The Tales We Tell

At dinner with Tim’s parents in Detroit, I asked his father, Bud, if as a child he’d had a favorite fairy tale. Jack in the Beanstalk, he said without hesitation. More than half a century later, he had no trouble retrieving the answer. The most interesting part is that at another time, his son, that I happened to be dating, gave me the same answer. His favorite fairy tale was Jack in the Beanstalk. The two men found this mildly amusing, but I was intrigued. Didn’t know either man well, but sufficiently to realize they shared traits with Jack, the most obvious, getting ahead whether via beanstalk or profession. Of course, those are common traits, so I was probably reading too much into this coincidence.

Unlike other animals limited to a handful of communication signals, white-tailed deer grunts or runs to signal danger, humans can make up stories. “Once upon a time, a beautiful princess…” We can imagine ourselves as somebody else even though it’s only, and will only be, in our imagination.

Fairy tales are said to predate contemporary language and religion. Perhaps it’s not such a far-fetch to think that if biologists can untangle the mystery of evolution by comparing animals, that we can look to fairy tales to tell the origin of our beliefs and values. While connects you with blood relatives via saliva, popular fairy tales, such as Little Red Riding Hood may connect us via rich oral traditions to past cultures.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm didn’t write fairy tales. They searched library archives and chatted with petty aristocrats, bankrupt soldiers with time on their hands, and peasant mothers with heads full of family tales passed down generations.

In 1812, they published Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales). Today, we know it by Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Not sure why they named it Children’s Tales. The content was not child-appropriate. In the original version, Rapunzel gets pregnant after a casual affair with a prince. The wicked stepsisters in Cinderella cut off their toes, pools of blood filling their shoes, to fit into the slipper. In an 1857 version of Schneewittchen (Little Snow White), when the prince’s servants carry Cinderella’s casket, they drop it and the piece of apple lodged in her throat pops out. That’s right. NO KISS! No grandchild of mine under the age of 30 will learn this from my lips. At Cinderella’s wedding, iron slippers heated toastily over the fire were brought to the wicked queen who had to wear them until she fell dead. Disney skipped this part.

Fairy tales pass on our values and stereotypes. Although I’m not suggesting that hunters and gatherers sat around the fire thinking of how to keep women in their place, that happened gradually beginning in the agricultural era. The stories we tell influence and mold us. They repress or empower, at least until we have the wisdom to see they are just stories.

One tale from my culture caused little Edith sleepless nights. Grýla, an ogre, lived in the mountains with her 13 sons (unfriendly tricksters), a good for nothing husband, Leppalúð, and a child-devouring Yule cat. Grýla collected naughty children and boiled them in a black cauldron. Grýla appeared in Snorra-Edda (early 13th century), one of the Icelandic Sagas. “Over time, the stories got progressively darker and more bloody. In 1746, when Iceland was still part of the Danish kingdom, Denmark banned the telling of stories meant to scare children into good behavior.” Grýla was a favorite tale to tell around Christmas time when the sight of the sun was rare. Perhaps to decrease holiday joy we might be feeling. Exhausted parents trying to get through the busy season.

As to Tim and Bud’s favorite fairy tale and admiration for Jack’s determination to get ahead, climb to the top, the original telling would not have worked for either man. Jack in the Beanstalk first appeared in print in 1734. In this version, Jack was lazy, dirty, and broke. He had little going for himself except for his grandmother who just happened to be an Enchantress.

…for though he was a smart large boy, his Grandmother and he laid together, and between whiles the good old Woman instructed Jack in many things, and among the rest, Jack (says she) as you are a comfortable Bed-fellow to me —

Ahem. Reading this is almost as uncomfortable as writing it. Let’s shorten the graphic story and clean it up a bit, but not entirely. Jack finds the enchanted beans, plants them and climbs the beanstalk with his grandmother in a murderous rage at his heels.

Therapist Anna Storey thinks fairy tales give an insight into who we are. Retelling a fairy tale, she says her clients can gain an “Aha” moment. The woman who got involved with one frog after another hoping they turn into a prince. Little Red Riding Hood could represent an oppressive father or husband. Storey suggests the evil character of a story may symbolize a rejected part in our psyche, one we are not ready to deal with.

Perhaps fairy tales tell something about us, but it’s easy to make assumptions that line up with our, most often, unquestioned ideologies.

Taking my five-year-old granddaughter to the Nashville library, I asked her what kinds of books she wanted us to read. She said, “can we read princess books?” My daughter, the mother of this little girl, graduated in women’s studies. She surrounded her daughter with books about animals, science, Rebel Girls (brace and resourceful girls), humor, Dr. Seuss, etc., and chose to minimize Edie’s time cherishing cultural symbols and comparing herself to idols created by advertising firms. The princess book pile was 16 books high. I read and read. Granddaughter listened, taking in every word as if I was feeding her M&Ms, one by one. When opening up yet another book, it was clear this fairy tale was for older children. “Edie,” I said, “I’m not reading this one. You will not understand it.” Disappointed, tipping her head up to look at me, “How come? Is it in Spanish.” I said, “yes.”

We read autobiographies and watch documentaries and take a keen interest when we see, “Based on a true story.” When we meet new people, before long we are telling each other stories about us. Stories are roots that grow deep. It’s what binds us together.

2 thoughts on “The Tales We Tell

  1. Isn’t it something? Try as we might to keep our kids away from certain things, they often continue to work their way around to get at just those things. Even though Edie’s mom supplied her with books other than those containing “…cultural symbols and comparing herself to idols created by advertising firms.” she jumped at the chance to hear those stories. I tried to prevent our oldest son from playing with toy guns as a kid – so what did he do? Yep, shot with his finger. On vacation, the moment grandma and grandpa offered to buy him a gift, he went straight to a holster and a couple six shooters (which they confiscated when we were preparing to board the plane to come home and that was 35+ years ago!!). Anyway, I think between you and Edie’s mom, you have struck the perfect balance – lots of wonderful books about animals, science, Rebel Girls, etc. and a little bit of fantasy.

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