Cautionary tales were once a fundamental part of children’s literature and instilled fear by demonstrating the hazardous consequences caused by reckless choices. The stories served as didactic warnings for young readers about particular taboos located in a child’s social and physical environments. Characters in these narratives ignored any forewarnings and often met with a grisly and violent end. In early children’s literature, the Grimm Brothers and Charles Perrault’ stories contained numerous cautionary tales, collected from European oral traditions, that we are familiar with today. Film companies and authors (even the Grimm Brothers are guilty of this) have sanitized many versions of these works, but stories like “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Hansel and Gretel” still maintain their original undertones by warning children traveling alone of the dangers and strangers lurking outside the safe space of home.
Lesser known works continue to influence contemporary authors like Edward Gorey and Neil Gaiman, who seek to recapture the element of fear children experience when the adult is absent. Heinrich Hoffmann’s Der Struwwelpeter, a German children’s book, contributed to the pioneering effort of combining narratives with illustrations. This collection of cautionary tales, intended for 3-6 year olds, visualized domesticated dangers for emerging readers. But, if a parent were to give their child this book today, society would issue a resounding gasp of disapproval.
In “The Dreadful Story About Harriet and the Matches” a little girl disregards the advice by the “pussy-cats” to not play with fire. Harriet’s dress goes up in flames and she is reduced to a mound of ashes “except for her little scarlet shoes”. This scene satirizes the unfortunate incident by using an illustration of two cats weeping “tears so fast; they made a little pond at last.” While Der Struwwelpeter’s pictures may be considered a gruesome exaggeration of the “what if” scenario, it doesn’t detract from the reality that this fear still exists today. Matches might be a thing of the past, but there are other ways in which fire presents itself as a very real hazard to young children. The question then becomes, should we still employ these cautionary tales as a method of teaching children? Or have we become to anxiety ridden about teaching fear to our children?
First let me say, that fear, or rather, how we should introduce fearful elements in children’s literature or film has becomes a controversial subject. For example, I was recently instructed by a first grade teacher that my daughter needed to withhold discussing her fascination with vampires, bats and deadwood trees with other classmates because it was scaring them. I scoffed at the suggestion, particularly since we are in the midst of the Halloween season, but was mainly appalled that we should ask any child to suppress their imagination. My daughter’s whimsical dream of turning into a flying bat should be considered normal for any child her age. Her obsession doesn’t extend towards the bloody and violent aspects of horror, but the supernatural and transformative elements. Do we ask other young girls to stop talking about fairies or boys to cease drawing dragons? These might be trivial examples, but the underlying meaning to the teacher’s request remained alarmingly clear: your daughter has a strange, unhealthy obsession with something we systematically disapprove of and we think any fear she might be causing in other children is harmful. Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated incident, many parents across the country have heard of children being warned to keep this “scary” imagery out of school. And our book publishing and other entertainment industries are complicit with this new “fearful” school of thought.
The “strange child” is typecast into our culture as something we should be weary of, something to fear. Netflix’s Stranger Things deals with this taboo of the “strange child” and the childish fear of monsters, which turn out to be real in the show. Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times points out how this fearful experience also highlights “the transformative powers of love and fealty.” Researchers have shown that when children read the un-sanitized fairy tales, the elements at work “provide concrete images of villains and monsters on which to project undirected anxieties and fears so they might be contained and dispatched, [help] to facilitate psychic integration, and to assure the child of the possibility of happy endings when the trials are overcome." Essentially, literature can teach children how to face and process fear. But, if we attempt to remove the symbols of fear from the childhood experience, are we creating some other kind of monster?
Which bring us back to this question, is there still a place for the cautionary tale in children's literature?
We will reveal the answer in the second part of our exploration and more at midnight on All Hallow's Eve! Stay tuned!