Darrell J. Pursiful

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Children’s Literature: US vs. UK

Colleen Gillard has written a fascinating analysis of the many contrasts between British and American children’s literature for The Atlantic. Here is how the piece begins:

If Harry Potter and Huckleberry Finn were each to represent British versus American children’s literature, a curious dynamic would emerge: In a literary duel for the hearts and minds of children, one is a wizard-in-training at a boarding school in the Scottish Highlands, while the other is a barefoot boy drifting down the Mississippi, beset by con artists, slave hunters, and thieves. One defeats evil with a wand, the other takes to a raft to right a social wrong. Both orphans took over the world of English-language children’s literature, but their stories unfold in noticeably different ways.

The small island of Great Britain is an undisputed powerhouse of children’s bestsellers: The Wind in the Willows,Alice in Wonderland, Winnie-the-Pooh, Peter Pan, The Hobbit, James and the Giant Peach, Harry Potter, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Significantly, all are fantasies. Meanwhile, the United States, also a major player in the field of children’s classics, deals much less in magic. Stories like Little House in the Big Woods, The Call of the Wild, Charlotte’s Web, The Yearling, Little Women, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are more notable for their realistic portraits of day-to-day life in the towns and farmlands on the growing frontier. If British children gathered in the glow of the kitchen hearth to hear stories about magic swords and talking bears, American children sat at their mother’s knee listening to tales larded with moral messages about a world where life was hard, obedience emphasized, and Christian morality valued. Each style has its virtues, but the British approach undoubtedly yields the kinds of stories that appeal to the furthest reaches of children’s imagination.

Gillard goes on to explore some of the reasons behind this contrast. (Which, for her, mainly boils down to the British Isles being largely more comfortable with its pagan past.)

All in all, it’s a wonderful, thoughtful read, and I heartily commend it.


Early French Fairy Tales Were Feminist Propaganda? Sacré Bleu!

So says Elizabeth Winter in a post over at Wonders & Marvels:

How did largely disenfranchised women develop such a powerful genre and literary influence in this constricting period? One explanation is that early fairy tales were passed orally through families and were therefore widely accessible to individuals across gender and class. Even with less education than their male counterparts, women would have had equal knowledge of this common mythology. Women may even have had greater access to these stories, as females were typically associated with storytelling, likely because of their domestic and child-rearing duties allowing them to harness the tales and put them into print.

The imaginary and supernatural focus of the genre itself also provided women the opportunity to separate from the conditions of their everyday life. In the tales they could claim greater power and agency for themselves and their female characters. In magical fairy realms women, like the wealthy and powerful white cat-woman in d’Aulnoy’s La Chatte Blanche or Princess Felicity who rules an island that is impervious to man’s control in “L’Ile de la Félicité,” could at last hold social and political power.

Très intéressant!

Some Fairy Tales May Be Older than They Look

CNN has the details:

Read “Jack and the Beanstalk” to your kids this evening, and you are probably putting them in touch with human sentiments that are thousands of years old.

Same goes if you read them “Beauty and the Beast,” or maybe “Rumpelstiltskin.”

A new study has found that classic fairy tales may be “much older than previously believed,” one of the authors, Jamshid Tehrani of the UK’s Durham University, said Wednesday. Tehrani wrote the study with Sara Graca da Silva of the New University of Lisbon, in Portugal.

And here’s the abstract for “Comparative Phylogenetic Analyses Uncover the Ancient Roots of Indo-European Folktales“:

Ancient population expansions and dispersals often leave enduring signatures in the cultural traditions of their descendants, as well as in their genes and languages. The international folktale record has long been regarded as a rich context in which to explore these legacies. To date, investigations in this area have been complicated by a lack of historical data and the impact of more recent waves of diffusion. In this study, we introduce new methods for tackling these problems by applying comparative phylogenetic methods and autologistic modelling to analyse the relationships between folktales, population histories and geographical distances in Indo-European-speaking societies. We find strong correlations between the distributions of a number of folktales and phylogenetic, but not spatial, associations among populations that are consistent with vertical processes of cultural inheritance. Moreover, we show that these oral traditions probably originated long before the emergence of the literary record, and find evidence that one tale (‘The Smith and the Devil’) can be traced back to the Bronze Age. On a broader level, the kinds of stories told in ancestral societies can provide important insights into their culture, furnishing new perspectives on linguistic, genetic and archaeological reconstructions of human prehistory.

How Grimms’ Fairy Tales Changed

Hannah Keyser at mental_floss suggests five ways Grimms’ Fairy Tales changed after the first edition. Of particular interest to me (naturally) was how faeries in the first edition got recast:

In the first edition, the harbingers of magic were almost always fairies—unsurprising in the Fairytale genre. But during the time that the Grimms worked, the Napoleonic wars saw French occupation of much of German-speaking Europe. Somewhere along the line, they decided to stop using the French term “fairy”—or sometimes “faerie”—and instead replace each instance with some other vaguely mystical being. For example, in Rapunzal the fairy became a sorceress, and in Briar Rose, better known as Sleeping Beauty, the fairies are changed into wise women.

My guess is the brothers Grimm got a nasty visit from something that told them the word “faery” isn’t exactly PC.

The Wisdom of Fairy Tales

Humeira Kazmi at The Nation conducted an informal survey of parents and children about their opinions of fairy tales. Apparently, the little ones really are paying attention to those old stories, and it seems they’ve got them right.

My best comment came from an eight-year-old:

“Fairy tales are like lessons that tell us about what will happen in the real world so we don’t get lost or killed. Fairy tales use princesses and princes to tell you stuff that can help you guide through the real world. But it doesn’t have to be in a kingdom or a palace, like Little Red Riding Hood doesn’t have a princess but it tells you not to talk to strangers.”

You can’t beat that kind of wisdom.

It’s worth reading the whole thing.