by Marta Oko-Riebau, MA
“Fairy tales to me are never happy, sweet stories. They’re moral stories about overcoming the dark side and the bad.” – Joe Wright
As a young child I used to love to hear dark stories. Happy, simple plots could only hold my attention and interest for a limited time, but the sad or scary ones stuck with me for hours, days, or even years after hearing them. My sister and I had a collection of beautifully illustrated books with stories that I adored. It was mostly fairy tales written by brothers Grimm and Andersen, completely “uncensored” with their rough and dark plots. In those stories, the Little Mermaid dies of sorrow (turns into sea foam) after she is rejected by the love of her life and Little Red Riding Hood gets eaten by the evil wolf because she did not use caution. Cinderella is verbally and emotionally abused by her cruel stepmother and the lonely Little Match Girl freezes to death dreaming of a better world while not having a place in the real one. Snow White does not have anyone close and dear to her in the world and little Kai gets deceived by the beautiful, but evil, Snow Queen and changes from a kind and loving boy into a mean and cruel person. Hansel and Gretel, lost and alone in a forest, trust the wrong person and are forced to take a life in order to survive.
Nowadays, the stories that I, and many generations before me, grew up with may seem too dark, cruel, and depressing to even consider them as appropriate children’s stories. Many parents today choose safe, sunny, happy stories that seemingly protect their children from the scary and sad aspects of life. When I think about the stories I grew up with, aside from their scary factor, they taught us a lot about the world and human nature. The world is not always as safe and predictable as it seems in many “sugar coated” children stories, and people (even adults!) don’t always make the right decisions. The world depicted in the old fairy tales is far from being black or white. The good coexists with the evil, wisdom with ignorance, courage with cowardice, and joy with misery. Sometime the same people can chose to do good things, sometimes bad (like Hansel’s and Gretel’s dad who first agrees to get rid of his kids and then regrets his selfish decision). The “old school” stories created an opportunity for children to better understand the complexity of the world and allowed a space to ask some difficult questions.
Why was Cinderella’s stepmother so cruel to her? Why did the prince choose the other woman, and not the beautiful, committed and loyal mermaid? Why was there no one to help the little Match Girl when she was freezing to death? Why was the queen so narcissistic and insecure that she felt threatened by the good and kind Snow White? Why would Hansel and Gretel’s father allow his wife to abandon them in the forest? These and many other questions that children may ask while reading such stories of morality can be a great opportunity for parents to explain complex human nature and complicated life circumstances. During such conversations parents can explain that adults are not always good, and certainly not always right, that sometimes people hurt each other and you cannot trust everyone, and that sometimes even if you love someone very, very much you may get rejected by them.
Of course I cannot deny that there was a price that I paid as a child for being exposed to these fairy tales – the occasional nightmare filled with evil wolves and witches. But that never weakened my passion for sad and/or scary stories. Even today I prefer complex psychological dramas to comedies. I believe that dramas, like the fairy tales of old, represent the complex reality of life, don’t always have a happy ending, but contain a higher moral, whereas comedies tend to simplify reality for the sake of a laugh. As adults we can regulate our moods much better than children, so I understand that many parents want to protect their children from the material that may seem too heavy for their age. I certainly don’t recommend reading brothers Grimm stories to all children. Parents should use their own wisdom, knowledge, and instinct and they should take their child’s age, maturity, and psychological well-being into consideration when choosing books for them. But I do believe that including some of the classic fairy tales in their original form into the child’s library may be a good way to introduce certain difficult subjects into their life. With parental presence and willingness to answer some difficult questions, those stories may become excellent tools in exploring the complexities of life and human nature.
Marta Oko-Riebau, MA is a therapist who specializes in counseling individuals and couples struggling with relational issues. Marta also works with clients who are Immigrants and who are searching for their cultural identity, as well as intercultural couples. In addition to her private practice in Glendale, Marta is a ProBono Therapist at Maria Droste Counseling Center.