‘I’ll grind his bones to make my bread’
I can’t imagine it now, but at the tender age of six I was quite bloodthirsty in my reading preferences. Grimm by name was grim by nature but I ate it all up and being a compulsive type I worked my way through as much as I could before overdosing. For me it was all about the adventure and wrongs being righted. I didn’t think back then that all that violence was going to mar my life, nor did it. I was too grounded in my real life to be affected, I knew it was fiction. But at six I did not understand that even fiction isn’t created in a vacuum.
Today I can hardly remember the stories but one seems to have stuck. A witch is rolled down a hill in a barrel of nails because she has been quite nasty to two children. I understood about consequences, (not that a goody-goody like myself got to experience them) and thought that justice had been done. I was so safe in my comfortable world of loving family and friends where no real life horror was allowed to invade that I really didn’t understand there were layers of meaning beyond what I was focussing on. In the same driven way my younger self also consumed those as far from real life as you can get, happily ever after fairy tales; equally harmful if consumed in large quantities. I speak from experience when I say that real life is messier, more unstructured and a lot less boring. If you prepare your children early on then they won’t waste years searching for that perfect relationship. No such animal exists.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my four year old grandson and I choose his reading matter at the local library every week. Thankfully there are no fairy tales in sight. I don’t see how today’s social issues and beliefs have anything in common with the past, particularly a Grimm past. And even if they do, why foist them on the young before they’re ready for it? Today’s stories are gentle tales with a moral or a life lesson about such things as siblings, dogs and sharing; much more practical than fairy tales, yet equally entertaining. Eden loves to tell stories of his own. They are limited because he lacks life experience, but they certainly are interesting. He incorporates all sorts of astonishing facts that he’s picked up and fiction to create an epic that’s uniquely his own. Imagine my surprise then when a story that began with the adventurous Eden and his little brother fighting dragons, climbing mountains and snorkelling under the sea mutated into a version of Jack and the Beanstalk. Hero Eden climbs the beanstalk, gets the singing harp, and escapes from the wicked giant who wants to eat him.
As he spoke, it all came back to me that story. I hadn’t thought of it in years, but it came as a surprise that Jack the giant killer was not the hero of the tale as I’d once thought but a thief and a murderer. When I had read it all those years ago I was at the edge of my seat, hoping each time that Jack would make it to the ground. He did of course, then chopped the beanstalk down.
For those of you who weren’t raised on a diet of English fairy tales here’s the plot: Jack and his mother are poor. All that’s between them and starvation is a cow; Jack sells the cow’s milk at market each day so that he and his mother can buy food. When the cow stops producing, Jack takes her to market to sell. He gets waylaid by some shyster who offers him 5 magic beans for the cow. It turns out that he wasn’t a shyster after all because the beans actually were magic. Why he didn’t use it for his own advantage we will never know. In another version the shyster is a butcher and so it seems to make more sense but I’d be asking the same question if I was Jack. When Jack gets home, his mother tosses the beans out the window in a fit of rage; it turns into a beanstalk overnight. Jack climbs it, finds a giant’s castle, and in it, a goose that lays golden eggs, a singing harp and a bag of gold. The giant chases Jack who has stolen his treasures. Jack shinnies down the beanstalk and fells it with an axe. The giant is dead and Jack and his mother are rich. Once they spend the gold, they sell the golden eggs and entertain themselves with the harp.
All dressed up it sounds like an adventure story which is what I took it for the first time round and so, obviously, has Eden. There was a land in the sky, wicked giants and heroes my own age. How fascinating it all was to my six year old mind. And if the hero gets to take a few souvenirs home to mark the adventure and make his mother happy who can it hurt? I hadn’t given the hard done by giant and his wife a second thought. Did I mention that the giant’s wife helped Jack escape? The ingrate showed his appreciation by stealing her husband’s treasure and making her a widow.
Had my mother read the story to me or my father, they would have stopped and explained about Jack and the lack of consequences, or more likely taken the book off the reading list. Everyone remembered reading fairy tales once upon a time and nobody gave them enough thought to what they really contained. They did not necessarily know that many stories were based on gruesome true life stories.
There are variations on Jack and the Beanstalk; one being Benjamin Tabard’s version published in 1807 where Jack is portrayed as a wastrel who drinks, carouses and loses his widowed mother her income. Joseph Jacobs on the other hand left the moral out when he rewrote the story in 1890. He said it was truer to earlier oral accounts and was closest to how he had heard the story as a child. Jacobs believed that ‘children knew that robbery and murder were wrong without being told so by a fairy tale.’ (Wikipedia). I’ve always believed that knowing right from wrong depends on how old the child is and how he was raised. Eden is at a stage where he knows only what he learns from his parents and other adults in his family unit and even then it takes time to process what he hears and to connect the dots. Eden is obviously focusing on the adventure element. It’s up to the adults in his life to explain what is wrong with that story and why it is wrong.
It turns out that his parents didn’t read Eden that story; he heard it at kindergarten. Eden’s world has widened which means that his parents can no longer control everything in his world. The letting go has begun. Eden’s parents can only vet what’s on his bookshelf and keep an eye on what’s being read to him outside their control. They can make sure he learns to analyse what he hears or later reads and not take it all at face value.