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The following essay will appear as an Appendix to the sequel of my fantasy novel, Her Unwelcome Inheritance, which is internationally available in paperback and digital formats from all major online booksellers.


On the Supposed Unsuitability of Fairytales for Children

Shortly after supporting a local library event promoting fairytale literature, the folklore department at Lightfoot College received an animated communication from a very concerned mother regarding, in short, the "unsuitability of fairytales for children."  

As this seems to be a rather widespread idea (I might mention the Daily Telegraph article of February 12, 2012) as well as an oddly long-lived one, I take the liberty of public response.



Dear Madame,

Though you may be unaware of it, your email represents sentiments that have been argued ever since people first began to collect folklore into written volumes. As soon as the stories were set down in writing, they became frozen and lost that greatest attribute of oral storytelling: the ability of the storyteller to adapt the story to her audience. Consequently some writers, including such visionaries as Charles Perrault and Andrew Lang, have contended for permanently revising some or all fairytales to make them "more suitable" for children.  

Additionally there have been, and continue to be, modernists who consider fairytales to be too "unrealistic" or nonsensical, and who have proposed or written new stories to replace them. These new stories take their settings and characters from contemporary, everyday adult life and communicate whatever values and ideas their authors believe are particularly suitable to the times.

Others - J. R. R. Tolkien and child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, for example - have disagreed with this approach. I will attempt to explain why I myself agree with the latter, and not the former. I have two primary objections.

Firstly, it seems to me that those who claim to be revising or producing stories "more suitable" to children than the old fairytales are really succeeding only in making stories more acceptable to the adults of the time, with their particular conceptions of what childhood is, or ought to be.  And this seems a bit presumptuous. It ignores the reality that those adults (especially in the early days of the movement) were themselves - as well as their parents, and their parents, and every generation preceding - raised, as children, on the very same types of folklore they now propose, in their solitary wisdom, to "improve."

Even Christians, Madame - with whom you identified yourself in your email, and among whom I hope to be numbered as well - even Christians throughout the whole world have been, for centuries, brought up on the old "pagan" folklore, without any detriment to their religion; or, if there has been a detriment, it is one that you and I and all who believe with us have inherited.

The whole contemporary world has been founded on a more or less common folklore. Popular stories disseminated just as thoroughly - though not as quickly - in the ancient world as they do in the modern.  

(It is probable, for example, that the "French" story familiar to us as "Cinderella" originated in Southeast Asia. The tale we know as "Beauty and the Beast" evolved from retellings of the Greek myth about Eros and Psyche, which was probably based on older works in its turn. Both the Jews and the Tibetans tell of the Tower of Babel, or a building project quite like it. Etc.)

Therefore we must ask: What right or standard have we to criticize or reject these stories?

If the movement you represent, Madame, should ever gain the velocity necessary to escape the gravity of the old folklore, what kind of people should we expect to become?

You might justly respond, to my second question, "I don't know," and still say, to the first, "the right of a mother who knows her own children, and what is best for them."  

Very well; to that assertion I can make no objection. But I ask you to observe, Madame, that you cannot by that argument make any prescriptions regarding the suitability of fairytales for anyone else's children. And I direct you to my second point.

It seems to me that the fairytale-content which provokes, in some, the desire to revise or eliminate, is a matter of the details of the stories, rather than their essential structures or themes. It is, in other words, the witches and monsters, the magic and the violence, and the most whimsical or least "natural" elements that spark the controversy, and not what the stories are actually about - not, that is to say, the essential themes or messages communicated by folklore.

For these are the messages of the old fairytales:

    *Sorrow is real, and so is joy

    *Joy is freely available to all, just as sorrow comes freely to all, whether rich or poor, and without regard to changes in material fortune

    *The world is fraught with danger, including life-threatening danger, but by being clever (always), honest (as a rule, but with common-sense exceptions), courteous (especially to the elderly, no matter their apparent social station), and kind (to anyone who has obvious need), even a child can succeed where those who seem more qualified have failed.


I do not have any children of my own; therefore what I am about to say may be hopelessly naïve, and if so I beg you to excuse it, and me, and leave my ideas out of the discussion on those grounds. But at least until the revelation of fatherhood I expect to hold the view I am about to state. Namely:

The messages of these old fairytales are precisely those that children most need to hear.

Is it not so? Ought not children be affirmed in the deepest feelings they, along with all people, experience about life?  

Ought they not be taught that material disparity exists, that fortunes do change for better and for worse, and that wealth cannot shield us from knowing sorrow any more than poverty hold us back from realizing joy - in other words, that possessions are not what matters most?  

Would we not be doing a disservice to them, as well as to society, to let them go on believing that the world is safe; that they will be provided for and achieve worthwhile things even if they should remain stupid, shirk integrity, and ignore courtesy, acting only in self-interest; that they should rely on those stronger, smarter, and more able than themselves to solve their problems?

It is not the details, the fiction, of the stories that really matter; it is the stories themselves. Nobody that I know of has expressed this idea more elegantly than Neil Gaiman, in his paraphrase of G. K. Chesterton: "fairytales are better than true; not because they tell us that dragons are real, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten."  

What better message for a child to understand from her youth? What better medium than a story?

If you can change, or re-write, all of the details of objectionable stories while preserving their essential themes, well and good. Hans Christian Anderson did both very well. But if not - best not throw out that bathwater just yet. 

The story is told by means of its details, and the story should be preserved. There may well be devils in the details (in some stories there most definitely are); but we are told there are devils in the world too, walking about seeking to devour the unwary, and we may certainly hope our children will not be discovered in that group.

Therefore we come to folklore monsters and fairytale violence, which some suggest children should be sheltered from. I do not disagree that stories, and what they contain, should be revealed with discretion. Some stories are beyond the proper grasp of tiny hands, just as some books are above their reading level. But I don't believe that children should never be afraid.

Of course it's very inconvenient for parents when their child develops an irrational fear of the dark or of the bedroom closet. That struggle, to exert rationality against unwarranted instinct, unfounded imagination, and overblown emotion, lasts long into adulthood. To act on what we know, when what we know is contrary to how we feel, can be just as difficult for adults as for children; but such discipline, at the very core of what it is to be human, must be learned, and somebody must guide children to learn it.  If we never knew fear, we have never learned to be brave in order to do what is right - and what better thing to practice and hone bravery against than an imaginary monster, in the closet or under the bed, before we are confronted by a real one?

There are other lessons, lost lessons, that might have been communicated to us through the common wisdom of past peoples, had we not given in to this instinct to revise and censor their stories. For example:

I can't help but wonder whether, if children grew up being told how Cinderella's evil stepsisters cut off their big toes and heels in order to fit their feet into the glass slipper in an attempt to deceive the prince's herald (effectively trying to look like somebody else in order to become somebody else, through dishonest and self-destructive means), we would have such an epidemic of eating disorders and self-harm.  

I can't help but wonder whether, if entire generations had not forgotten the story of how "simpletons" - somebody who thought differently than everyone else, someone whose accomplishments were not easily measured by normalized standards - gained their fortunes through unusual means or by heeding shrewd advice (one even became the crown prince through a cleverly-performed, out-of-the-box comedy act that cheered up a depressed princess), we might not have gotten ourselves into our current factory-inspired, standardized-test-driven educational mess.

Once upon a time, there was a saying: "it takes a village to raise a child." Whether that was considered so because a well-rounded child needs a diversity of perspectives to grow by, or because parenting is simply too big a job for one or two people to undertake alone, or both, you may take your pick. The fact remains that the old fairytales are the child-rearing stories rigorously selected and rigorously polished by the commonsense and everyday wisdom of a thousand thousand villages in a thousand thousand nations over a thousand thousand years.

So let us have done, Madame, with this silly notion that my fairytales are unsuitable for your children - as if it were the children who have stood the test of centuries, and need no proving. Say rather, if you must, that your children are unsuitable for my fairytales, and pray do not leave them in that sorry state for long.


Sincerely,
J. Aleksandr Wootton
This essay will appear as an Appendix in the sequel to my new fantasy novel, Her Unwelcome Inheritance, which is internationally available in paperback and digital formats from all major online booksellers.

All the details about the book, including links, etc. are available here.
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Daily Deviation

Given 2013-01-13
~MrWootton offers a well-structured opinion on the Unsuitability of Fairytales for Children. ( Featured by neurotype )
:iconchibimita:
Chibimita Featured By Owner Edited Oct 17, 2014  Student General Artist
That was the most sophicated, and polite way to tell people off I have seen in my life so far. I like your way of speaking, with "Madame". It sounds as if you come from a older time.

I had been wondering about it a few times, espesially after I found out how grim the "original" fairytales (and when I say original, it is probably based on something older before it.") were compared to the Disneyfied ones. (Sleeping Beauty was based on rather squicky tale.) tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php… Tv Tropes explains and discuss this.

And it made me wonder about exactly that. Should we sugarcoath our fairytales and edit out the details that might be horrofying for a child to hear?  Would the child have turned different if it had read the original fairytale first instead of the edited ones? For the better or worse? I think it depends on the child and what it need to hear and learn in this life.

Sometimes I think it will make us grow up faster and armour us for the world we live in.
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:iconmrwootton:
MrWootton Featured By Owner Oct 27, 2014  Professional Writer
Thank you!

I think you're exactly right - it depends on the child. In the youngest, the most important thing is to share stories that inspire developing imagination and create an appetite for reading.
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:icondarkgrievous7945:
DarkGrievous7945 Featured By Owner Oct 17, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Not gonna even argue
I have no argument in mind
Some of these topics and questions I never even considered myself

Brilliant work!
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:iconleonca:
Leonca Featured By Owner Sep 21, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist

Fascinating. I’ve heard about the controversy over some classics, like the school bans on Huckleberry Finn for being “un-PC”, but I didn’t know things had gotten so out of control with fairytales. I grew up reading many of the old versions of stories to myself, as well as myths from other cultures. My favorite children’s book is a Chinese version of Little Red Riding Hood, Lon Po Po, which features imagery I still find surreal and disturbing to this day. I would read it to my kids if I had any. =D

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:iconmrwootton:
MrWootton Featured By Owner Sep 23, 2013  Professional Writer
I suspect the censorious attitude is endemic. Name an aspect of culture, and I bet you can find people so averse that they'll use children as human shields in their arguments against it.


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:icondamonwakes:
DamonWakes Featured By Owner Feb 28, 2013   Writer
This is the best non-fiction piece I've read for a long time. It's good to see Perrault getting a mention here, particularly with regard to him toning down fairy tales. Also a good point about the oral tales being adapted for their audience from telling to telling. It sounds silly, but I'd never really considered that: I'd just assumed that children would have heard the adult versions like everybody else.
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:iconmrwootton:
MrWootton Featured By Owner Mar 1, 2013  Professional Writer
Thank you very much!!
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:iconel-thorvaldo:
El-Thorvaldo Featured By Owner Feb 12, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Ah yes, I vaguely recall a spontaneous interest in "fairy-tale debate" a couple of years ago. I read an editorial similar to this, but nowhere near as in-depth in its analysis. Everything I would say has already been stated by others, and better, so I'll simply add that given we've been passing these stories down through centuries and successive generations haven't been totally paralyzed with terror, I think it's safe to say the concern is at least partly overblown. :p

On the subject of fables more appropriate for a contemporary audience, perhaps Madame would like to sample this collection of updated nursery rhymes? Personally, I find the modern environment depicted therein to be much more worrisome than anything the Grimms wrote, but to each his (or her) own.
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:iconmrwootton:
MrWootton Featured By Owner Feb 26, 2013  Professional Writer
Ha, Other Goose looks hilarious. Thanks for sharing, and for your kind words!
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:iconbeautifulnightmare66:
BeautifulNightmare66 Featured By Owner Feb 6, 2013  Professional General Artist
I NEVER knew Cinderella's step-sisters actually cut off their toes!!!! I only know Disney's version, they just shmooshed their toes into the shoes, making them fit. haha I like the idea of them cutting them off better... Makes more sense to me.
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:iconmrwootton:
MrWootton Featured By Owner Feb 6, 2013  Professional Writer
Twas gruesome, yet poignant, detail to omit!
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:icondontfeedtheyaoguai:
DontFeedTheYaoGuai Featured By Owner Jan 15, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Very well said. The part about cutting the details of the step sisters really got me thinking.
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:iconmrwootton:
MrWootton Featured By Owner Jan 15, 2013  Professional Writer
It's only a speculation of mine, but it does make ya wonder...
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:iconsonjapepper:
SonjaPepper Featured By Owner Jan 14, 2013  Hobbyist
Extremely well argued! I agree with your sentiments and comments. Well thought out and presented essay.
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:iconmrwootton:
MrWootton Featured By Owner Jan 14, 2013  Professional Writer
Thank you! =)
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:iconsakura-courage-solo:
Sakura-Courage-Solo Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2013
*applauds* Well said, well said! Parents are such absolute hypocrites these days, 'sheltering' their children from these harmless and actually embodying stories, and yet not bothering to give them important life lessons in honor, integrity, self-discipline, etc. before flinging them into a world riddled with malice and hatred.

I actually have an old book full of the original Grimm's Fairy Tales from when I was VERY small. I remember when I was first shown the Disney version of Cinderella, I tilted my lil' head and said, "Someone stole the story about Ashputtel and messed it all up!". Wonder how many people even know that Ashputtel was Cinderella's true/original name. XD

Also, your essay made me think of a skit Larry the Cable Guy does about "Politically Correct Fairy Tales", whereas he would read politically correct versions of old fairy tales, the deep seated meanings of said stories completely lost in the process. If I remember right, there was "Vertically Challeneged Native American Riding Hood", "Snow Caucasian and the Seven Handicapable Little People", and "Twas the Night Before a Non-denominational Winter Holiday". The scary thing is, things seem to be headed this way for real.
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:iconmrwootton:
MrWootton Featured By Owner Jan 14, 2013  Professional Writer
You can buy collections of those - the first two volumes are titled Politically Correct Bedtime Stories and Once Upon a More Enlightened Time. If you know the originals, they can be pretty funny reads. I didn't know Larry the Cable Guy had used them for his shows.

Like most satire, they have a serious point to make: adaptation of classic stories to suit the times can result in the total loss of everything worthwhile in the tales.

Whatever else we might say about parents, there's no denying that parenting is difficult, bad parenting advice is rampant, and pop culture is the enemy of good child rearing. It's a tough place to be in, and the stakes are so very high.
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:icondeuxofspades:
deuxofspades Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
Well said, Sir!
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:iconmrwootton:
MrWootton Featured By Owner Jan 14, 2013  Professional Writer
=)
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:iconirisreceptor:
irisreceptor Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2013
Ah~
Very interesting :)
But it's there a translation in spanish? Since English isn't my main language, it isn't as easy for me to read it but I can understand it.

Congrats on the DD! I'll forward for your book! :dance:
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:iconmrwootton:
MrWootton Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2013  Professional Writer
I'm still looking for a Spanish translator. Once I find one, there should be a Spanish version of my books along with the essay. Thanks!
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:iconkinglorshi:
Kinglorshi Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2013  Student Writer
Even though I prefer stories which are more logical and about people and their experiences, the notion that fairy tales are too inappropriate for children makes me fearful. What is good and what is bad these days? Stories need to have an edge of some kind, especially in youth. If we shelter children too much, what will happen in the future when the shelter is broken down?

Despite my own preference for writing non-fantastical stories, folklore and legend should never be forgotten, and it should never be barred from children. It makes me afraid to think how much of these things will be removed in the future. This is coming from a non-religious person as well. I hope that this will not come to pass.

This was well written and rather sophisticated. It also had an olde-timey diction, particularly with the "madame" usage. But, aside from what has been said, there is nothing I can say that hasn't been said.
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:iconmrwootton:
MrWootton Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2013  Professional Writer
Thank you very much! There is certainly just as much need for non-fantastical stories as for fanciful ones - often we need to hear the same wisdom told several different ways before we understand it!
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:iconkinglorshi:
Kinglorshi Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2013  Student Writer
You are welcome. :)
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:iconkinglorshi:
Kinglorshi Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2013  Student Writer
Hmmm

Like I usually do I speak before I think too much. I should have sat and considered everything before I made a statement.

I interpreted "folklore" as "fantasy stories", not quite literally old legends and so on.
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:icontainted-peaches:
Tainted-Peaches Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2013  Student Writer
What a lovely essay. If only I could write out my arguments in such a diplomatic manner. I'm a huge supporter of myths and folklore, for without them, how do we teach children valuable lessons if they're watching tv ads and shows? Bravo. :)
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:iconmrwootton:
MrWootton Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2013  Professional Writer
Thank you! =D
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:iconazvolrien:
Azvolrien Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2013
Beautiful, eloquent work, and a message that society could stand to hear a lot more often. :+fav:, unquestionably.
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:iconmrwootton:
MrWootton Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2013  Professional Writer
Many thanks =)
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:iconlapoetry-n-photo:
LAPoetry-n-Photo Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2013  Hobbyist Photographer
What exactly are the messages these fairytales are sending though? I have nothing against fantasy and myth. But when most stories depict girls being pretty and helpless and men being dragon-slaying rescuers, you need to reconsider the messages being sent. Until children are equally represented, fairytales cannot reach their full potential to teach courage, intelligence, curiosity, loyalty, love, joy, creativity, and more.
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:iconmrwootton:
MrWootton Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2013  Professional Writer
I'm afraid the gender imbalance perceived in fairytales is largely the fault of more modern retellings (especially Disney). In Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, for example, it is the boy Kay who must be rescued by his childhood friend Gerda (a girl). Even in the many stories where the protagonist is male and must rescue the captive damsel, it is most often her resourcefulness that keeps him from getting killed and ensures they both make it out alive (think Ariadne, Theseus, and the minotaur, but with trolls or nine-headed dragons).

To be sure, in most folk stories men and women are depicting in the gender roles typical for that culture, but we need not consider those elements prescriptivist.
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:iconstarell:
starell Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2013
I am in awe of your reasoning and astounding writing. This is an amazing piece! Thank you so very much for sharing!
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:iconmrwootton:
MrWootton Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2013  Professional Writer
Aww, thank you! =D
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:iconstarell:
starell Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2013
you are most welcome!
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:iconunluckynumberxiii:
UnluckyNumberXIII Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2013  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Quite nicely done, if I do say so.

And if this is only an essay? Well, the book ought to be good. :)

Congrats on the DD.
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:iconmrwootton:
MrWootton Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2013  Professional Writer
Thanks very much! =D
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:iconunluckynumberxiii:
UnluckyNumberXIII Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2013  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
You're welcome~
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:iconmagpie-poet:
magpie-poet Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2013
Excellent response. I admit when faced with this question I have difficulty crafting such a diplomatic answer!
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:iconmrwootton:
MrWootton Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2013  Professional Writer
Diplomacy is the essence of persuasion =)
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:iconmagpie-poet:
magpie-poet Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2013
I try, but I work retail. There diplomacy seems to mean I'm still talking, step on me harder!
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:iconmrwootton:
MrWootton Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2013  Professional Writer
Been there, done that - so true =(
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:iconmegaprotoxii:
MegaProtoXII Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
This is the first daily deviation I've ever viewed and as a writer I must say that it's a good first impression to the system. Getting back to this however, I have this burning desire to favorite it and shower you with praise you must have already received numerous times before. Instead, I'll just content myself by saying this is an awesome essay and still make this one of my favorites.
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:iconmrwootton:
MrWootton Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2013  Professional Writer
Thanks very much for the kind words; compliments never grow old, and as you know, we writers write hoping our words will do somebody some good sometime. I'm glad to be able to represent DDs positively for you, and I very much appreciate the favorite =)
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:iconrovely:
Rovely Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
This is absolutely splendid. Thank you for writing this!
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:iconmrwootton:
MrWootton Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2013  Professional Writer
Thank you for reading it! =)
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:iconrovely:
Rovely Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
I have to wonder though:

Since the children nowday are so exposed to meaningless violence(some movies, comics, shows etc), isn't there a possibility that they might take fairytales as more cases of meaningless violence? That in cases such as how Cinderella's sisters(Grimm's version) get their heels and toes cut off is taken as something to laugh at or just to brush off? Also, in cases of Disney films, where some stories such as Rapunzel has been so modified, do you think that Disney's fairytales are able to pass the original intended message?
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:iconmrwootton:
MrWootton Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2013  Professional Writer
Absolutely possible... no story, not even the best story, speaks for itself. Only storytellers can give stories life and lead audiences to valuable meanings.

Disney pretty much fails, borrowing the skins of classic fairytales to convey other and simpler messages (mostly - be true to yourself, follow your dreams, speak up). They're very Americana, with highly debatable (doubtable?) merits. Some great music though.
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:iconrovely:
Rovely Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
But books are often time how someone can speak. Authors can voice themselves well with writing. Wouldn't it be too vague for one to state that only storytellers can lead the audiences to valuable meanings?

I have noticed that in earlier disney films(cinderella and snow white), there were similar storylines. In cinderella, Disney's version follows the Charles Perrault version very similarly with few minor tweaks, and in snow white, though the Disney version does not show the evil stepmother being forced to dance in hot iron(?) shoes, it shows that the evil stepmother dies. Do you think that earlier films had more sophisticated messages than the more modern films such as princess and the frog, and Rapunzel?

I hope I'm not bothering you-- it's just that fairytales are something that I adore, and I frequently get carried away...
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:iconmrwootton:
MrWootton Featured By Owner Jan 14, 2013  Professional Writer
I was including writers among storytellers, but even so, reading is not always easy. Good writers show, rather than tell, and not everyone pays attention to the clues!

I haven't seen the most recent Disney fairytales (yet), so I can't speak to them. It's certainly possible that the earlier films had more to them - pop culture in general has gotten measurably dumber over the past several decades.

When you want to make art that appeals to lots of people, you have two options - base it on cheap thrills (typically violent action or seductive romance), or make it about enduring truths and timeless values. One of those kinds of stories is much easier to tell than the other, so guess what gets made more often?
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:iconrovely:
Rovely Featured By Owner Jan 14, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Thank you for answering all my questions. I won't bother you with more of these questions... for now. The answers really helped me think more deeply. ouo
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