Contents (1) Introduction: Child Reading and Man Reading 1
(2) Fairy Tales 23
(3) Written Tales: Perrault to Andersen 49
(4) Animals 77
(5) Lewis Carroll 101
(6) Beatrix Potter 127
(7) Kenneth Grahame 165
(8) Kipling's Boys 195
(9) L. Frank Baum and Oz 223
(10) Two Pigs 245
Notes on Sources 269
2 Fairy Tales
Childhood was invented, and when it was, children's literature followed quite naturally. As for what was before the invention of childhood, here is a summary offered by Philip Aries at the end of his long and painstaking work on the subject, Centuries of Childhood: "In the Middle Ages, at the beginning of modem times, and for a long time after that in the lower class, children were mixed with adults as soon as they were considered capable of doing without their mothers or nannies, not long after a tardy weaning (in other words, at about the age of seven. They immediately went straight into the great community of men, sharing in the work and play of their companions, old and young alike." Aries is describing a world that lived with the most rudimentary–as we might think of it–conception of maturity as a physical matter. If there were stages in the growth of children, they were simply before and after infancy. This is easily seen in medieval and early Renaissance depictions of the Seven Ages of Man and in portraits of royal and noble children in
that period. There are no children there, at least not as we think of them, but babes in arms, the putti that surround the madonnas, and then people of varying sizes all of whom have adult faces. People we think of as children look like what we call midgets.
Since children were either nursing infants or small adults, families did not have the importance they later came to have in a more bourgeois society: "The family fulfilled a function; it ensured the transmission of life, property, and names; but it did not penetrate very far into human sensibility. Myths such as courtly and precious love denigrated marriage, while realities such as the apprenticeship of children loosened the emotional bond between parents and children ... New sciences such as psychoanalysis, pediatrics, and psychology devote themselves to the problems of childhood, and their findings are transmitted to parents by way of a mass of popular literature. Our world is obsessed by the physical, moral, and sexual problems of childhood."
Before this conclusion Aries has offered a great deal of evidence concerning clothing, games, the construction of domestic dwellings, and, above all, schools to show how "the child" was brought into existence during the seventeenth century and, at most levels of society, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. If, with this in mind, we then think of the relations between parents and children as seen in fairy tales, we may be less surprised at how straightforward, unanguished, and even businesslike they usually seem. The parents in "Hop o' My Thumb" and "Hansel and Gretel" must abandon their children, the king in "The Frog Prince" tells his daughter she must go to bed with the frog if she said she would, the miller in "Rumpelstiltskin" sells his daughter because he has boasted about her, Laidronette in "Green Snake" is told to live apart from her family because she is ugly, and at no point do any of these children protest or show so much as momentary resentment at their treatment. This is not easy for latter-day people to understand, but it does help to know that the basic sense of the relations of members of a family to each other has changed since fairy tales were commonly being told.
We can also learn something from this about both the tellers of the tales and the audience for them. First, the teller is never self-
conscious, never calls attention to himself or herself, seldom calls attention to particular details or offers to interpret them; never, as we say in this century, apologizes and never explains. The tone is always assured without any accompanying sense that that tone has been adopted; such assurance comes with the territory. Second, the audience is not a restricted group in any way we can recognize; except in the literal sense in which a told tale probably must have an audience, we can learn almost nothing about it from the tales themselves. Aries speaks of children, at about age seven, moving into "the great community of men," but this was not, as we might call it, the human community or the family of man, but, rather, all the rest of us. For most people the community consisted of groups that ranged from thirty or forty to as many as a hundred or more people, but no group ever would mistake itself, no matter how isolated it was, for the whole world. Other communities existed relatively nearby, itinerants traveled easily between them, and not very far away would be a church, a castle, a town, where one might go upon good occasion, where life was lived differently but in ways one learned or was told about. Presumably both the passing of time and the intervention of people from the outside would alter the way a story might be told, but would not, therefore, alter the fundamentally anonymous tone of the teller speaking to this little segment of "the great community of men." Variations on stories could come and go, travel around, develop still further variations until one story began to seem like two or three somewhat different ones, without any alteration of the relation of teller to tale. No one in particular had to say anything, no one in particular had to learn anything, everyone anticipated certain motifs or characters or events without ever insisting that one way of telling a story was the only way or the right way. The property that was the tales was truly communal, both within the smallish group (but much larger than a family that was hearing a particular telling of a particular tale and within the much larger group (impossible to define or delimits that could be presumed to listen to fairy tales.
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The more we sense the community of fairy tales and fairy tale tellers, the more we can get rid of our latter-day sense of community associations of family and nation, the more we can rid our sense of literary kind, or genre, of association with convention, narrative stance, and tone, the better we can glimpse these tales, tellers, and their audiences. We love to say that the meaning of something is that something; here we get a real chance to practice what we claim. This does not mean we are to be struck dumb by fairy tales, or that we should never ask questions, or never interpret, but that we can gain a great deal from the stories if first we read, and read a lot, and watch, with patience and a love of slowness, and then, when we come to speak, do so with the tentativeness that all older things deserve. Above all, we need to adjust or even temporarily to abolish our sense of older and younger, parent and child, and let the tales give us their sense of these people and these relations. This can be hard, as reading about courtly love or kingship can be hard, since we think we know about these things already, and it is much easier to learn a truly foreign language than it is to readjust the meanings and emphases of one's own. But if we look at just one kind of mistake of this sort we can perhaps be more aware of how easy it is to make such mistakes.
During the first century and a half of children's literature, from roughly 1700 to 1850, a long battle was fought to expunge fairy tales on grounds that they were about what the Houyhnhnm master calls "the thing which was not" and could not therefore teach anything. It was, however, assumed that the danger they posed was for children, since presumably no parent or adult would want to read a fairy tale. Part of this battle is a work called The Parental Instructor, which can best be found today in an interesting collection of early English children's literature edited by Leonard de Vries and called Flowers of Delight. Charles and Mary Elliott have asked their father to tell them a fairy tale, "Cinderella, Ass-skin, Tom Thumb,
or Bluebeard," all Perrault stories, one notes, as if "childish" fairy tales were made worse by having been imported from wicked France. Their father reproves them: "'What!' said Mr. Elliott, 'at your age would you wish me to relate stories which have not even the shadow of common sense in them? It would be ridiculous to see a great big boy of ten and a young lady of nine, listening, with open mouths, to the adventures of an ogre who ate little children, or the Little Gentleman with his Seven League boots; I could only pardon it in a child, who requires to be rocked asleep by his nurse.' "
Mr. Elliott is, we say, wrong, wrong about fairy tales, wrong about children; it is not required that all literature pass literal-minded utilitarian tests, especially not required that the imagination of children be stifled and channeled so as to exclude everything not realistic, sensible, educational. But, in my experience, whenever I have asked someone to state the objections to Mr. Elliott, he or she has always begun by saying Mr. Elliott is repressing the natural and normal instincts of his children. That, apparently, is what we find most objectionable about him. The counterargument to his, however, tends to have some assumptions buried in it which are fatal to any decent understanding of fairy tales. Children need to be imaginative, need to learn about that which is not, need to discover and explore their own fantasies and those of others. Thus they need fairy tales. That is, say, the counterargument offered by Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment.
Both Mr. Elliott's argument and the counterargument offered by Bettelheim and others suffer because they are based on a sense of children rather than an understanding of fairy tales, and because they draw a clear distinction between the real and the magical that fairy tales do not make and presumably their tellers did not make. Fairy tales are no more "for" children than they are "not for" children, and no fairy tale I know distinguishes real from unreal, to say nothing of fantasy from fact. About children I agree with Bettelheim and disagree with Mr. Elliott, but that is irrelevant to fairy tales themselves. Mr. Elliott wants to say fairy tales arc at best stories for the nursery, worthless for lads and lasses of nine or ten; Bettelheim wants to say they are good for children of nine and ten because they are about maturing processes children are frightened of and yet must
go through. Both are really psychologists, putting fairy tales into some prearranged idea of growth.
Their mistake, as I have said, is all the more difficult to correct because it is, in the latter days, so hard to spot in the first place. Correction begins with a slow reading of many tales, done with as few prearranged ideas as possible; a full reading of tales from one country followed by a sampling from a number of others is a good way to begin. Take, as one does this, a motif or event, and see what happens to it in various tales, something more articulated than a girl in a wood, like births. In "Snow White" a queen pricks her finger and wishes for a child, who soon is born; in "Rapunzel" a couple vainly wishes for a child until a witch from whom the husband has stolen rampion announces a child will be born; in "The Sleeping Beauty" a frog announces to the wife while she is bathing that she will become pregnant; "The Goose Girl," on the other hand, opens with a child and mother, and the mother bequeaths three drops of blood to the daughter as she sets out to find her prince. All these are German stories, to be found in Grimm. Countess d'Aulnoy's "The White Deer" opens with a wife being told by a shrimp that she will have a child, and the shrimp then turns into a handsome old woman; the Russian tale "Kip, the Enchanted Cat" starts with a queen and a cat, and the cat has a kitten before she tells the queen she too will have a baby.
We have, thus, a motif or a scene that seems to know no national boundaries, at least in Europe. A couple, but especially the wife, wants a child, and something must happen, blood must flow, an enchanted animal must make an announcement, before the wish can be granted. If we ask why this should be such a common motif, we probably need to know little more than that women of much earlier times, especially women not of the nobility, came to puberty much later than women in latter days and also tended to many much younger than women do now. Thus many couples could have been married some years before they could have had a child; the period we know as adolescence hadn't been invented yet, of course. Beyond that we need not inquire, I suspect. Nor need we be surprised that this motif invariably comes at the beginning of stories, nor that, for the most part, the child that is born will turn out to be
much more important in the story than either parent. The woman often died in childbirth, the man tended to remain faceless. But each use of this motif is somewhat different from the others, so that we can easily imagine the tellers of a particular tale shaping the episode of the annunciation and birth to fit the child to come and perhaps even the story to come. Here the basic wish, for the child, and the basic fear, that there will be no child, meet so simply and obviously that nothing need be made clear except whatever is required by the particular story being told.