LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

The Water-Babies To Be Read By Children? Come On Now…

Let us be real. Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies may have centered on the entertaining of a child’s imagination, but within this literature there are numerous points to be made, prejudices, opinionated societal viewpoints, and many other subliminal messages (among very obvious messages) that the average child would not even begin to understand or even have the competence to know whereof to begin–yet alone the average adult.  Many of these messages are signaled to ethnic groups such as blacks or Irish, or “professionals” in the areas of education and medication. Such can be seen when Kingsley satirizes the doctors of his day in response to Professor Ptthmllnsprts’s sudden mental illness, “So all the doctors in the county were called in to make a report on his case; and of course every one of them flatly contradicted the other: else what use is there in being men of science? But at last the majority agreed on a report in the true medical language, one half bad Latin, the other half worse Greek, and the rest what might have been English, if they had only learnt to write it.” Here he shows the clumsiness of “men in science” and how they are always out to disprove one another in argument, using their ridiculous and complicated medical language, in which he further satirizes by presenting the reader with a sophisticated fabrication of long jumbled words to describe the professor’s illness–satirizing onwards by having My (His) Lady react in a shocking manner in response to the sophisticated medical vocabulary, then having Sir John “write to the TIMES to command the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the time being to put a tax on long words.” But it didn’t end there, for Kingsley went on to list all of the “stupid” and endless “remedies” that could have been used by doctors in hopes to cure the Professor’s illness; of course, none of the cures accomplishing the slightest of anything, which is of course one of Kingsley’s arguments. Eventually, the only successful cure became none other than writing–where the Professor begins writing about the moon being made of green cheese and birthing babies.

green cheese moon

Although I found many parts of Kingsley’s rant-like rambling (aforementioned above) quite entertaining and comical, it still yet seems to be no commonplace for Children’s Literature. Sure, the images of a nonsensical medical diagnosis with extensive vocabulary, an assortment of absurd remedies for treatment of the professor’s absurd condition, and a moon made of green cheese with millions of crawling babies all does seem quite normal for a children’s story and the entertaining of a child’s imagination; but, the path towards each image is, at times, unclear and too astray for a child to understand–yet alone an adult. The reader comes upon the scene of Tom (as a water-baby) being seen, clear as day, by the skeptical professor and the faithful Ellie, and thus a fairy manipulating the professor’s mind as to not reveal speculation of the water babies’ existence. With these images being quite clear to any reader, Kingsley persists with one of his “moments”, as I call them, where he elaborates on some social characteristic or, as in this case, a satirical allegory. Now, a child reading this will most certainly enjoy the images that are presented thereof; yet still may be so far off topic as to where the reader forgets how things even led up to, persay, a scientific explanation as to why babies could not exist on the moon, ” …It cannot be cold enough there about four o’clock in the morning to condense the babies’ mesenteric apophthegms into their left ventricles; and, therefore, they can never catch the hooping-cough; and if they do not have hooping-cough, they cannot be babies at all; and, therefore, there are no babies in the moon.”

…I rest my case.

Anyhow, another segment of the story that evermore convinces me that The Water-Babies isn’t designated towards an audience befitting children is another one of Kingsley’s “moments” of stray thoughts heading closer and closer into oncoming traffic (as I like to relate it). Here, Kingsley engages the reader upon the idea of the Water-babies. He neither tries to approve or disprove of them; though, he surely tries to legitimize the idea, but still reminds the reader of such superstitions that do arise in any and all fairy tales, “Don’t you know that this is a fairy tale, and all fun and pretence; and that you are not to believe one word of it, even if it is true?” But his argument is that, even though told as a fairy tale, water-babies may still thrive and dwell upon our world; nobody can readily discount the possibility of water-babies existing in all actuality. His reasons for so, I believe, are not all completely fit for being read by children, as they would be lucky to understand even half of his argument–which persists for an incredible ten paragraphs or so. First, he goes on about well-known professors and how, however much they know of nature, cannot disprove something that has not yet been seen or discovered (and he certainly emphasizes the word ‘cannot’, and how vile it is to make such a judgment): “And therefore it is, that there are dozens and hundreds of things in the world which we should certainly have said were contrary to nature, if we did not see them going on under our eyes all day long.”

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He continues to go on about how little seeds can grow to big trees, how an elephant at first discovery would go against previous  conceptions of “comparative anatomy”, how “flying dragons” were thought to only be myth and legend until skeletal remains of pterodactyls began appearing in dig sites, and how almost all that lives and dwells on land has a similar or almost exact comparison in water or in ocean. Then, he goes on about transformations found in nature such that as the butterfly, and how a human could, in all possibility, submit to the same transformations–such that as a land-baby’s metamorphosis into a water-baby.

All in all, I feel that Kingsley goes into too much depth when writing The Water-Babies. In contrast, the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales would have only spent at most two lines on the legitimacy of such a creature, as to make quick sense to a child and thus commit more time and detail to the actual story and its plot. Nevertheless, I find The Water-Babies to be a fantastic story and a unique glimpse back into historical perceptions, values, and descriptions of the natural world. Although I wouldn’t recommend this story to be read by “land-babies”, I highly encourage young and old adults alike to read this story–so long as they’re willing to succumb to such scattered thoughts and impressive imaginings as Kingsley’s.

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Fairy Tales and Alternative Families

In studying fairy tales, there is certainly no lack of revealing and fascinating themes to discuss. Both culturally informative and literarily significant, fairy tales provide ample fodder for academic discussion of their text.

Of all of these themes, however, the one that most stands out to me is the recurring representation of alternative family members (particularly stepparents) as evil or intentionally harmful. Stepmothers in tend to me presented as antagonists, directly working against the protagonist in the central conflict of the story. Often, it is a young princess who is the victim of her stepmother’s wickedness; from “Snow White” to “Cinderella”, across geographically and culturally divergent interpretations, princesses battle with their fathers’ spouses for life and love.

This trend is one that presents a very telling trepidation and resentment towards replacement parents. Not only are the portrayals of stepparents incriminating of the parental figures themselves, but also they criticize the “natural” parents for their passivity, poor choice in mate, and failure to protect their own children. Far from merely an indictment of the struggles a child goes through in readjusting to a new family, fairy tales with this strain of commentary indict both stepparent and parent as falling short in parental responsibilities.

Another very interesting aspect to the stepparent trend in fairy tales is the way that Disney films (and other modern retellings) do not edify this particular unpleasant aspect. While details of violence and certainly of sexuality have been largely eliminated for a more child-appropriate audience, stepparents, even in modern versions of stories, maintain their vilified roles and evil agendas. In a modern age where the concept of “family” is in constant evolution, and a traditional nuclear structure is increasingly rare, it is remarkable that these figures are still positioned as intruders and wrongdoers. While sexuality is censored and violence tailored, it is still acceptable to treat alternative family solutions as harbingers of doom.

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Fairy Tales: Depicting the Development of Female Gender Roles

          For centuries, fairy tales have permeated many cultures and societies. While these tales often served to entertain children and/or teach them morals, they also serve as reflections of the societies and time periods in which their numerous versions developed, spread, and were transcribed. In particular, the evolution of many tales follows the development of gender roles and expectations of the societies in which they originated. This can be seen in how many popular tales have adapted over time and are depicted in popular culture today.

            In many traditional fairy tales, female characters fell into a dichotomy, filling the role of the heroine or the villain. The heroine was a depiction of the ideal young woman: beautiful, compassionate, youthful, calm, and often naïve. The female villain is depicted as older, often a mother figure (or stepmother), who is cunning, jealous, and downright malicious. This could be seen in tales such as “Cinderella” and “Snow White,” both of which featured a young, beautiful, virtuous young woman at odds with a malicious, jealous stepmother. This dichotomy reflected the common conceptions of women during the time that they were told and transcribed, as women were valued for their beauty, youth, and virtue, while ambitious, scheming, outspoken women were seen as tainted, inappropriate and improper.

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Cinderella startled by her stepmother’s reflection as she comes up behind her.

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Snow White and her stepmother disguised as an old beggar.

            With the dawn of filmmaking in the 20th century, fairy tales began to appear in a new medium, and eventually became wildly popular. In recent years, we have seen a resurgence of this wild popularity in many different forms, such as film, television, and music, and in adaptations that reflect modern depictions of gender roles. For example, in the 2012 movie Snow White and the Huntsman, Snow White, though similar to film adaptations of earlier films, is depicted as much stronger, outspoken, and motivated, as the audience sees her suit up in armor and fight for the kingdom that was rightfully hers. In another adaptation of “Snow White,” Mirror, Mirror, also released in 2012, the audience watches as an in-control, and clever Snow White feeds her stepmother a poisonous apple originally meant for herself. These films are just a few examples of contemporary adaptations of traditional fairy tales, with more outspoken, clever, and go-getting modern heroines that are much more reflective of the typical woman in our American society today.

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Fairy Tales for Twenty Somethings

Fairytalesfor20somethings.tumblr.com is a blog which takes fairy tales and modernizes them for the 21st Century.  The author updates both the characters and the problems for the “Disney Generation;” that is, those who grew up in the 1980’s and 90’s watching the approximately twenty animated films released by Disney during that period. (which was when the highest concentration of animated films came out, as well as when they were the most popular). In “Fairy Tales for 20 Somethings” technology replaces magical assistance in fairy tales.

The blog plays on the common fears and anxieties of ‘twenty-something’ adults to create stories about fairy tale heroes in the modern age in a similar manner to the universal fears found in traditional tales.

In this post,the author places Cinderella in the modern age, even saying that she has a Facebook. The author relates Cinderella to the reader by saying “sometimes she just had to write a Facebook status about how shitty her day was.”  This turns Cinderella into a twenty-something everyman—a figure instantly relatable to an audience member. This also makes the audience member relatable to Cinderella, fairy godmother, prince(ss), castle and all.  This idea of “I am just like a character in a fairy tale” is prevalent throughout the entire blog, but the blog expresses that by showing fairy tale characters attempting to deal with their problems without the aid of any magical assistance.  The idea that even fairy tale characters have the same or similar problems that we ourselves have seems to make our struggles less personal and more universal.

In this post, the iPhone feature “Siri” becomes a fairy godmother of sorts and gives Beauty advice on how to introduce Beast to her family. In this blog, technology replaces magical assistance as the third party which helps the protagonist accomplish dreams, or at least feel better.  The replacement of the magical figure with everyday technology shows that in the same way that the fairy tale figures have the same problems what we do, they also have the same resources for dealing with those problems, and reinforces the concept that they are relatable to the audience member, and makes the struggles less personal and more universal.

In the same way that the tales themselves have been modernized, the medium through which they are being conveyed has been modernized as well.  Throughout history, fairy tales were passed down through the oral tradition.  In the modern day, however, the closest thing that we have to the oral tradition is blogging—with the advent of the internet, people began writing and telling stories, and most of these people wrote the same way that they spoke. The oral tradition, then, lives on via the internet, even if the light of the campfire has been replaced by the light of the computer monitor.

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“The Swan Maiden”: Not So Happily Ever After

swanIn her introduction to the “Beauty and the Beast” tales, Maria Tatar notes that these stories are unique because they intertwine “two developmental trajectories” (25), Beauty’s struggles and Beast’s transformation. The dual nature of these tales results in a variety of interpretations, many of which are significantly different from the popular story we know today. The tale “The Swan Maiden” (72-73) grabbed my attention precisely for this reason.

In “The Swan Maiden,” a young man discovers three swans who, when they remove their “feathery attire” (72), transform into beautiful young women. The man falls in love with the youngest and is advised by his mother to steal her swan feathers while she is bathing. The woman is unable to transform back into a swan and must marry the man. They live “lovingly and contentedly” (73) until one evening the young man reveals the swan feathers. His wife immediately transforms back into a swan and escapes through an open window, and the young man dies of grief within a year.

Perhaps the most striking difference between this tale and many of the others in the Beauty and the Beast category is that while the others serve to reassure young girls about married life, particularly in arranged marriages, this tale accomplishes almost the exact opposite. The couple in the story is married for seven supposedly happy years, yet the young woman escapes from married life without any hesitation as soon as an opportunity presents itself. This tale hints at the “secretly oppressive nature of marriage” (31), painting a portrait that was likely more realistic than the ones presented in other versions of the tale.

swan princessWhile reading this tale, I was also reminded of the animated film The Swan Princess which is based on the ballet Swan Lake. However, after re-familiarizing myself with the plot of the ballet, I realized that the main similarity to “The Swan Maiden” is really only in the animal into which the woman transforms. In fact, the plot of Swan Lake seems to have more in common with the familiar “Beauty and the Beast” story: the man falls in love with a women cursed to live as an animal, they fight to overcome the curse, and they are united by love in the end (albeit with varying degrees of success—in the ballet they usually die together, but in the film they are happily married). I did some searching for the origins of the Swan Lake story, and according to this page its most likely origins are in a German tale called “The Stolen Veil” and a Russian folktale called “The White Duck.” I was not able to find anything tying the tale of “The Swan Maiden” to the plot of Swan Lake, but I find it fascinating that the link of the swan led me to a different story that nevertheless falls into the same basic tale type, thus emphasizing the variety that is possible within a single basic story.

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Fille Fatale: From Little Red to Locked and Loaded

Most people in American culture are familiar with the phrase “Femme Fatale.” Whether you are a Brittany Spears fan or are knowledgeable in the European literature where the term originated, the French phrase for “deadly woman” has become synonymous with the growing Feminist culture that has come to redefine modern day society.

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You say seductive? I say sizing up ways to kill me.

This trend has been chronicled most notably in pop culture: and even more specifically with the rise of the vampire phenomenon that strikes fear into the hearts of boyfriends all across the nation: TwilightHowever, this gradual rise in feminine independence, and even superiority over men, has been detailed in the historic changes of the classic school age fairy tale of “Little Red Riding Hood.”

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This is right before she turns into a green, hulking monster.

The earliest examples of  “Little Red Riding Hood” portray the protagonist as the atypical female character. In his version of the tale Charles Perrault describes Little Red as “Pretty, well-bred, and genteel,” which is hardly comparable to the Little Red Riding Hood we see in a feminist conscious modern day society (13). Nonetheless, the legendary storyteller uses his moralistic tale as a metaphor: not to warn women of the dangers of wolves, but more so the dangers of men. He relates wolves to men by describing some wolves as, “perfectly charming,
Not loud, brutal, or angry,
But tame, pleasant, and gentle…But watch out if you haven’t learned that tame wolves Are the most dangerous of all.” While his tale does serve as a moral for women to be cautious of the devious duplicity of men, the protagonist still acts as only a cautionary character and must submit to her fate as an example.

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The original poster girl for “Child Neglect”

Fast forward 285 years later to Roald Dahl’s depiction of this “damsel in distress” and the reader finds a much different tale. Rather than being eaten by the wolf as an example for her gender, Little Red empowers herself as she “whips a pistol from her knickers.
She aims it at the creature’s head
And bang bang bang, she shoots him dead” (22). Therefore, if Dahl is adhering to the tale’s usual depiction of the wolf representing man, then in this instance the tables have turned. By the end of the 20th century the literary progression of the so called “classic” tale of “Little Red Riding Hood” acts as a literal “mirror mirror on the wall” for the society in which it is interpreted. The modern Little Red is a younger version of the deadly woman, a “fille fatale,” and this textual shift directly correlates to the societal shifts that define this time period.

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Come at me bro.

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Bibliography: Fairy Tales

Ashliman, D L. Folk and Fairy Tales: A Handbook. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2004. Print.

A discussion of the tale-types and systems used to classify these texts.

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Vintage Books, 1977. Print.

A very important academic book, talking about the psychology of fairy tales and the necessary effects they have on children.  Considered an important text in children’s literature.

Heiner, Heidi Anne. SurLaLune Fairy Tales.  8 Nov 2012. Website.  8 Jan 2013.  http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/

A collection of fairy tales on-line, including some criticism and discussion.

Maslin, Sue. Re-Enchantment. ABC Studios. 2012. Website. 8 Jan 2013. http://www.abc.net.au/tv/re-enchantment/

A multi-genre collection of tales, criticism, images, videos, interviews with scholars, writers and filmmakers.

Tatar, Maria. The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2003. Print.

Written by the editor of The Classic Fairy Tales, this goes into great detail about the Grimm’s stories.

Warner, Marina. From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers. London: Chatto & Windus, 1994. Print.

Approaches analysis of fairy tales from a contemporary feminist lens.

Zipes, Jack. Beauties, Beasts, and Enchantment: Classic French Fairy Tales. New York: New American Library, 1989. Print.

—. The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm : Texts, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001. Print.

—. When Dreams Came True: Classical Fairy Tales and Their Tradition. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.

Zipes is one of the big names in folk tale studies in the US – he is prolific and has written TONS of books on the various folk tales, fairy tales, adaptations, and revisions of these stories over time. We will read an essay by him, but he also has tons of books on the subject (these are just a few.)  He is an academic, but his texts tend to be pretty easy to read and follow.

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