Why children should never be exposed to fairytales

Nowadays, the word “fairytale” seems to be always equated with children, whereas “folktale” does not (even thought they actually refer to the same thing). It seems that the word “fairy” carries a meaning of “nice, good, cute” and, why not? “female” and “pink”. Ever heard of Harry Potter’s doxies people?

Here’s an illustration of a doxy, found in Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them (Rowling, J.K., 2001)

Though in modern times a fairy is a “nice” imaginary being, historically, fairies (or fae) have been thought to be malicious.

Much of the folklore about fairies revolves around protection from their malice […] Some pranks ascribed to them, such as […] leading a traveler astray, are generally harmless. But far more dangerous behaviors were also attributed to fairies.{1}

Now, returning to the subject in hand, the word “fairy” in “fairytale” does not, in fact, refer to the (un)nice little sprites that pop culture has created, but to the usage of magic in the tale ( Wikipedia says: the word fairy derives from the Latin fata, and is from the Old French form faerie, describing “enchantment” {1}). Nonetheless, pop culture has caused its inclusion in the word “fairytale” to, irrationally, engender a sense of niceness and innocence that has no place in a folktales (notice how the usage of “folktale” instead of “fairytale” immediately changes the tone of the subject in hand; the first word describes a type of story, the second carries a pre-conceived notion of the story’s character and morality).

Much has been written about how classical fairytales’ authors — Perault, Andersen and the Grimm brothers being the most notorious — compiled their countries’ folktales, adapting them towards their audience, which was comprised of adults, not children. Nonetheless, the logical conclusion does not seen to follow: even if 18th century children read, or were read, this folktales, they were not stripped of all their sexuality, moral dubiousness, violence or gore. And, as a corollary, even if those compilations were thought as acceptable reading material for 18th century children (not likely), they are definitely not aceptable reading material for 21st century children (because of the above-mentioned sexuality, moral dubiousness, violence and gore).

When I was eight, I found a compilation of Perault’s tales in my home’s library. this is its cover:

This totally says “child-friendly”

Unfortunately, its appropiateness for a child didn’t last long

Bluebeard about to murder his wife
The Ogre about to murder Tom Thumb and his six brothers in their sleep

There’s a saying that even the worst book teaches you something; that that is an awful book. Well, I learnt something that day: Perault’s fairytales are not child-friendly (later on, I would wonder if Patrick Süskind had been inspired on Perault’s Bluebeard when writting Perfume: The Story of a Murderer).

So, I tried to brain-bleach myself and ignore my home library’s section that housed that book and other fairytale books. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn my lesson well. Fast forward four or five years, I read an excerpt of a book in which the narrator mentioned having “read The Little Mermaid — the real one, not the awful Disney version” — cue for me to go and read the tragic story of the little mermaid who became the prince’s personal slave. Thought I have to agree with the narrator that the original fairytale is better than the Disney version; it’s characters have greater depth. Nonetheless, it confirmed my original assessment: fairytales are everything but fluffy. Subsequent instances in which my curiosity has led me to read other fairytales (they do say that curiosity killed the cat, after all) have all given my imagination nightmare fuel (the Beast wanting to murder Belle’s father for… cutting a rose, Belle’s sisters planning to get her murdered, Rapunzel’s lover falling on thorns and gauging his eyes out; and let’s not forget the trauma conga line that Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont created on her tale Le Prince Fatal et le Prince Fortuné to make her point that children can be spoiled. [At the end, you’re supposed to be happy because the long-suffering Prince Fatal gets to marry a princess]).

So, you say: “Well, Disney got rid of all those squeaky details to give children stories about

Far off places, daring swordfights, magic spells, a prince in disguise — {2}”

Unfortunately, Belle, that is not true. Yes, Disney did try to bowdlerize the classical fairytales, but they are still filled with horrendous situations which include, but are not limited to:

  • Mother Gothel emotionally abusing Rapunzel
  • Snow White being lost in a dark and treacherous forest
  • Pinnochio being abducted and then turned into a donkey
  • Maurice’s and Belle’s abduction
  • Grand Pabbie erasing Anna’s memories
  • Elsa framed for Anna’s murder
  • Maleficient’s rape (aka: getting her wings cut)

Add to all the above the inapropiateness of most of Disney’s films’ themes, and the question subsists: exactly why are fairytales considered acceptable literature for children?

And there’s more. A rational reading of some fairytales will make you conclude that the “reward” for good behaviour is actually… not a reward at all. For example, Perrault’s tale The Fairies is a story about a fairy that rewards a young lady’s generosity by bestowing upon her the gift of having “flowers and precious stones falling from her mouth everytime she spoke”. So, you can say “it is a metaphor; rationally there will be no flowers or precious stones falling from her mouth; it is meant to illustrate all the nice things that come out when she speaks” but the point is that she was already saying nice things; that’s why she was rewarded. Becoming the goose that lays the golden eggs is just inviting trouble, as illustrated in the ending of the tale

The king’s son met her on his way home from hunting, and noticing how beautiful she was, he asked her what she was doing there all alone, and why she was crying.
“Alas, sir, my mother has driven me from home.”
As she spoke the king’s son saw five or six pearls and as many diamonds fall from her mouth. He begged her to tell him how this came about, and she told him the whole story.
The king’s son fell in love with her, and considering that such a gift as had been bestowed upon her was worth more than any dowry that he might receive from someone else, he took her to his father’s royal palace, where he married her. {3}

Please notice that in this tale, nothing is said about the prince’s character, not even a “he married his ladylove and they lived happily ever after”. The prince married the lady because of greed, not love, but the ending is supposed to be a happy ending for the generous young woman (because virtue is always rewarded, isn’t it?) unfortunately, the young woman’s reward ends up being forced captivity. In the same vein, most fairytale endings have three elements: 1. the lady is rescued and is married to the prince (or the king) 2. whomever helped the lady is rewarded with a position in court (even if that person has never been in the court or is not interested in being part of the court) 3. the villains are left to suffer gruesome deaths or punishments, courtesy of the prince’s or king’s vindictiveness (notice that either the lady or the lady’s loved ones where the ones condemned to those selfsame punishments until the big reveal). The “good guys” morality is extremely dubious, since they are willing to kill say, the fair maiden’s brother in one paragraph and, in the next, they transfer the punishment to the horrible stepmother/sister/maid or whomever caused the rift to begin with. I would be horrified to marry such a capricious person, but the fair maiden is always suppossed to be… happy?

And to top it all, here’s a description of most of the “good” characters in fairytales:

“You’re so nice! You’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice! I’m not good, I’m not nice, I’m just right. I’m the witch, you’re the world!”
“Did you have to get your prince? Have to get your cow? Have to get your wish? Doesn’t matter how… anyway, it doesn’t matter now.”
The witch, Into the Woods [movie] (2014) United States: Walt Disney Pictures.

Jack stole from the giant, not once, but thrice and, when he was caught, he murdered him; Hansel and Gretel boiled the witch alive; Belle allowed the fairy to turn her sisters into garden sculptures; Tom Thumb allowed the ogre to murder his seven daughters…

The “good guys (and gals)” are not morally good; they just happen to be nice — that is, they do not actively cause harm, just letting the “bad guys” to suffer any matter of cruelty (which they did not actively caused, but passively allowed). As Prince Charming says, in Into the Woods

I was raised to be charming, not sincere.

Fairytale “good” characters are technically good, but they are not ethical, or moral, so why are they presented as acceptable character models?

Fairytales are stories of times past that illustrate the arcane values of those times past; they do not reflect the ethics or morality of the present time nor do they present any acceptable character model. It is time to let them rest on the same books from whence they came: compilations of folktales aimed at adults who want to learn about a people’s folk-lore.


{1} fairy. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fairy (accessed August 21, 2016).

{2} Lyrics from: Belle (1991). Beauty and the Beast [movie]. United States: Walt Disney Pictures.

{3} Perrault, C. The Fairies. http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/perrault05.html (accessed August 21, 2016).

{4} Into the Woods [movie] (2014) United States: Walt Disney Pictures.