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Friday, February 8, 2013

On the Morality* of Fairy Tales

The fascinating aspect of fairy tales is that their morality may not agree with ours although it may follow reality more than most popular fiction.  For instance, good and bad alike weave webs of deceit.  While some bad people receive their comeuppance, many do not, and the reader is essentially told, "That's the way of life."

Although most parents likely teach their children that lying is wrong, deceit is everywhere in fairy tales, both for and against the protagonist.  Cinderella's step-sisters cut their feet to fit into the glass slipper.  The wolf dresses as grandmother to eat Little Red Riding Hood.  The Brave Little Tailor deceives evil giants and kings.  The animals Bremen town musicians deceive the thieves.  Hansel and Gretel deceive their parents and the witch.  In fact, it’s rare that someone isn’t deceiving someone else in fairy tales.

Evil isn’t necessarily rewarded with punishment.  In “Rumpelstiltskin,” the father lied to the king about his daughter’s abilities but nothing happens to him.  The cat who ate the fat not only deceives the hard-working mouse but also eats her (“Verily, that is the way of the world.”).  The miller aids and abets the wolf’s trickery to look like the goat kids’ mother (“Truly men are like that.”).   The king pretends to be a merchant and sails away with the queen to marry her.  The king, who planned to kill his twelve boys if he had a girl, is not repaid.

These instances of dubious morality surprise us because we assume we inherited morality from our ancestors.  In Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, Philip Pullman has harsh words for the father’s lack of ill fate in the "The Girl with No Hands."   Pullman is unlikely to be the first or the last, but the authors of fairy tales (see quotes) may prepare the young for the injustices of the adult world.

Pullman, Philip. Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm. New York: Viking Adult, 2012. Print. 
Grimm, Jacob; Grimm, Wilhelm. Household Tales by Brothers GrimmDuke Classics, 2013. Kindle edition.

1 comment:

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