There’s a parallel here with faerie tales. And a cautionary tale ...
We all know the stories recorded by the Grimm Brothers (German) and Aesop (Greek) and Hans Christian Andersen (Danish). We even know a few African and Japanese and Eastern European stories. But how many British faerie stories do you know? Ever heard of Cormoran the Giant? Or the Laidly Worm? Or Twm Sion Cati? Or the Fachan? Probably not. Yet these are all fantastic stories that rival any foreign import. And they’re all 100% British. So why don't we know them? Why do we know the foreign imports so much better?
It's all about our attitude to tradition. Grimm and the other writers mentioned above were not scared of change. They took stories that had been part of an oral tradition for hundreds of years and adapted them for their audiences. Then, having established a precedent, other authors came along and did the same thing; altering the stories to match their own audiences. Consequently, the stories evolved to match changes in society and, because of this, they survived. Little Red Riding Hood is a classic case in point. The story started life as a somewhat crude tale told by French peasants. It went something like this:
'A young girl meets a beast called Bzou on her way to Granny's house. Bzou beats her there and kills Granny, storing her flesh in the pantry and her blood in a bottle. Upon arrival, the girl unknowingly snacks on Granny, then performs a striptease before sliding naked into bed with Bzou. As the beast is about to eat her, the girl says she has to go to the bathroom. The beast lets her outside and asks, "Are you merding a load?" but the girl has already gotten away.'
Cannibalism. Child striptease. Defecation. And there are many academics who claim that the story carries a sinister warning about incest. Not exactly Disney material is it? However, it does reflect life in those far off times when life was cheap and children were often treated as objects to be sold, bartered, exploited and abused.
By 1697, when Charles Perrault recorded his version of the story, it had evolved into an allegorical tale intended as a warning to the loose ladies of Louis XIV's court. Our heroine is dressed in red (to identify her with 'scarlet women') and the beast has become a wolf with big arms that were 'the better to hug her' with. In other words, Perrault had made the story relevant to his 17th century audience – uneducated and naïve peasant girls engaged in the world’s oldest profession.
Then, in the nineteenth century, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm traded sex for violence and created a version of the story intended to scare kids into staying on the right path. Instead of big arms, the wolf now had big hands, 'the better to grab her' with. The Grimms also upheld the patriarchal standard of the day by introducing a positive male figure (the woodcutter) to rescue Little Red Riding Hood, as she was now called.
And the story has carried on evolving. Roald Dahl, in his Revolting Rhymes (Puffin Books 2001) has a very emancipated Red killing the wolf herself:
'The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers.
She whips a pistol from her knickers.
She aims it at the creature's head
And bang bang bang, she shoots him dead.'
Picture by me
Red Riding Hood shows us that the best and most popular stories change with time to suit the audience and the world in which they find themselves. There is a wonderful book by Brian Patten called The Story Giant (Harper Collins 2004) in which the giant in question takes a group of children around the world by way of traditional tales. When questioned about how stories can be ‘lost’ when they exist in books and libraries, the giant explains:
'Their meaning will be lost (…). The pleasure taken in them will be lost. If stories are left unchanged for centuries then the way they are written remains unchanged and they fall out of use through neglect. Stories must be shared if they are to stay alive'.
And that's what happened to our British faerie stories. With the exception of those that were popularised by Joseph Jacobs - and which now survive as pantomimes - most of our stories did fall out of use through neglect. Instead of being told and retold and adapted and changed, they were preserved and archived by 18th century folklorists who collected and stored them away for posterity. It's good that they were not lost ... but the desire to 'preserve' them has left them as dry and dusty as pinned moths in a display case. To all intents and purposes they are dead, which is why our kids don't know any of them. How sad is it that young Cornish kids all know Andersen's Little Mermaid but don't know about the Mermaid of Zennor? Isn't it tragic that kids know all about Pocahontas but have never heard of The Wise Men of Gotham?
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