The Fairy Tale Must End

Last week, friend and mum blogger Rachel of Catch Forty Winks published a post about a set of answers by a child from a Primary School test paper (it’s since gone viral) that were marked incorrect based on the contextual understanding of fairy tales instead of grammar and sentence construction (which would otherwise have been no problem at all).

I left a comment there saying it was an extremely problematic test question if the teacher were to bank in on a single model answer in an “answer scheme”. If you’ve seen the questions Rachel featured on her post, then consider the following answers:

The snake turned the fairy godmother into a handsome prince.

The handsome prince turned the snake into a fairy godmother.

As far as grammar and sentence construction goes, absolutely faultless. And if put in context of a properly twisted story, easily proven sensible (prince found a wand, scared of snake, so turned him into a fairy godmother instead lor).

Or how about this:

The castle on the green field was beautiful.

That brings the context back to what the teacher would deem as conceptually correct. But if this was not provided as an alternative in the answer scheme, what would be the course of action?

Well, I do know of at least one story where the fairy godmother would likely turn a prince into snake.
Well, I do know of at least one fairy tale where the fairy godmother isn’t nice.

The commentary about local educators’ staunch adherence to an established/archaic academic standard?has been pretty well-covered over the years by parent bloggers and education pundits around the island (even me); I won’t revisit the argument here. But there was a comment in the discussion following Rachel’s post that I just had to take issue with (with no offence to the commentor specifically), which cast fairy tales (as we know it today) as an established genre carrying “certain predictable plots and characters”, an “element of magic and fantasy” and stereotypical “good vs evil” plots and “happily-ever-after ending(s)”, some with a moral of the story meant to guide children along a correct path, both in terms of character education and – by understanding the genre thoroughly – in creative writing as well.

The argument actually sounds quite, uh, sound… until you dig a little deeper into how fairy tales evolved, from spoken word to written form and its modern iteration in media and pop culture. But (rather more frivolously), it also gives me an excuse to give you a brief introduction on how fairy tales came about, and why, as the closet perverts most of us are, you will undoubtedly get more curious after reading this.

(I may ruin a number of children’s fairy tale plays running in a few theatres right now. You’ve been warned.)

I grew up on the same understanding of the mainstream fairy tale genre as everyone else; saccharin sweet damsels-in-distresses waiting for their charming prince to defend them against monsters and witches who would eventually be cast away for a happy ending. Then, a few years ago, I spotted a copy of the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales sitting in my sister’s bookshelf. Knowing it to be a collection of short stories, and having a couple of minutes to burn, I flipped through the stories. And the more I flipped, the more my eyes widened; I ended up borrowing the book for an extended study.

A Gustaf Tenggren illustration in an 1823 edition of Grimm's Fairy Tales (via Animation Resources)
A Gustaf Tenggren illustration in an 1823 edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales (via Animation Resources)

Wikipedia has a good summation of what I read from the original Brothers Grimm stories:

“The first volumes were much criticized because, although they were called ‘Children’s Tales’, they were not regarded as suitable for children, both for the scholarly information included and the subject matter. Many changes through the editions – such as turning the wicked mother of the first edition in Snow White and Hansel and Gretel (…) to a stepmother, were probably made with an eye to such suitability. They removed sexual references – such as Rapunzel’s innocently asking why her dress was getting tight around her belly, and thus naively revealing her pregnancy and the prince’s visits to her stepmother – but, in many respects, violence, particularly when punishing villains, was increased.”

The argument for instilling fairy tale morals as values to be followed becomes more flawed over the next paragraph (which I can also attest is present in the original Grimm’s stories):

“The tales themselves have been put to many uses. Hitler praised them as folkish tales showing children with sound racial instincts seeking racially pure marriage partners, and so strongly that the Allied forces warned against them; for instance, Cinderella?with the heroine as racially pure, the stepmother as an alien, and the prince with an unspoiled instinct being able to distinguish. Writers who have written about the Holocaust have combined the tales with their memoirs, as Jane Yolen in her Briar Rose.”

Having read the old tales, I will say with some authority that the Brothers Grimm qualify as the 17th?19th century (thanks, JoAnn!) German writer’s equivalent of Quentin Tarantino. I mean, there’s a lot of sex in there! And violence! And… stuff. And it’s not just the brothers, either: many of the fairy tales we’ve come to know and love that aren’t Grimm’s products have similar less-than-savoury elements.

Needless to say, our modern versions (available at all neighbourhood libraries and your nearest video store) have been quite well-modified for a much more acceptable G-rating. And the most defining traits of the genre – the stereotypical characters, the good vs evil premise and the feel-good endings – are the result of the editing, manipulation and?extensive exercising of their creative licence?of one corporate entity that we all fondly know of as The Walt Disney Company.

The modern-day fairy tale may be regressing to its original coarseness though.
The modern-day fairy tale may be regressing to its original coarseness though.

It’s all well and good, but there’s a little niggly feeling inside of me that finds the whole argument for a fairy-tale module hard to swallow, particularly if the morals and values of said fairy tales, so well accepted by our local language educators, were in fact shaped by a multinational media company, and not, as all other primary school subjects are, subject to scientific, mathematical or (at the risk of contradiction to the “archaism” argument) historical or even (at the risk of sounding like I support this) governmentally underwritten socio-democratic standards.

I remember putting down my sister’s book, feeling like I was living a lie this entire time. One can view this with nonchalance, or even say “Well, it’s been corrected now, so what’s the problem?”, but somehow, I cannot bring myself to live down the hypocrisy. I guess The Blogfather is not as forgiving as he would like to be.

And the scariest thing is, this is just one facet of the many complexities over the different subjects, modules and syllabuses we have to face as parents when we try to contend with the education system at large our children enter into; the debate can go on forever (and I’m fully expecting someone will say something to contribute to this discussion, too).


Oh yes. If you want to borrow my sister’s Grimm’s tome for a look-see, she says no.

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