The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 15, No 1 (2011)

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Curiouser & Curiouser


Reviews: The Moralities in Fairy tales

Marilyn Pemberton (ed. & intro.). Enchanted Ideologies: a collection of rediscovered nineteenth-century moral fairy tales. Lambertville, NJ: The True Bill Press, 2010. ISBN 9780979111655.

Christopher Betts (trans. & intro.) Charles Perrault: the complete fairy tales. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. ISBN 9780199585809. (Oxford's World Classics sereis)

Reviewer: David Beagley


The evolutionary connection between traditional fairy tales and modern fantasy is now a well established analytical tool. Tolkien, Nikolajeva and Rosemary Jackson all trace modern expression in the genre to the traditional styles, structures, characterizations and appeal of folk andf fairy tales. Indeed, Marilyn Pemberton's introduction to her collection of authored nineteenth-century stories begins with that observation. The key emphasis however, in both these new collections, is not the modern representation of Fairies, or Faërie, or vampires, werewolves and goblins, or even magic wands and broomsticks at boarding schools, but rather an historical study of the power of such stories in their own era, and the intention of their authors to make moral statements to their readers through a medium now largely relegated to the audience fringes of early readers and heavily marketed movies.

The moral imperative behind the creation of children's literature is, similarly, a truism in analysis nowadays - so much a cliche that it is frequently and consciously subverted. Adults, for centuries, have created in the characters, situations and outcomes of stories for children, the types of personalities and judgements that they (the adults) desire the child readers to display. In the case of fairy tales, though, the complication is that so many of the traditional tales were not created for those child readers. So the ugly sisters in Grimms' Aschenputtel chop off their toes to fit their feet in the slipper and have their eyes pecked out as punishment at the end - details that never make it into nursery books these days! Moral issues and decisions in the traditional tales are not always obvious.

In Pemberton's collection of authored tales, this moral imperative of adult teaching child is the key identifying feature. She has assembled a selection of pieces from popular anthologies and magazines published between 1818 and 1899, all of which use the format of the fairy story or the setting of the fairy world to speak directly to their readers about how life should be lived. Some are overt in their moralising. In the earliest tale, Mary Sherwood's "The Rose: a fairy tale" (1818), Young Rosetta answers her Fairy Queen's question about how she spends her time:

"Twelve years, most mighty queen," she answered, "have scarce rolled away since I first beheld the light of the moon; and, as yet, I know but little, and can do little good. But I have a kind and sage parent, who teaches me, that, now, in my youthful days, I must seek every means of improvement, and implore from heaven, assistance in overcoming every evil and selfish feeling; that when I become older, I may employ the gift of fairyism in doing good, and making those about me happy."

While Rosetta spoke, the queen smiled, and her smile was bright and gladdening as a ray of light.
(p. 65)

In stories from later in the century, though, others, like Princess Gyldea in her garden, make interesting choices for more self-aware reasons when facing the typical fairy wishes. In Evelyn Sharp's "The Princess in Her Garden" from Wymps and other Fairy Tales (1897) Gyldea wants to dig potatoes with the tall, intriguing man over the hedge as a contrast to her pampered, luxurious and boring life. When she cannot find a suitable dress to wear digging, she wonders:

"What am I to do?" said the Princess who had never been thwarted in her life before. "How do dresses grow old, I wonder, and why does no-one in the palace have an old dress that I can wear?"
(p. 235)

Eventually, she is willing to trade her happiness for an old dress, as she feels that "... for after all, I am very dull, and it will not be a big gift to give." (p. 236). In the end, of course she has the usual happy-after-ending with the disguised Prince who has been digging all the time.

Pemberton explores the changing nature of this moralising over the century of her collection, in terms of how it reflected the changing nature of the religious, social and political perception of a girl/woman's role in that world. While the role, she defines, remained largely one of "submission, passivity and nuturance" bounded by the family (first by birth, then by marriage), as the century progressed the emergence of the "New Woman" was reflected in the growing independence and active agency of the female protagonists of the tales. Young Rosetta in 1818 passively recites the duties of a child, but by 1897, Princess Gyldea muses and makes a choice that involves rejection of social expectation, even if she still ends up married to the Prince!

Pemberton's Introduction traces this thesis of evolution over the century, drawing on the standard scholarship of fairy tales (Nikolajeva, Tatar, Zipes, Bettelheim), the historical development of the concept of the girl child (Locke, Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, Mill, Besant) before tracing the tales she has selected through the decades of the nineteenth century. Yet, while she supports her structure with frequent footnotes, referring to both literary and historical analysts, there is also an occasional stridency in her statement of key points that attenuates the impact of her overall argument. Some sweeping generalizations mark the opeing few pages of the Introduction:

Literary genres of all kinds have always served to inculcate "proper" societal values and manners, and also to signal changes in these ... The literary fairy tale has been written through the centuries to entertain, certainly, but also to indicate the state of society, and either to inhibit change in order to maintain the social status quo, to instigate change in order to reform society, or simply to reflect the fact of change.
(p.11)

This initial impression of trying to cover all possible bases does not continue directly into the examination of the specific tales, as they are clearly focussed on establishing Pemberton's premise of the construction of female social role. To this end, the tales are each related very directly to scholarship on marriage rates, affluence of middle-class families, and publication patterns (though this is solely of Great Britain, the source of the collected tales). However, again, the determination to make her point can sometimes become strident in the generalizations "[By 1870] while the girl could be taught everything she needed to know at home, the boy was usually sent away to school in order to learn to stand on his own two feet." (p. 43) This may have been the case for a limited and affluent section of society, but it was certainly not the case for the majority, and not for many of the readers of the magazines and anthologies that published the tales. It also ignores the fact that prestige girls-only boarding schools and even university colleges were operating in Britain by the mid-nineteenth century.

The collection of tales itself is a fascinating window into both content and style. The fairy tale format changes little: sweet innocent heroines, magic agents like witches and fairies who offer choices, and happy-ever-after resolutions, usually with a suitable man. That is Disney's formula now, just as it was in tales centuries ago. But authorial styles in the storytelling do change greatly. As the sequence of tales progress through the century, there is more action and change in the narrative. Characters question their situation and are prepared to travel and take more active steps to cause change. This aspect, perhaps, deserved more consideration in Pemberton's analysis than the close focus just on social, historical factors. There is an detailed biographic appendix, listing each of the authors (many largely forgotten these days), that could have built on such stylistic analysis, and an index that mainly covers the details of the Introduction.

Oxford's new addition to its World's Classics series is Christopher Bett's translation of Perrault's Complete Fairy Tales. Like Pemberton's collection, while the bulk of the text is the tales themselves, it is the supporting introduction that provides plenty of the analytical interest. Betts places the tales firmly in their historical context as products of the court and salon life of Versailles, making much of the symbolic elements of characters, situations and choices. There is a strongly Freudian bent to much of his explanation of the symbolism with possible sexual interpretations canvassed and considered and, thus, the morals to be derived are a focus of attention.

Some tales, like "Donkeyskin" and "The History of Griselda" have clear moral intentions in the disapproval of male behaviour but others, like" Little Red Riding Hood" suggest more ambivalent moral judgements. Is the wolf the audience of the moral tale, the courtier (a la John Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons) being warned to keep away from the local maidens? Is the girl the audience, being warned about the advances of older men? Is she complicit in the seduction, the young female replacing the older member of the family? Betts examines the range of options in several of the key tales and the problems raised by each, without declaring or preferring the primacy of any specific reading.

The tales proper are printed in English translation only, supported by many of Gustave Doré's 1863 illustrations. Betts' translation is clear and easy to read, flowing in a natural rhythm of modern speech, without sounding gimmicky or strained. Sleeping Beauty observes the old woman spinning and asks to try:

She took the spindle; and because she was hasty and impulsive, and in any case the fairies' decree had decided what would happen, no sooner had she done so than she pricked her hand and fell down in a faint.
(p. 86)

There are also notes, a select bibliography of critical studies, two appendices of alternative versions of some tales, and a chronology of Perrault's life, all packed into Oxford's reasonably sized and priced paperback format.

Disney and Shrek have shown that there is plenty of life in the fairy tale yet. Both Pemberton's and Bett's edited collections give us a reminder of where the tales have been, and plenty to think about ine what they might mean.

 

David Beagley


Volume 15, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, Jan/Feb 2011

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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

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