Off with Their Heads! Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood

In her book “Off with Their Heads! Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood” Maria Tatar explores fairy tales from the viewpoint of their social role. Chapter II “Teaching Them a Lesson”: The Pedagogy of Fear in Fairy Tales” examines the main traits of child’s character that were considered evil or good and how these standards of up-bringing are conveyed in childish literature by brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, Christian Andersen as well as in folklore tales.

A number of fairy tales in the Grimm’s “Nursery and Household Tales” collection define stubbornness and curiosity as the worst vices. Every violation of a rule leads to punishment – disobedient children find dreadful death in the end. In the Britain nineteenth-century tales, naughty children narrowly escape an awful fate. After they face this danger, they become obedient. The plot of cautionary fairy tales has a plain structure: proclaiming of a prohibition, its violation and inevitable punishment, the latter described in elaborate details. Such tales are very violent and patently didactical. The ethical code is quite clear: “Virtue is rewarded everywhere, and vice is always punished” (Tatar 1992, p. 25). Often punishment seems to be too harsh. Grimm’s story “Mary’s Child” is a perfect example of such tale. The girl is cast out from paradise and suffers terribly for being too curious and hardhead.

In early ages, even the newborns children were considered sinful, and their morality was believed to worsen constantly. Thus, strong will and stoutness of mind, emerging from pride, should be broken. At that time in few places, the capital punishment for disobedient children was approved. The main religious rather than social morality of the nursery tales was suppressing evil and breaking will. Cautionary fairy tales intimidate children to persuade them to obey and not to be inquisitive and willful. However, cruelty in them sometimes riches such level that they become sadistic rather that enlightening, with the aim to control rather than educate. A crowd of monster appearing in a child’s imagination is a result of parental behavior.

Often fairy-tale collectors highlight the moral of the stories. On the other hand, many listeners are interested more in the punishment of a villain and feel frustration when a miscreant manages to avoid it.

Experts in lullabies found out that despite soothing music, these songs may convey hatred. The text of a chant may reflect a singer’s fears and disappointments. Though, they can hardly harm as a child perceives intonation rather than their actual meaning. When it comes to cautionary tales for elder children, they are aimed at didacticism. Often punishments are disproportional with the childish offence. A well-known “Little Red Riding Hood” by Grimms shows a severe punishment for a minor crime. Besides, mother’s predictions are inaccurate. In Perrault’s interpretation, the fairy tale is even more didactic with a moral highlighted in the end. The authors put blame the girl for a terrible ordeal. However, the peasants’ story with its obscene scenes shows that the tale was created for entertaining tired adults, and not for preaching children. Thus, when in initially burlesque and humorous stories was added pedagogy, they turned into childish literature with moral edification. “The Household of Which” and “Caterinella” are examples of such transition.

The exemplary tales, as cautionary tales, unite pedagogy and melodrama for a powerful effect. Such tales depict the command and its dutiful fulfilment. Humility and compassion are praised virtues, but often the reward comes too late. The description of a saintly child’s miseries is often longer and brighter than the scene of payoff.

The scenes of violence and death may seem now excessively cruel. It may be explained with the fact that in early years sufferings and death were a part of an everyday life, thus such scenes in fairy tales prepared children for cruelty of the real world.

Both in exemplary and cautionary tales protagonists bear physical and mental sufferings with honor. Poverty and humility are the virtues that lead to happiness. When these lessons are combined with reward/punishment tales, they have a powerful effect, but when they are targeted to convey a didactical effect, this direction is hardly salutary. Fairy tales aimed solely on teaching children lessons but not entertaining can only fail.

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