Prince Charming: 5 and a half things wrong with all fairytales

After a couple of years of single-word picture books and exhortations to find Spot (we still love finding Spot), we’re getting to a stage where Scarlett enjoys stories with more than four words per page; and that, owing to the current contents of our bookshelves, means fairytales. Now it’s no secret that some of those Grimm tales live up to their name, and some of the classic tales feature ugly deaths and medieval torture methods (look up what happens to Cinderella’s Ugly Sisters, Snow White’s stepmother and the Goose Girl’s handmaiden in their German variants, if you want to give yourself nightmares). But that’s not what I’m here to ponder today. I’m here to ponder some of the straight-up batshit elements of the stories, that have nothing to do with magic and everything to do with fairytale society apparently being completely insane. I mean, look:

A poor man steals salad from what turns out to be a witch’s garden. When caught, he says his wife is sick; the witch responds that the wife is in fact pregnant with the couple’s long-desired child. “You can take the salad but your child will be mine!” says the witch. A few months later, a baby girl is born; the witch appears, takes the baby and disappears AND EVERYONE IS OK WITH THIS. I mean, what? See me let someone else nick my baby after I’ve done all the pregnancy and labour. Did the couple not think to at least consult a solicitor? Did nobody try to physically prevent the snatching? Did everyone just say, “OK, fair cop, our baby girl lives with a witch now I guess?”

Time passes, and Rapunzel grows up to be a beautiful girl. Concerned that someone will steal the girl the witch locks her in a tower AND EVERYONE IS OK WITH THIS TOO. The whole hair-ladder thing seems perfectly sane after all this. Let the record state that this is not a society I want to live in.



Hansel and Gretel
Hansel and Gretel’s mother dies; their new stepmother tells their father “We can’t afford to keep the children, take them to the forest and leave them there”. The father goes along with this because infanticide is apparently an acceptable way to manage your home finances. The witch who lives in a gingerbread house and hopes to eat the children is really the least disturbing thing about this story. And while we’re on that, can anyone explain to me why cannibalism is supposed to be an appropriate topic for bedtime reading? Anyway, they kill the witch in her own oven. Sweet dreams.

Beauty and the Beast
Merchant loses fortune, sells daughter to Beast. Stockholm syndrome ensues.

For some absolutely unfathomable reason, a miller tells the King his daughter can spin straw into gold. The King locks the daughter in a tower and commands her to spin the straw into the gold by daybreak or lose her life, because inability to affect alchemy is in this world a capital offence. Fortunately the local imp has spindle-based alchemy as a superpower. He spins the straw into gold in exchange for the girl’s first child, AND EVERYONE IS OK WITH THIS because obviously the same local laws apply as for Rapunzel. Were children often used as legal tender in the olden days? Research needed.

Anyway, having made this deal the miller’s daughter totally reneges on it and gets her child back and I suppose we’re meant to think of this as a happy ending although really Rumplestiltskin fully holds up his end of the bargain with all the gold spinning and looks much more like the wronged party than the bad guy if you think about it. The execution-happy King gets to keep the girl and the gold. For shame.

Goldilocks and the Three Bears
Goldilocks was walking in the forest one day when she came upon a sweet little house, so she decided to break and enter, damage property, and steal baby bear’s porridge for good measure. Poor baby bear! Justice (and the ursine nature of Goldie’s inadvertent hosts) would suggest this is the one story in which a sticky end is on some level appropriate; but no, she runs away and again this is nominally a happy ending. Psh, what kind of a moral is that? #justiceforbabybear

The Ugly Duckling
All the farmyard animals are really rude. Spoiler: it’s a swan.

Do you huff and puff over bedtime tales? Should Little Red Riding Hood perhaps not be wandering unsupervised through the deep dark wood? Is laying golden eggs zoologically advisable? Should Snow White ask the seven goddamn dwarves to pick up after themselves for a goddamn change? Let us know on the back of a glass slipper, or in the comments below.

7 thoughts on “Prince Charming: 5 and a half things wrong with all fairytales

  1. We have the M&S First Reader versions of these fairy stories and I am eternally outraged. Goldilocks especially surprises, as the message is “Girl vandalises nice family home, faces no consequences”. And the one about the elves and the shoemaker is really just pro-slavery propaganda (“Elves do man’s work for free, he becomes fabulously wealthy, he rewards them with clothing they could as easily have made for themselves”).

    Good books with a more positive message which prove popular with Ursula so far include The Worst Princess, Rosie Revere (Engineer) and Chris Haughton’s entire oeuvre. I’m hesitant to buy into anything quite as purposeful as Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, though.

    • When she’s old enough, Scarlett will definitely be introduced to Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes. He had some thoughts about Goldilocks, too. She really is the worst, isn’t she?

    • I highly recommend Jons both Scieszka and Klassen for subversive funs. Scieszka’s The Stinky Cheese Man is well nigh impossible to read aloud but huge amounts of fun, as is his Aesop-inspired Squids Will Be Squids – and Klassen’s Hat series is a joy (though Ramona was inexplicably terrified of I Want My Hat Back for about 6 months).

      • I am liking all these recommendations! At the moment Scarlett is getting a new redaction of the classic tales that folklorists will be fascinated to discover in the ages to come.

  2. Suggest updating to about the ’70s with the Giant Jam Sandwich (OK it’s a bit hard on the wasps) and Where the Wild Things Are. All other Maurice Sendak books are thoroughly weird though (as opposed to fairly weird).

    The Hat series is quite grim for those old enough to read between the lines, but I wouldn’t have thought at S’s age.

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