Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Death of the fairy tale?

In trying to apply a lecture about style and tone in class yesterday (about how the two are connected and how they can take a paper above the average mark and make it really interesting without the student trying to put on a false academic voice if only the mechanics and grammar are sound and the style and tone applicable and consistent and the overall piece interesting), I instructed my students to rewrite Little Red Riding Hood in their own voices, but guess what. They didn't know the story.

Let me say that again: none of my students knew the story of Little Red Riding Hood.

I was amazed. Have people stopped telling fairy tales? Are they considered inappropriate? Do people just not have time? Have they gotten unpopular for some reason? Is this part of the world so saturated with stories and versions of stories in so many forms of media that the fairy tale is fading? Will it come back? Aren't they still doing remakes of these stories? Was my class just a special case? Do I just think fairy tales are important because I study stories told to kids? Or is it because my dad told me fairy tales most every night before bed? Little Red and the wolf and the three bears and Goldilocks and the three billy goats and the troll were well known to me as a child and as scary then as now. Why do I suddenly feel frantic about keeping them alive? Why does it matter? Will some connection between us and the past and the future be lost with the trolls and the beasts and the witches?

I decided the best thing to do would be to tell my class Little Red's story before it died out completely, but when I finished, they were appalled. Kids and grannies getting eaten and wolves getting slashed open by huntsmen?! (I got the Grimm version growing up. And--how is this so appalling compared to what's available now?) I had to break it to them about Disney, and I told them they might benefit from reading different versions, and that part of the magic of the fairy tale is that it grows and changes but remains recognizable (but only if it remains at all!)...and I would have said about how it crosses cultures and possible reasons why and whatever else I could remember from my very limited experience and training, but they were all so taken aback, I gave up.

I don't even like fairy tales, but I think I care because most of them don't belong to anyone or they belong to everyone and because their survival seriously says something about humans and their death would say something entirely different. Maybe I have a little nostalgia over them too, but it's the open interpretation and the mystery and the longevity and the wildness and weirdness and unmassproducedness that it seems a shame to lose. What is being created now, in this age of ownership, that's like a fairy tale? And perhaps even more worrisome--what will our folklore be? What do we have to pass down that isn't sameness after sameness?

This blogger needs to get herself out of the suburbs and into the woods before all hope seems lost. Even if there are wolves waiting behind every tree.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham