While visiting my parents last week, I was delighted to find a few dusty old children’s books on a quiet corner shelf in the family room. The books carry sentimental value because they once occupied a shelf in my grandparents’ house. They were the same books my father read when he was a child. And as we grandchildren were expected to be “seen and not heard”, these books were our refuge, stoking our budding imaginations with dozens of characters and places we longed to be a part of.
One book in particular – The Illustrated Treasury of Children’s Literature – stands out as a literary beacon of my childhood. The stories within included Aesop’s Fables (i.e. The Hare and the Tortoise), the tales of Danish author Hans Christian Andersen (The Emperor’s New Clothes), and the works of The Brothers Grimm (Rumpelstiltskin). The collection oozed with fantasy and adventure and innocence.
I reread a few of these stories last week and came to an unquestionable conclusion: The Brothers Grimm were a couple of messed-up dudes. On the one hand the Grimms authored Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Rapunzel, which Disney sanitized and gave a more positive spin. But more likely, you know the Grimms for their famous “fairy tales”, like Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood.
Fairy tales. Doesn’t the term conjure up images of enchanted forests and candy castles and magical sprites? That’s what I thought too, but Hansel and Gretel would vigorously disagree. These kids endured a nightmare on par with today’s R-rated horror flicks. Take ten minutes and read their story (you can find it here). The only detail I recalled was the house in the forest; the one made of cake and candy and spun-sugar glass. But this time around I couldn’t get past the other aspects. Within the first three paragraphs we read that H & G’s mother’s solution to a lack of food is to abandon her children in the forest. Even after they find their way back to the house the mother finds another (more successful) way to leave them behind. Later on, an old woman holds the kids captive in the candy house and prepares to “slaughter and boil” (and eat) Hansel. Gretel gets to watch. But the kids surprise the old woman by pushing her into the oven, and then she burns to death. A celebration ensues.
Little Red Riding Hood (which you can find here) is no less violent. A little girl in red may sound adorable but the story is really about the murderous wolf. Not only does the wolf consume LRR’s grandmother, he has LRR herself for dessert. And it doesn’t end there. A huntsman happens by, recognizes the wolf, decides not to shoot him because “maybe the grandmother is inside”; then cuts open the wolf and pulls out the grandmother and LLR alive and intact. Seriously?
The Treasury introduction says “eight, nine and ten is the fairy tale age”. The Treasury also says “many a child will haul the volume from the shelf and spend countless happy hours…” are you kidding me? This is gratuitous violence disguised as bedtime stories!
I used to cringe at the thought of my young children watching a PG-rated movie. Not anymore. There are over half a million copies of The Treasury out there in the world. I need to find them all and have a bonfire. Those Grimm images go to the grave with you!