On Fairy Tales and PBS

I’m reading a book of fairy tales to my daughter. Nightly, we enter worlds where children are chased by witches, where evil stepmothers plot against their daughters, and where giants have talking harps.

We’re not, however, reading sanitized versions of the tales. I’m not always comfortable with this: I’m not comfortable when the wicked queen thinks she’s eating Snow White’s heart, or when Hansel and Gretel are abandoned by the parents during a time of famine.

Of course, I see stories like this all the time. My wife and I have a few unnamed TV dramas we watch, which are soaked in violence. I don’t know the statistics about how many shootings you’ll see on television by the time you’re 18 or 21, but I’ve heard them enough to know it’s a lot. We’re a society, in many respects, that abhors violence in the news but celebrates it two hours later.

Fairy tales remind us that this arrangement isn’t novel. Many of the tales were enjoyed by adults (although there were a great many told by grandmothers to the children at her knees as a sort of warning), so we can rid ourselves of the idea that culture is more or less violent today, depending on what argument you want to make.

What I like about these tales, however, despite my discomfort, is that there is an obvious line between good and evil. We adults like to see our characters in shades of gray; indeed, reading literary fiction has been shown to increase empathy toward others because we’re unwilling to paint them as entirely bad. But this isn’t the case in fairy tales. The wicked queen is entirely bad, as is the giant who kills Jack’s father and steals the castle, as is the witch who desires to eat Hansel and Gretel.

But the evil in fairy tales is a healthy tonic for the gray world of the golden age of television (in which every hero is also an antihero) and a steady diet of literary novels—or politics for that matter.

Our fiction has moved this way—beyond fairy stories and into worlds of gray—because movements of modernity and postmodernity have broken apart the human: they show how we are products of genetics and our environments, and the choice the inner city kid makes to shoot someone is because he had no other option.

Don’t misunderstand me: postmodernity has gone a great way in giving the disenfranchised a voice, and our society needs to make radical changes, especially in the inner cities, to give kids better options than shoot or be shot. But, beyond arguing about conscience and that even inner city kids know better sometimes, I’d rather argue about the genesis of evil.

From an aesthetic view, I can’t stomach this idea that the evil we do to each other—holocaust evil, Rwandan genocide evil, evil currently happening in Syria on both sides, or that we see on the news from time to time—I don’t buy that this happens simply because of genetics and environment.

As a storyteller, it’s much easier for me to say something drastic has gone wrong in humanity.

Fairy stories point at this. They don’t explain away evil, but they point how we are a vulnerable race who must fight against it. We have to use our wits, to slink right up to it like Jack does the Giant, and steal what we can from right under its nose.

This is what I want to communicate to my daughter. And, I don’t think a steady diet of PBS shows (as nice as they are) does this: they don’t say this world is a beautiful, dangerous place. The stories we tell our children today don’t say that you are needed in this battle between good and evil, and that good is real and must be fought for or we will lose it. They don’t say that there are costs to fighting for good—it’s dangerous to go up against evil personified, whether that’s ISIS or the Big Bad Wolf.

But I want my daughter, perhaps even above all, to desire what is good, to stand up and fight for it.

I want the same for myself.

So, even if the fairy tales are a little unnerving for this modern mind, I continue to read them: nowhere else that I know of can I instill in my daughter such an imagination (more on this in the next post) of what it means to live in this world. I know my highest goals, according to today’s shows, should be for her to get along with others. But they simply aren’t my highest hopes for her. I want her to be good.

Perhaps we all ought to read a few fairy tales again.

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