As you re-visit some of your favorite classic nursery rhymes and fairy tales with your own children, you may be surprised and slightly concerned at the original endings. For instance, the catchy tune of “Rock-a-Bye-Baby” is quite disturbing when you actually listen to the words and even face the questions of what happens to the baby when he falls out of the tree.
I bought our son some classic books for us to read to him before going to bed each night. One night my husband came downstairs with Jack and the Beanstalk in his hands, stating that we needed to return it and get it out of our son’s collection. He explained that there was no redemptive quality to the story, in which Jack climbs the beanstalk, steals from the giant, and then cuts the beanstalk down as the giant tries to chase after Jack to get back his belongings. A few versions have tried to change the story slightly to validate Jack’s actions, explaining that the giant had first stolen from Jack. However, the original version stands as Jack being the lone culprit.
Several of the beloved Disney Classics have been “modified” from their original versions to better suit the audience. The Jungle Book, Pinocchio, The Fox and The Hound, Hercules, Tarzan, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Little Mermaid, to name a few. Each original version has its own warped and jaded twist.
Particularly interested in the original story and meaning behind The Little Mermaid, I investigated that one in greater depth. Hans Christian Andersen tells the story of a little Mermaid who is allowed to visit the surface of the ocean on her fifteenth birthday to observe the world above. The Mermaid falls in love with a prince she sees on a ship at the ocean’s surface and saves his life when the ship wrecks, leaving the unconscious prince in the care of a young girl on the shore.
The Little Mermaid’s experience on the surface leads her to question her own existence as a mermaid. Discovering that while mermaids live for at least three times the lifespan of humans, they eventually turn to sea foam and cease to exist. Humans, on the other hand, have an eternal soul, which exists forever.
Desiring a life with the prince and an eternal soul, the Mermaid makes a deal with the sea witch. She drinks a painful potion in exchange for her voice, which gives her human legs and the ability to live on land. The Mermaid is gifted with the ability to dance beautifully, but cursed by the excruciating pain caused whenever she dances. The deal with the sea witch, however, does not guarantee a soul. The prince must fall in love and marry the Mermaid in order for a part of his soul to flow into her.
The prince falls in love with the young girl who cared for him on the shore when the Mermaid dropped him off unconscious after the shipwreck. This young girl turns out to be a princess and she and the prince are married.
The Mermaid is brokenhearted and will soon turn to sea foam. Her sisters work out a deal with the sea witch and the Mermaid must slay the prince and drip his blood on her legs, which will then be restored to her mermaid tail.
The Mermaid cannot bear slaying the prince and instead throws herself into the sea and is turned into sea foam. However, because of her desire for an immortal soul she is lifted up into the spirit world where she is able to earn an immortal soul through good works.
Hans Christian Anderson ends the Danish tale by extending an invitation for children to participate in helping the spirits to gain their eternity faster when the children are well behaved and slower when the children are naughty.
Whew! That is quite different and much more intense than the Disney story in which Ariel charms and wins over her prince, living happily ever after. I do like the emphasis on the desirability of an immortal soul in the story, but there is no question that the original version had to be changed in order to become a beloved tale (at least in our culture).
However, I often wonder why these children’s stories are so dark in the first place. Perhaps it is a cultural divide or even a product of the age in which it was written. It seems to follow that the psychology of the time was to use fear and fairy tales in order to convince children to behave.
Remnants still exist today in which children believe that their reception of presents or coal on Christmas day is determined by their behavior throughout the year. While very cute to hear a child stating that he needs to behave in order to get presents, it is much more desirable that he should behave because it is right and just. It is our job as parents to teach this without bribery, fear, or cohesion. Children are capable of understanding so much more than we sometimes give them credit for.
Copyright 2013 Kimberly Cook