While we want our children to believe that everyone is good, “children know they are not always good; and often when they are, they would prefer not to be”1. Stories of this type often contain coded messages about “civil behaviour, good sense, right and wrong and how to survive”2. The tales deal with real-life problems that occur for children for example a mother who wants to devour her daughter for being the fairest of them all. Though this departs from the norm of other children’s literature it seems that it may be closer to reality as Alison Lurie puts it, “the simple, pleasant adult society they had prepared us for did not exist.Order now
As we had suspected, the fairytales had been right all along – the world was full of hostile, stupid giants and perilous castles and people who abandoned their children in the nearest forest”3. Evil is also not without its attractions in fairytales as in life symbolized by the mighty giant or dragon, the power of the witch or the cunning queen in “snow white”. Bettleheim maintains that these fairytales give children more hope that even the meekest can succeed (e. g. puss in boots) rather than concentrating their full energy on subversion or didacticism like other tales.
To use Hansel and Gretel as a brief example of the encoded messages, which exist in fairytales, is quite apt. The child’s striving to hold onto their parents even though the time has come to face the world is emphasised, as well as the need to transcend a primitive orality, symbolized by the children’s infatuation with the gingerbread house. The tale offers hope to young girls dominated by older brothers, as it was indeed Gretel who came to the rescue. In the end the children return home victorious and as the saviours of the poor family with the treasures they have acquired.
They have defeated the most horrid of enemies, the witch, who burned to a cinder in her own oven. Victory for the meagre and hope for all those that see themselves in their shoes. This may not be particularly apparent to the child when they hear or indeed read the story but it will appeal to their sub-conscious. As German poet Schiller wrote “Deeper meaning resides in the fairytales told to me in my childhood than is in the truth taught by life” (The Piccolomini III).
There appears to be certain pieces of message-encoded children’s literature that simply doesn’t slot into a pigeonhole. A generation of empire builders may have found moral uplift in J. D. Wyss’s Swiss Family Robinson (1814), Captain Marryat’s Masterman Ready (1841) and RM Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (1857) which detailed their plucky heroes in all four corners of the globe. Victorian girls were catered for by stories such as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Woman (1868), which detailed domestic dramas.
Colin Mc Naughton’s Watch out for the Giant Killers (1992) and Jan Needle’s The Bogeymen (1992) are concerned with ecological awareness and anti-racism respectively and are framed in a time when this was big news. These are just but a few examples of such literature as there is no doubt many exist. This idea of message-encoded children’s literature is not a thing of the past by any stretch of the imagination. Granted many of the examples given are from past times but this is due to research that has been carried out.
The themes portrayed in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter are no less didactic than any of the tales, which emerged in the late eighteenth century. Indeed the morals which are readily given out by such protagonists as Captain Planet or He-man in their comics of the same name are equal to if not more moralistic than any of the past examples given. It is clear to see that since children’s literature became big business and perhaps even before this time it has been heavily laden with messages from the wider society but confined by words there has only been time for a mere taste.
It is by no coincidence that Bettleheim purports that a person’s favourite fairytale can reflect their life and their insecurities. This seems to throw the question of, are adults manipulating children manipulating children? , up for discussion. This literature is written, edited, published, selected and often read by adults so therefore they can make their children read whatever they want them to in a form of indoctrination if that is not too strong a word. As G. K. Chesterton was in doubt that “my first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in nursery”.
This would give the impression that adults have a lot if not too much power over what children are to learn and thus can mould them through this message encoded literature, some may say that children have the choice not to take notice of such messages but as their minds and attitudes are in the early stages of development I ask you, do they have a choice or through indoctrination, so to speak, will they succumb to what adults want?
Bibliography K. Thomas, “Children in Early Modern England” in Children and their books (ed. G Avery and J Briggs) (1989) F. Eyre, British Children’s Books in the Twentieth Century, (1971) J.Rose, The Case of Peter Pan: Or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction Prof J Morison, “Stories for Good Children” in Morison & Bell eds. Tall Stories? Reading Law & Literature (1996)
Maria Tatar, Off with their Heads: Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood (1992) Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups: Subversive Children’s Literature, (1990) Claudia Nelson, Boys will be Girls: The feminine Ethic and British Children’s Fiction 1857-1917, (1991) Bruno Bettleheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1978) 1 Maria Tatar, Off with their Heads: Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood (1992), p15.
2 Morison, “Stories for Good Children” in Morison & Bell eds. Tall Stories? Reading Law and Literature (1996) pp113-44 3 Maria Tatar, Off with their Heads: Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood (1992) 4 Illich (1973) Indeed, the law did not fully recognise different ages for criminal responsibility: Tudor criminal law permitted hanging for theft at the age of seven and this continued until the eighteenth century. There are even reports of a child of six who cried for his mother on the scaffold. 5 K.
Thomas, “Children in Early Modern England” in Children and their books (ed.G Avery and J Briggs) 1989 p45 6 Morison, “Stories for Good Children” in Morison & Bell eds. Tall Stories? Reading Law and Literature (1996), p126 7 Tatar (1992), p7 8 Tatar (1992), p16 9 Morison (1996), p126 10 Morison (1996), p127 11 Morison (1996), p127 12 Morison (1996), p128 13 Morison (1996), p128 14 Morison (1996), p130 15 Bruno Bettleheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1978) 16 Bettleheim (1978), p153 17 Morison (1996), p131 18 Morison (1996), p131 19 Morison (1996), p131 20 Morison (1996), p132 13219014 Criminology.