As a child I was mesmerized by folk and fairy tales, legends and myths. I would get lost in Andrew Lang’s fairy tale books and I read and re-read retellings of ancient Greek myths, Aesop’s fables, Robin Hood and King Arthur’s court. They affirmed my belief and hope that right choices were worth fighting for, that paying attention to wise advice was a smart thing to do, that the underdogs were right to stay firm in their integrity even when they were outnumbered, and that goodness, even if it was not rewarded, was worth standing for. As an adult I read Bruno Bettleheim’s, The Uses of Enchantment, which won a National Book Award in 1977 and in which he discussed the developmental and symbolic importance of traditional fairy tales for the emotional health of children. He made a particular point of including traditional, strong worded tales that included swift and violent justice such as those collected by the Grimm brothers. He believed that reading or hearing such tales helped children develop their own sense of justice, right, courage and heroism in the face of great odds and sometimes overwhelming fear or helplessness. I recognized the truth of what he was trying to say. Those tales had been a source of moral compass to me as a child at times when I felt like I was unable to change circumstances around me controlled by people who had more power than I.
This week I read an article by Jane Yolen about the mass media dumbing down of Cinderella. She contrasted the early versions of this universal tale with the sugar sweet versions of the last 100 years or so. In early versions Cinderella continues, in spite of her stepmother’s scorn, to perform proper rites and rituals at her mother’s grave and to enlist assistance from birds who roost there (Grimm), packs up her belongings and seeks and gets work at the castle (French), makes intelligent suggestions when her fairy godmother is momentarily confused and double-talks her sisters after the ball to find out what they thought without revealing that she was there (Perrault). Her step-mother and step-sisters invariably get their come-uppance, often violently, either self-inflicted or pronounced by those in power.
Contrast these determined, hardy, helpful, and clever Cinderellas with the ones more commonly published since 1900, including the ubiquitous Disney version who pays no attention to the warnings of the mice, cowers as her stepsisters tear her dress to shreds and whose ability to meet up with the prince a second time requires neither determination, intelligence, or willingness to work and collaborate, but instead depends on the cleverness of those same mice. For her, her successful thwarting of her opposition comes from others, requiring no more than dreamy wishing and general niceness and submission on her part. And her step-family never experiences any consequences other than embarrassment, disappointment or dismay.
I don’t know why 20th century mass media fairy tale telling took this sort of turn. I suspect that popular culture changed in its notion of the artistic feminine ideal, the tellers changed their tales to please and to reflect that change, and as a result young children who only heard the modern versions missed out on the moral lessons and courage building that came to previous generations of children from the older tales.
And that leads me to think about the kind of religious stories we tell our children. The old scriptural versions of godly men and women were strong-minded actors; Eve, making a choice, owning up to it, and gaining insight into the good that came from that choice. Ruth, choosing to brave poverty in a strange land in order to help her widowed mother-in-law instead of returning to the comfort of her parents’ home. Deborah, judging Israel with wisdom, speaking truth to Barak and accompanying him to battle to overthrow Caananite oppression. Zipporah who, when her husband was too faint-hearted to circumcise his sons as a token of dedication, took a knife and did the job herself. Enoch who spoke out in spite of his slow speech. Daniel who chose to pray knowing that the den of lions would likely be the consequences. Mary Magdalene who got up at the crack of dawn on a morning of great sorrow to do the work of embalming the dead. These are people who both HUMBLY AND FIRMLY acted out their conscience, put their hearts into what they thought was right, lived by those principles in spite of facing huge challenges and found it worth the effort. Scriptural stories of men and women of God have the potential to help children develop emotional strength and moral compass in a manner similar to the one that folk tales do, but their power to do so diminishes if we fail to tell them as they are written.
I think that just as 20th century tale-tellers fell into the trap of changing their stories to reflect modern artistic ideals, whatever they might have been at the time, so do 20th and 21st century religious storytellers face a similar temptation as they retell stories of strong women or men in the scriptures. Whether those ideals include modern notions of helplessness and power-abdicating submission on one extreme, or modern notions of autonomous, arrogant self-sufficiency on the other, or whatever variation between the two we happen to subscribe to, we all run the risk of bowdlerizing the original stories and thereby failing to give our young listeners the opportunity to use the originals to find their own strengths and vision.
What positive experiences with old versions of stories from folktales, myths, legends and ancient scripture did you have as a child?