese history and culture, I don't think we ever learned about it in school. I've read a little about foot binding and the history of tea and that's it)

    5. The Heroine in The Singing Springing Lark attacks the dragon that the lion (her enchanted lover) is fighting with, but even then she wieds a willow rod instead of a sword and the attack serves a magical purposerather than killing the dragon.

  3. German here, I would definitely say there is difference between american and german perception of fairytales.

    Firstly Germans seem to have a ̶b̶e̶t̶t̶e̶r̶ different understanding of what a fairytale is. Pinocchio, Peter Panor Alice in Wonderland are not perceived as fairytales.

    The german perception of the Grimms is quite torn. On the one hand they are cherished for their fairytales which are fondly remembered by many, on the other hand there is acute awareness that some Grimm fairytales are very cruel and not suited for children. In fact the much tamer Bechstein collection surpassed the popularity of the Grimm fairytales until last century, so judging from that unsanitized Grimm tales have been perceived as too crass even before that. Ludwig Bechstein is still popular nowadays as is literary fairytales author Wilhelm Hauff.

    That said, it seems that Germans while more protective of their children than the French are less so than Americans. Unnecesarrily cruel punishments are omitted in modern retellings of e.g. Snow White or Aschenputtel, on the other hand tales that are more on the scary side like Hänsel and Gretel or The Youth Who Wanted To Learn What Fear is are household staples. "Grimm's Fairytale Theatre" aired uncensored in Germany and in 2012 there has been a german movie production of Allerleihrau that got aired by a german kid's TV channel (Impressive, since Peau d'Ane got slapped with a FSK12/PG 13 and first aired in 1997, amost 30 years after it's release in France).

    Something that should not be underrated in the german reception of fairytales is the medium of film. The Disney movies have had their influence on german culture as well. To give an example: I can remember the opening narration of the video version of Cinderella that found it necesarry to explain that this is a different version of Aschenputtel that will vary in some ways from the story we are familiar with, but by today Cinderelly and Aschenputtel pretty much coexist peacefully. Children retelling the story will often mix the motives of both stories. But Disney movies are not the only popular fairytale movies in Germany: Fairytale movies that were produced in the former Eastern Block found their way to the GDR and sometimes West Germany. The series "Sonntagsmärchen" that started in the 90s and soon made watching a fairytale movie every sunday afternoon a tradition in many households further popularized those movies. Eastern-european fairytales or versions of fairytales became well known and accepted. Nowadays some people even believe that the "original" Cinderella story is the one presented in "Three Wishes For Cinderella", a film adaption based on a czech literary fairytale from 1845. More recently, in the late 00's and early 10's more original german fairytale movies are being produced like Allerleirau, see above). Therefore faiyrtale movies are quite popular here.

    Something unfortunate that should be mentioned is that fairytales as "cultural heritage" have been used by nationalists to further their agenda before and during the Third Reich and unfortunately are still sometimes used in such ways by Neonazis nowadays.

    To end on a more positive note: Children's fantasy is alive and well in Germany from classics like Ende's books to recent author's like Cornelia Funke.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing! So fascinating that even the German perception of what a fairy tale is is different (and more accurate)...but good to hear an insider's perspective on what is considered child appropriate. I think when Americans compare ourselves to Europeans we tend to focus on the differences and from some of the things I've read make it seems like there is no sense of restricting what children watch, whereas that's not the case, they're maybe just not quite as sensitive (often too sensitive, IMO as a teacher, where we have to let the most strict parental opinions guide what we show kids).

      And of course Disney's influence is at work all around the world-it's encouraging that Germans don't see the Disney versions as the "real" versions like so many Americans. But even the African student my parents hosted from Congo grew up watching Disney films, so those storylines have truly become international!