Thursday, June 26, 2014
On Reading Fairy Stories
And they do, considerably. As I've mentioned before, we don't watch television here at Casa O., so their play generally comes from what we read. Every tale we've gone through works its way into their make-believe. But naturally they each have their own preferences.
My six-year-old boy, who enjoys piano, chess-playing, and math, prefers stories that have some kind of repetitive pattern. His favorite is "The Fisherman and his Wife." We of Casa O. are obstinate papists, and the enormity of the wife's demands bowls my kids over every time and makes them howl with laughter. When we last read it, my boy said that some stories make him wonder whether he's hearing them or actually there as the events are unfolding, and that "Fisherman" is one of these. How glad that made my heart! They were both excited when we saw a flounder at the aquarium last week – I'd forgotten the fish-prince was of that species – and recited the incantation from memory.
It's a funny thing, but "Fisherman," which really is a very simple and repetitive tale, hooked me when I was a kid, too. At one point my junior high language arts class had to write and perform modernized fairy tales in front of the whole school; at my suggestion, my group chose "Fisherman." I played the husband, who discovered a talking fish filet inhabited by the reincarnated soul of Elvis at Luby's Cafeteria. We even had a brown paper fish-puppet that danced to "Don't Be Cruel."
But I digress.
My four-year-old daughter, on the other hand, likes "Rapunzel" most of all. She loves whimsical ideas and often makes up such stories on her own. She's told me about Nobody the friendly giant, who's invisible (nobody knows Nobody but Nobody knows everybody, she says), and about the tree that gives eggs instead of fruit, eggs that hatch into "clear" cats, which can only be seen with special goggles, and fly through the clouds over the city. She likes witches, bad fairies, and ogresses, but doesn't have any use for princesses; once I called her Princess (as I'm wont to do) and she said, "Never call me Princess. I hate princesses. I like dinosaurs, sharks, and every animal that's scary." She also has flaming red hair, and (in a remarkable display of good fashion sense) refuses to wear pink.
In one of his introductions, Lang asserts that "Is it true?" is the great question children ask. My children have certainly done so. Chiefly, though, they ask about the scarier things, and from a strictly practical point of view. For instance, when we read about an ogress-queen who tries to devour her son's wife and children, they like to know – quite sensibly, in my opinion – if there's any danger of that happening to them. I remember Tolkien saying somewhere that his children were more wont to ask "Was he good?" That has been my experience as well. They want to classify each character as good or bad and are bothered when someone's actions are ambiguous, as they often are in fairy tales.
Incidentally, I don't care for the writing in a lot of the stories in Lang's collections. I guess the writers thought it cute to ridicule the story they were telling, but over the children's heads, so that they could share a smug little smile with the adult reader. Such condescension disgusts and angers me. When I read with my kids I want to be right down on their level. They – my daughter, especially – tend to find stories with little jokes and witticisms extremely tiresome. By contrast, the Blue Fairy Book contains Lang's own retelling of the Perseus myth ("The Terrible Head"), which uses simple, unadorned language, but plays it straight. They've never sat so still as they did last night when I read it to them, clinging to their respective arms of the big green chair where they perch for bedtime stories.
My son, who's very sensitive in some ways, has always been afflicted with strange spectral fears. For instance, he used to be terrified of a certain pair of framed child's handprints at my parents' house. Stop signs and lamp-posts with globes also made him hysterical – he said they were "happy," which still gives me the shivers. Certain images make him extremely uncomfortable.
I experienced similar fears when I was young, and am rather careful about the movies I watch. What's interesting is that the same sort of terror doesn't attach to fairy tales, for him or for me. They may involve the most monstrous crimes (as the mother's in "The Juniper Tree") but they play the role of symbols, as it were, in an abstract pattern, and actually produce a kind of pleasure at their appearance in the larger context of the story.
Then again, right now my kids desperately want me to read "Bluebeard," because I mentioned it at some point as being too creepy, but I don't think I shall, not for some time yet. I can't abide the thought of their working through that in their games.