Tag Archives: fairy stories

Breaking the Mother Goose Code

I did not really expect to be convinced by Jerri Studebaker’s book about finding signs of ancient Goddess worship in fairy tales. I’m just not the sort of person who is easily persuaded by much, and the sleight of hand history of Dr Anne Ross, and the chicanery of Robert Graves have left me resistant, to say the least. I’m very wary of circular logic, too. Go out looking for evidence of sacrifice and you’ll see it any time there’s a dead person. Go out looking for Goddess survivals and you can all too easily infer them into anything with breasts.

I ended up persuaded to a degree that surprised me.

What makes this book such an interesting and provocative read isn’t, I thought, the main thrust at all. It’s the details. The histories of where nursery stories have come from and how they’ve changed over time. The correlations between fairy stories and other major cultural shifts. I’d not thought before about the way in which many fairy stories are really at odds with Christian stories. I was, I confess, too busy being cross about the princesses. But now I have reasons to rethink those, as well.

The historical correlations Jeri Studebaker brings together in her book are intriguing. There are many unanswered mysteries here, that will leave you wondering. She has evidence for the political use of the fairy story as a way of making commentary, and the literary place for the fairy tale in Europe as well. That’s without getting into the issues of goose footed women, egg laying, and shamanism. Oh, and magic spells. And how we might envisage a non-patriarchal world. I love this book because the author is cautious about her claims, and keen to remind us when she is speculating and the limits of what the evidence can support. Speculation is so much more enjoyable when we hold our uncertainties with such honour, I think.

At this point, whether or not Mother Goose is really, historically and provably a goddess survival seems a lot less important than what we try to do with her stories, and other such stories, moving forward. It is in the nature of stories to change and evolve over time, being re-imagined to fit the new context. Stories that survive are often stories that can be adapted, or that give us powerful archetypes to work with. So the question to ask may really be, how do we want to work with those archetypes in the first place? What stories do we want to tell, and why? Do we understand the implications of the stories we are sharing?

For me, the book raised another question as well. (Bear in mind here that I am a maybeist, not a theist nor an atheist.) If religion is imagined into existence by people, as well it might be, then to connect with the religions of our ancestors we need their stories, or whatever fragments survive. Take away its stories and Christianity ceases to exist. If religion is based on the experience of living, then through shared experiences, we can come to similar conclusions as our ancestors did. If we reverence the things life depends on, then we can find our way to the importance of the mother, the goose, the eggs and all the other ideas about life fairy tales can carry. If the deities are independently real and active, then of course things that look like them will keep turning up in people’s stories and ideas, for all the same reasons that they turned up in the first place – because they are offered to us by the divine as inspiration.

I don’t know. I still don’t know. I’m fine with this, and I enjoy books like this one that are able to challenge my carefully chosen uncertainty.

More about the book here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/breaking-mother-goose-code


Scaring small children

It used to be the case that fairy stories were dark and alarming things in which small children who did bloody stupid things could expect to be eaten by wolves, bears, witches and so forth. Yes, said the fairy stories, the world is a dangerous place full of things whose motives are different to yours, things that are hungry, grouchy things with pointy teeth. Go carefully, children. And it was a fair point, because death in childhood used to be really normal.

In the last hundred years or so, child mortality in the west has plummeted, and I suspect in response to this, fairy stories have become gentler. It’s ok kids, happily ever after awaits, with a handsome treasure and the frog of your choice. Interested in writing for small children, I’ve looked at what many of them are fed – brightly coloured, stylised creations with no bearing on reality. Stories in which nothing much happens, and nobody dies. Cute fluffy animals doing cute fluffy things.

Back when I was the parent of a young child, I cheated. We didn’t do unbearable fluff for bedtime. I took a leaf out of my father’s book. When I was about three, my Dad read me The Hobbit, and on we went from there. So I read my small son the entire Dark Materials trilogy, and anything else I thought would be interesting. He fell asleep during reads on a regular basis, cannot have had more than a passing grasp of the plot, but he loved Lyra and armoured bears, and all that came after. Now at 11, I have an emotionally well-adjusted child with a realistic understanding of how the world is, and a penchant for books. Right now, he’s reading Jekyll and Hyde.

The world is a scary place for small children, and always will be. There’s so much that makes no sense, and that cannot be explained to you. I remember being four and wanting to know what death meant and what happened afterwards, and no one could help me there. Many parents just won’t discuss sex, death, why strangers are a danger, what actually happens if you put your hand on the iron, and all those other things that regularly feature in your life as ‘stop’ ‘don’t’ and a grownup screaming at you. “You don’t need to worry about that,” is such a common solution to the alarm of small children. But the thing is, some of them do keep worrying.

I firmly believe that scary stories are good for small children. I’m not talking about traumatising them, but a bit of manageable alarm, a bit of feasible unnerving. It creates a safe space in which you can get fear out into the open. Name it, own it, understand it a bit. And don’t tidy it up with just stories that resolve into nothing to be afraid of after all. The world is a scary place, death and suffering are real. Small children are not stupid, and lying to them really doesn’t help. A child who is exposed to a few darker faerie stories is much better equipped than one who only gets princesses in frothy dresses.

We forget, as adults, that children don’t have as much empathy. They often enjoy violence and gruesome details, in part because it’s all a little bit unreal to them. Think about Tom and Jerry cartoons. I remember howling with mirth at those as a kid, while revisits as an adult have left me wondering what on earth amused me… just as my own child howls in laughter. Talking to teachers, I’ve very much had this impression confirmed – many kids like gory stuff. Horrible history sells.

It’s all about scares that you can live with. Learning to cope with being scared makes the world a more manageable place. It’s the same impulse that sends teenagers off in search of horror films where teenagers are eaten by monsters. I don’t have any of that for you today. What I do have is http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/baronmind/lil-eddie-edgar-allan-poe-for-kids A board book version of The Fall of the House of Usher, in which mildly alarming things happen and small children get a viable introduction to Poe. It may also be a sanity saver for parents who can’t take any more cute fluffy animals, or singing furniture and whose eyes are weary from an excess of bright colours. If you need a giggle, watch the video.

Deconstructing Fairy Tales

Bringing you more insights and re-thinkings of familiar fairy stories, in the form of this guest post by author Judith O’Grady

Chance made me look at another classic children’s tale, when I read about shape shifting magic, Fith-Fath (pronounced fee-fah), in Celtic cultures on a friend’s blog. The similarity to what the Giant says in ‘Jack the Giant Killer’

(Fe, Fi, Fo, Fum,
I smell the blood of an Englishman,
Be he alive or be he dead,
I will have his bones for bread!)

suggested the association, and when I looked into it I discovered that the story purportedly originates in Cornwall. I read both Cornish and British versions, and was again struck by what I had perceived as a child– Jack is a thief and murderer. He is both unsuccessful and inept in the beginning and initially it seems that he is taken advantage of by some pixy trickster when he trades his only cow for a handful of beans but actually they ARE magic beans and DO lead up into the cloud-land where the Giant has his castle.

We must examine the Celtic perception of ‘giant’ to begin with; in the lore, many of the first-dwellers are described as ‘giants’ by the in-comers/invaders. But they subsequently have mixed children, so the wild people who were there to start can’t actually be gigantic; I have assumed that ‘giant’ does not mean ‘many times my size’ in the stories but ‘primitive’ or ‘with a different culture’. Like Goldilocks calling the poor folk ‘bears’ in the first story. This makes the Giant Cornish and Jack a newcomer. Jack’s luck turns when he climbs the beanstalk and systematically plunders what he finds there. He sees the Giant’s castle, sneaks in, and discovers the Giant’s gold. Without any pang of conscience (in any of the various versions) he steals the gold and hot-foots it back down the beanstalk.

So he has taken the ‘native’s’ money. Once that is spent (or in some versions as he or his grasping mother are swept by greed) he goes back and steals the Giant’s treasured possessions. Now the Giant has lost savings and heritage possessions. Not content, Jack goes back and steals the singing harp, which could be typified as the native culture. The Harp, however, defends herself and cries out to the Giant as Jack races away. To save himself Jack chops down the beanstalk while the Giant is climbing down, kills him, and lives happily ever after. In one of the British versions, the tricky pixie returns and hails Jack as a liberator, rescuing the countryside from the Giant’s oppression.

So what is the moral? Culture fights back when stolen.

Judith O’Grady is the author of ‘God Speaking’ which you can find here – http://www.amazon.com/Pagan-Portals-God-Speaking-Judith-OGrady/dp/1780992815/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1370088049&sr=8-1&keywords=god+speaking+judith+o%27grady

Deconstructing fairy tales

This is Judith O’Grady’s second blog post, pondering what lies beneath the surface of certain well known fairy stories… (the first one is here)

Goldilocks construed as Cruel Lady of the Manor versus the Irish Peasant Bears got me thinking. How does this work with other classic children’s stories?

In Ancient Ireland the legal system was Brehon Law, different from the Norman Law that replaced it. Simply put Brehon Law is a top-down system– rulers are responsible for the well-being of the people under them and can be deposed by those people if they are dissatisfied. In Norman Law rulers inherit by birth and birth order and the people under them owe them fealty– responsibilities and goods.

A mark of wealth was having a horse (requiring a special diet and housing) and the indication of status was cows (land was measured as ‘grass for __ cows’). Poor people had donkeys (satisfied with whatever grew on the road verge) and pigs (living on leftovers and what they could root up in the woods). So the common man could be typified as a pig, living in a round wattle-and-daub house made of basket-weave sticks plastered with a mud-and-straw mixture and topped with thatch.

Back then wolves were not endangered and were not anthropomorphized as caring parents, skilled team players, and brave warriors but as dangerous predators of precious domestic animals and killers of flocks. Sort of a Bogey-Wolf; the epitomization of hard times.

The Bogey-Wolf might come to the door of your house of straw as sickness, loss of crop or animals, or trouble in your extended family. You would try to defy him, but if he huffed and puffed your house (none too strong to start) would disintegrate. You would go to your neighbour and he would let your family into his house of sticks. But if the Bogey- Wolf was plague, famine, or reavers he would be in the same case as yourself and his house would be huffed apart as well. In the classic story the pig with foresight has taken the trouble to build a house of stone and (chastising you both for shortsightedness) he grudgingly allows you into his sturdy house as poor relations.

Using the Irish Brehon Law template, however, the chief (who lives in the stone house) has a responsibility towards the rest of the tribe. He brings all his people in, puts your flocks in the courtyard, and shares the stored crops around. In the terms of the story, his roof (made of slate) cannot be jumped through like thatch, his walls are secure, and he lights a big fire to make up a pot of surplus-food soup and burns up the Bogey-Wolf when he tries to creep down the chimney. Suddenly the story is about sharing rather than planning for the future.

Judith Grady is the author of God Speaking, which you can find here… http://www.amazon.com/Pagan-Portals-God-Speaking-Judith-OGrady/dp/1780992815/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1369479738&sr=8-1&keywords=God+Speaking+Judith+O%27Grady