Nanny in NYC

A modern day Mary Poppins

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Fairy Tale Endings

On Monday I picked up a few books at the library, including some for Sam & Jill, despite the fact that they were not with us. One of the books I got for Jill was The Little Mermaid and Other Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Anderson. She tends to gobble up Fairy Tales (like any self respecting little girl should) despite the fact that her mother has made it clear that she finds the messages in some of the stories to not be politically correct. I wrote my college thesis on the importance of fairy tales as our last truly living mythology, so this is one area where I'm not inclined to back down. I think fairy tales are such a wonderful cultural legacy that I find it very easy to dismiss the fact that getting the guy is often the highest point a female character aspires to in most of the genre. I think today's growing girls are sophisticated enough to juggle fantasies of being both Cinderella and Madeleine Albright (or Condoleeza Rice, of course).

But, I digress. This post is not about feminism, it's about tinkering with the endings of classic literature. Jill was quite shocked this evening when I read the title story to her. Quite shocked, of course, because she's already seen The Little Mermaid a la Disney. So, to hear that at the end of the story, instead of wedding the prince of her dreams on the deck of a vast ship, our heroine instead "threw herself from the ship into the sea, and thought her body was dissolving into foam" incensed Jill to the point of tears. She wasn't crying because of the little mermaid's pathetic end, she was crying because she felt cheated. I know because I've felt that way before.

It's always a rule of mine to read the book first before seeing any movie adaptation and it has almost never served me wrong. I say almost for this one (somewhat blunt) reason: this Hans Christian Anderson crap is an exception to the rule. It's a wonderfully moral story (here is the full text, if you'd like to read it for yourself) but an incredibly moral story isn't, in my opinion, what kids want or need. I spend all day correcting the G. children's manners, reminding them to think of other people's feelings, trying to get them to make unselfish decisions. I respect the fact that, at the end of the day, they just need to kind of bliss out and let their little ids go wild. That's where the Grimm type fairy tale comes in. The reward the little mermaid gets at the end of the HCA tale (becoming the equivalent of wind sentenced to 300 years of doing good deeds in order to earn and immortal soul) is basically meaningless to a child who has a hard time contemplating how long it is until Friday.

It's really very sad. The book is beautifully illustrated and the details are rich and compelling. The sea witch--who feeds toads and snakes from her own mouth, as one would a bird from your hand--is better than anything Disney's ever created, including Maleficent. The moral, that nothing can be gained from throwing away your own life for a dream, is certainly practical. It just has no pay off at the end, and I'm angry with myself for not remembering my own feelings when I first read the truth for myself. I could have spared Jill the loss of her little mermaid delusions.

Oh well, she still believes in the tooth fairy.


Blogger Jess said...

I loved reading fairy tales as a kid. Now, some really screwed up fairy tales are the Grimms fairy tales. I have a book with all of them this is a thick book and old too, I dont know if Id let my kids read them till they were at least 12 or older thats IF they wanted to read it! ahhhh memories..

8:38 PM  
Blogger Pragmatic Chaos said...

I love the way you've approached this. I think it'd be helpful for her if you continued to discuss the general themes of the book and maybe not focus so much on the depressing aspects. (The knives in her feet thing always freaked me out.)This could be an opportunity to bring up some important issues with her.

11:05 PM  
Blogger Nanny in New York said...

I love your ideas, PC, and for anything else I'd probably be right with you. I disagree about fairy tales, though. I don't think it's an adult's place to help a child interpret them. I happily answer the questions she asks me, but in general the stories are allegories and their meanings are very personal for each individual. That's what I believe, at least.

And Jess, I hope you do let your children read some of them (the milder ones) or better yet, read them to your children. I think most kids have imaginations which, if laid bare, we might all consider "screwed up". The stories are comforting for this reason in particular. In my experience, kids crave the morbid because they really do worry about some pretty extreme things.

I wholeheartedly recommend Bruno Bettleheim's Uses of Enchantment, if you're interested in thinking a bit about how children consume these stories. He's a serious student of Freud, but I still find his work to be so illuminating when it comes to this subject.

3:55 AM  
Blogger pinknest said...

you know, this reminds me very much of the difference of watching mary poppins when i was little versus watching it as an adult. i had a completely different reaction, namely, that as a child, i thought she was the most wonderful, fantastical person ever, and as an adult, i DESPISED her!!

7:02 PM  

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