As a father of two young boys, and someone who was himself a young boy in the distant past, I’ve been exposed to my fair share of fairy stories over the years. We have a box set of Ladybird fairy tales that has earned its price back many times over–some of which are the same tales, with the same illustrations, that I grew up with.

Now, I have no issue at all with the more gruesome aspects of these stories. Indeed, the idea of sending a young child to sleep with images of evil wolves eating old ladies alive amuses me no end. However, I do find myself wondering about the values that the stories are attempting to convey. There are various questionable themes that come up routinely: women falling in love with princes for no reason other than they’re rich and handsome; our supposedly sympathetic characters making promises, only to break them again by the end of the story. And so on.

Tonight we read Rumpelstiltskin, in which a woman agrees to marry a greedy king who has previously threatened to kill her three times, and who later goes all out to break a promise she made to the titular character. I have to say I feel sorry for Rumpelstiltskin (even if his name is bastard hard to spell): he offered his services in good faith, and got shafted. These are not exactly positive messages that I want my children to take on board. What are we saying here?

  • Lesson one: always marry someone who has expressed great enthusiasm for killing you;
  • Lesson two: definitely marry someone who is clearly only in it for the money;
  • Lesson three: if you make a promise that turns out to be a bit awkward later on, it’s just fine to weasel out of it.

This all makes me want to write some fresh versions of these tales. But it also makes me want to look deeper in the origins of the these stories, so I can understand why they were written, and how they’ve been reworked and remixed over the centuries.

Yeah, so, I’ll do that … one day …