Children's Literature is perhaps my favorite course to teach to college students. Often they have fallen away from the love of reading that they once cherished as kids, and sometimes this course helps them find it again. Fairy tales, picture books like Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, chapter books like E.B. White's Charlotte's Web, and plays like J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan bring them back in some very palpable ways to the days and years when they were forming their identities. Even when this course doesn't strike them on such a personal level, it gives them a chance to examine important social and political questions about literacy and the ways in which the adults in a culture view children and childhood (and thus, ultimately, themselves) at a given moment in time.
I started collecting beautiful editions of children's books with a view toward keeping them for a lifetime back when I was still a little kid. I bought this edition of Snow White in the 1970s, and it is still one of my favorite books to this day. A few years before, my grandmother had bought me an edition of Grimms' Fairy Tales. I don't think she had ever actually read the Grimms' versions of any of these tales before because when she reached the part in "Cinderella" where the ugly step sisters begin cutting off parts of their own feet to fit them into the glass slipper, she abruptly stopped reading and slammed the book shut, reaching instead for something uplifting like The Little Engine that Could.
The Grimm book mysteriously disappeared from our house that very same day. I was, needless to say, hooked. The next time my mother brought me to the library, I borrowed a copy of the Brothers Grimm to read for myself. Jacob and Wilhelm were 19th-century linguists who were concerned with recording oral folk tales in order to preserve them, to some extent, but also to promote a certain image of German culture and language. They published several editions in their lifetime, embellishing, editing, and transforming many of the stories with each new edition. They often changed evil mother characters into evil stepmothers (thus softening the image of fairy tale mothers while seriously damaging that of stepmothers), highlighted the ingenuity of German children, and focused increasingly on promoting Christian themes in what had traditionally been secular stories. Many of the stories were not even exclusively German tales. Often they had made their way all over Europe, sometimes as oral tales, other times as literary adaptations penned by aristocrats like Perrault and Madame D'Aulnoy, who were critical of the 17th- and early 18th-century French monarchy. The Brothers Grimm, much like Walt Disney in the 20th century, were simply talented adapters whose versions became so widespread that they came to be seen as the "true" versions of the tale. As Jack Zipes puts it, they "stabilized" the traditionally shifting and changing tales, making them seem permanently fixed. As we would see in the 20th century, no folk tale is ever fixed. Walt Disney removed much of the gruesome content from the tales, leaving just enough to keep a child interested, but adding much to lighten and soften the tales as well.
As a kid, I had seen a few Disney films, although nothing like the onslaught children face today, and I certainly was familiar with the cute, cuddly characters of the Seven Dwarfs. These characters as individuals, including their names (which came from a much longer list of possibilities and rejects), were invented by Disney to fill out the story. In the Grimm version, none of them are depicted as individuals, and while good, caring friends to Snow White, they are not particularly cute or funny. In Disney's 1937 film, the first full-length animated feature, the dwarfs' antics take up the majority of the story. If we were to cut their scenes from the film, we would be left with the syrupy-sweet singing of Snow White, the huntsmen's softhearted failure to kill Snow White, and the amazing scene of the evil stepmother-queen creating the apple. Disney omits her other attempts to kill Snow White--the corset laces and the comb. He also changes the way in which Snow White is awoken from her death-like sleep. The prince does not kiss her awake in the Grimm version. Most significantly, he changes the queen's death. In the Brothers Grimm, Snow White and the prince invite the queen to their wedding. When she arrives, they make her put on red hot iron shoes and then dance in them until she drops down dead. Thus one can imagine why my very well-meaning grandmother did not want me exposed to the Brothers Grimm.
However, I have to say that as I read these tales on my own, I loved them. I wasn't a particularly morbid kid and I didn't like violence for violence's sake, but what I did like was being able to explore scary things within the pages of a book. I had the power to close the book if I needed to. I had the power to imagine a particular scene in my mind as I saw it. No soundtrack or flashy animation manipulated me. I had the very straightforward structure of a traditional tale, sometimes accompanied by illustration, as in the gorgeous edition translated by Randall Jarrell and illustrated by Nancy Erkholm Burkert, but sometimes just on its own with no pictures at all. Nothing was made cute, nothing was watered down. Lives were at stake; indeed, happily ever after itself was at stake. In some, it is true, the princess simply waited for her prince to come, something that I never wanted to do myself, but I still felt for these girls. In others, girls like Gretel relied on their ingenuity to do the task at hand, no matter how tough. Could I have pushed the witch into the oven to save my brother? I hoped so. Regardless, I fell in love with fairy tales as a child and I have never been satisfied with the Disney versions of any of them.
Today I teach young women who love the characters from Disney's Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid (A Hans Christian Andersen original--not a traditional oral fairy tale), and Cinderella. Many of them identify with these characters and see them as important factors in their own identity-building. Childhood for them is just a few years in the past. In fact, many of them still decorate their notebooks and laptops with stickers from the Disney Princess line, and some of them want to have Disney-themed weddings. When people joke about the "kiddie lit" course I teach, I need only point to the multi-billion-dollar Disney fairy tale industry as just one example of the ways in which the tales we read and watch as children shape not only our individual lives, but our culture as a whole. The Brothers Grimm were participating in the process of 19th-century nation building. Their tale adaptations helped create Germany's international image, just as Disney's adaptations continue to shape and promote a view of America through the lens of childhood, fantasy, and make believe.