On Fairy Tales and Young Children; No, the violence IS the point

I’m baaack! My depression did not defeat me! Anyway, I’m here to rant about this one quote that gets passed around a lot by this writer that I’ve never read, because I am very Normal, and I enjoy ranting about fairy tales. Sorry, G.K. Chesterton.

Every so often, I’ll see people talk about fairy tales, and occasionally the question will come up: Why DO kids like fairy tales even though they’re so violent? Isn’t that a little weird? What’s up with that? Eventually, someone inevitably pulls out the Chesterton quote:

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

And I’m sorry, I’ve never read Chesterton before (I’ll get to him eventually! I will!), but I literally hate that quote so much. I know my reaction is probably unfair, but I remember what it was like reading those Brothers Grimm stories when I was eight! I don’t remember everything from my childhood, but I remember that, and I know it wasn’t like how Chesterton said!

I genuinely wonder if this might have to do with having two parents who were abused as children, and then growing up in an area that had violent white supremacists who were…distressingly normalized by certain people in my community (including the police), but that quote has never rang true for me at all. Fairy tales didn’t appeal to me because they showed me that good will win against evil in the end. No, the violence WAS the appeal.

Allow me to explain. I will admit to being a deeply edgy(tm) eight year old who thought I was SO hardcore for reading a story in which someone got their eyes pecked out by doves, but that wasn’t all of it. Do you remember being a young child? Everyone wants to protect you from knowing about all the Bad Things that are out there. You hear about Bad Things every day. Sometimes your own kith and kin are the ones doing and saying the things that are Bad. Some of the ‘good’ people around you are so invested in defending these awful people. “This man isn’t bad for stalking your sister!” they say. “He just likes her! This boy isn’t a white supremacist! He’s just a eighteen year old putting swastikas up in his window! Your grandfather isn’t bad for hitting your mother! He’s your grandfather, you guys should talk to him!”

(No, literally, my dad called the police on some guy who was stalking our place when I was little, only for the dispatcher to tell him that the guy must JUST LIKE MY SISTER. WHO WAS A TEENAGER. AND WHO DIDN’T KNOW THIS GUY FROM ADAM. Anyway, fuck the police system and all the abuses it perpetrates, but that’s a completely different post that I won’t write. So many other people have said it better, I think)

The fairy tales I read didn’t tell me that I could defeat evil things. But they told me that these evil things existed, and that was enough. Sometimes a witch decides to behead a girl, and then the girl tricks her into beheading her own daughter. Perhaps the daughter was innocent, perhaps she wasn’t. It doesn’t matter. Sometimes a stepmother decides to brutally kill her own daughter, only for her daughter to turn around and force her stepmother to dance to her death in hot iron shoes. Violence is a senseless, meaningless pursuit that everyone participates in anyway, because someone else was violent first, and that is the nature of humanity.

I loved these fairy tales because they didn’t pretend that violence made any sense. They didn’t pretend that everything would be wrapped up by the end, that good would always triumph over evil. The dragon can be defeated, to be sure, but sometimes only when the heroine becomes worse herself. There is no reason for the stepmother to try to poison her daughter, and there’s no reason for Snow White to force her mother to dance to her death in hot iron shoes, and there’s no reason for that woman down the street to beat her child, and there’s no reason for that other man down the street (the one no one in town wants to talk about, but who people will say is a great guy if the topic comes up) to be a white supremacist. There’s no sense to any of it, and none of it is neat or clean.

There were definitely fairy tales that were too violent for me and that I didn’t like, especially the ones that just had this sort of…legalistic morality, I guess (The Red Shoes, I am looking at you), but let me tell you, I absolutely adored the ones that went ‘hey! Isn’t this thing fucked up?’ Yeah, maybe life IS full of bad things that don’t make sense, but we all have to survive anyway! Maybe people are pointlessly cruel, and maybe you yourself will sometimes become pointlessly cruel in turn, and yet you still have to live and go on! Not everything in life makes sense, but we still have to live with ourselves (and hopefully get that magic castle along the way).

Obviously, the violence wasn’t the only appeal of fairy tales to me. I loved the monsters, I loved the motifs, and I loved the fact that they were just cool. Hey, there’s a group of sisters that goes down below each night to dance until they wear holes through their shoes! There’s a boy and a girl who raise a forest, a river, and a mountain range behind them as they escape from their evil mother! There’s a woman who asks the sun, moon, and wind for help to save her husband from a witch! But I definitely liked the violent aspect some of them had when I was a small child, and I think it’s really oversimplifying it to say that it’s appealing because the violence is defeated at the end. Violence is not always defeated. Sometimes it simply transmutes, becoming a thing that’s handed down from perpetrator to victim. But I would argue that that’s what makes them feel real.

Obviously, my experiences are not universal, so I’m really curious as to what you guys think. How did you react to fairy tales growing up? Did you guys also absolutely adore the version where Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off parts of their feet to fit them into the glass slippers when you were tiny, or were you normal? Also, I hope I don’t sound disparaging to anyone who likes that Chesterton quote or anything. Of course it’s going to ring true for some, but it never rang true for me personally.

10 thoughts on “On Fairy Tales and Young Children; No, the violence IS the point

  1. This was a really interesting post! I definitely grew up on the Disney version of fairytales… like good wins, aren’t we cute… the whole Disney spirit. It definitely falls into the fairytales ‘teach us good lessons about life’ speech. But when I began to hear of the OG ones, it felt like the opposite of that message. Happy endings weren’t a given. They sounded gory and almost felt like they wanted you to take a bit of fear away from them. I can definitely see them taking the ‘yeah life sucks’ side, more than the everything will work out side, which certainly has a lot more realism. “life IS full of bad things that donโ€™t make sense, but we all have to survive anyway”… this very much, which is a message I tend to be more drawn to in media/books now. I really loved this post. Whilst I don’t know too much about fairytales, so I can’t comment on too much (despite the appearance of this comment ๐Ÿ˜…) I really understand what you are saying!
    Sending you lots of best wishes! ๐Ÿ’•๐Ÿ’•

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s interesting! Definitely a lot of fairy tales are meant to teach a moral, but a lot are also just “what if this really cool magic thing happened,” or “what if this girl was really awesome,” and definitely some of them can get quite dark. Like The Ballad of Tam Lin really is just “what if there was a really cool girl and also human sacrifice” (I HIGHLY recommend reading it if you haven’t before, it’s great. I absolutely love Tam Lin and Janet). I really love that theme in stories too! Like books that ARE pessimistic but also humanity is worth fighting for and doing the right thing is worth it. If you want a book rec, I remember Mo Dao Zu Shi ended up delving into that theme?

      Thank you so much! I loved your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hmmmm, I’m having a hard time remembering what I thought of violence in fairy tales as a child. I know I was used to the picturebook/Disney version of Cinderella and the first time I saw Into the Woods I was like, “Oh. They’re cutting parts of their feet off. That’s weird but ok.” (Oh, but I do remember my favorite Beatrix Potter book as a child was the Roly-Poly Pudding one where the kitten got kidnapped by rats and very nearly eaten. I thought it was so cool XD)
    Personally, I do like stories where–despite the terrible things that happen and the senselessness of the violence–things turn out all right in the end. That said, I also get annoyed when things never get bad at all, or they do get bad but they’re resolved very quickly and easily. I want to see characters struggle and make mistakes and suffer, and I want it to be complex and messy. I don’t even need a “Happy Ending” per se. I just want there to be *hope* at the end.

    Liked by 1 person

    • TOM KITTENNNN to be honest that story lowkey traumatized me as a child. I really loved kitties ๐Ÿ˜ฆ I still love Tom Kitten, though. I think my favorite was the Jemima Puddleduck one where the fox managed to trick the duck into gathering the ingredients he needed to cook her because she really just wasn’t very bright? She got away at the end because one of her friends caught on to what was going on, but wow.
      Yeah, I like happy endings, too! Like I NEED my ups and downs in the story. You can have a happy ending, but it had better make sense with everything else that’s going on and there had better have been a struggle to get to that point. Or you can have a sad ending, but there need to be enough happy points in the story where I can actually connect with the characters and feel sad when things don’t turn out well for them. Like if it’s all depressing all the time, I think you run the risk of numbing your audience. I know a lot of people love The Hunger Games, but I remember the books ended up doing that to me at around book 2 or 3 and I sort of lost interest. At the same time, while I do like happy endings, very occasionally it can feel cheap because it doesn’t make sense how they ended up there and the story would have been better served with some pathos! (One thing that’s odd to me is how happy endings are pretty much The Way Things Go in American storytelling, to kind of an absurd point sometimes. Why is that?)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a very thought-provoking post and I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on this with us, Becky!

    I definitely remember liking the morbid aspects of fairy tales even as a child, and I have been drawn to stories because they are brutal or violent. While this isn’t the point of the Chesterton quote, I think it’s interesting that a part of the quote is that “Children already know that dragons exist”, because I do think that that is a key part of why we want to see these things portrayed in stories. We want to read about them BECAUSE we know they exist, and maybe that is the only reason. We are not discovering something new, but using stories as a way to validate what we already know exists and to process it.

    For some people, at different times in their lives, that processing is in line with the rest of the Chesterton quote because in the midst of the violence and pain, they need the hope of defeating the dragon. They want to see a version where things work out, because that encourages them to keep going and fight their own dragons.The world is full of senseless violence and messy circumstance and places where a happy ending doesn’t happen, and sometimes a fairy tale can help quell the overwhelming chaos of that by showing us that ultimately good can triumph over evil.

    But that doesn’t work for everyone. We don’t all want the stories to wrap everything up because in some ways that seems to diminish the reality of the violence that we see around us. We need stories in order to process this world, and sometimes we can’t see a happy ending, so we don’t want the stories to tell us that there is one because it feels false. We don’t need a reason to like the violence in fairy tales other than the violence itself, because maybe that is what we are grappling with at the time. It really frustrates me when people try too hard to force a happy ending onto a story just for the sake of having a happy ending.

    We all have violence inside of us. We have all been hurt by other people, who were hurt by other people, and we will probably hurt people too. But personally I think it’s possible to break out of that cycle and not let the violence be what defines us. Processing the violence is essential. Grieving for the broken things that can’t be mended is something that needs to happen. Stories can help us with all of these things.

    Ultimately I’m not actually a nihilist. I think it’s profoundly important to recognize the violence and the senselessness of it, but through that I think we can find a way out. We wouldn’t resonate with the madness of the world if we weren’t a little bit mad ourselves, but we wouldn’t be able to perceive that the world is mad if we weren’t also a little bit sane, too.

    My favorite kind of stories don’t pull punches with the brutality of reality. But they don’t pull punches when it comes to redemption, either. Personally I believe that redemption is happening all the time, even if it’s not the picture-perfect happy ending that we might have heard before. I think that there is a lot of beauty in breaking out of the mad cycle and healing from the wounds that we’ve been dealt. The stories that validate the violence but also validate the redemption are the ones that I love.

    Hm…that got kind of long. I’m not sure if that made a lot of sense. But thanks again for writing this post and making me think!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I definitely liked fairytales as a kid because of the morbid/brutal aspects to them. I remember getting old enough to read for myself and reading some of the more original versions of disney stories (though in some cases even the Grimms were “kidifying” some of their stories) and just being…shocked and amazed I guess. I think so little of children’s literature really addresses those dark topics.

    I think at the end of the day, I do like it when there’s a good ending to a fairytale, when the dragon is defeated, so to speak. I don’t like it when there’s just senseless violence and nothing else, but I do appreciate the violence being there, showing the world as a truly brutal place, as it is. I do appreciate that they show innocent people suffering, because that’s the reality of the world, but I don’t feel truly satisfied unless they do manage to defeat the dragon.

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  5. Pingback: The Second Quarterly Update | my first Tahereh Mafi book & a new favourite read – Me & Ink

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