‘ As for fairy tales, he understood that they were reflections of the people who had spun them, and were flecked with little truths - intrusions of reality into fantasy, like toast crumbs on a wizard's beard.” - Laini Taylor, Strange the Dreamer
Like most little kids, I loved hearing and reading fairy tales growing up. Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and more were all staples of my young life. We read them in school, parents and teachers read them to us, and after I learned to read, I read countless versions of them in library books and children’s magazines. Of course, the clearest and most steadfast ideas about those tales came from the many Walt Disney cartoons and movies I saw that were based on them. Those of us of a certain age have clear images of Rapunzel and her hair, of Little Red Riding Hood and that wolf, and of Cinderella and the faces of those evil twin sisters. I was told that these were all fairy tales by some people called, “Grimm”, and for a long while that meant nothing to me.” It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I decided to look into who these brothers really were, what these tales were about, and where they came from. And when I read more about them and read translations of some of the original stories, I was shocked and amazed. This was not Disney; this was not Disney at all.
The Grimms collected their stories from oral interviews and from old books in Germany. Many of these tales were hundreds of years old, and the violence in them was very notable. In some of the stories eyeballs are pecked out by birds, children are cooked and fed to a parent, people cut off toes, and more. Being punished in many of these stories meant truly horrible things, and it did not seem that they were for children at all. As they were originally intended they actually were for kids, but most them were not just “entertainment.” Many were what we would now call “morality tales”: They were designed to teach lessons about the real and scary world of The Middle Ages and the dangers of a world beyond what most people could see and visit. Not listening to your parents or your feudal lord, being lost in the woods or away from home-in such a world those things could have real consequences. This was not Disney at all
I am thinking about this because I just finished reading the June issue of the Smithsonian Magazine, and in it is an article entitled, “The Real Pinocchio.” The article takes us to a place in Italy, and it looks at the truth behind the original stories of the piece of wood that comes to life. Again, most of us know the story via Disney, and it is hugely popular. It is one of the most popular stories inb the world. In fact, Netflix and Disney are each planning new versions of it to be released soon. It has had incredible staying power and an incredible effect on our culture-just look at how many political ads these days feature politicians whose noses grow longer as their opponents paint them as liars. But there was much more going on behind the story than just a puppet whose nose grew every time it lied. The story had was written with important social intent, and it provides a view of what Italy was like at that time.
Pinocchio was written in the late 19th century by Carlo Lorenzini, nee Collodi, and it was constructed against the backdrop of what was happening and might be possible in this newly unified country called “Italy”. Lorenzini had been a political satirist and columnist for a while, and he had strong ideas about universal education and how children had to apply themselves as the country had moved from medieval-like separate kingdoms into a unified nation in 1860. He saw a need for a unity of purpose for the new nation, and he wanted all children and their parents involved in making that happen. The stories were in part about the role education could play in facilitating that transition, the behaviors that could support it, and the possibilities that could be seized. The stories were originally serialized in a magazine called-Gironale per I bambinie-A Journal for Children. This was the first publication intended for children in the nation, and in many ways these were morality tales for the new nation. And as they were written in an informal Italian language, they were intended to also be a unifying force.
Across geographic and class lines the stories were an instant hit, and they were about more than lying and more than just entertainment. The plots and characters in the stories related to the poverty of much of the Italian people, the pettiness and/or corruption that could be found in some institutions, and the hope for better times ahead. Reading about this was an incredible revelation for me.
There is a new English translation of Pinocchio co-authored by Anna Kraczyna and John Hooper, two of the people who are our travel guides in the article. I look forward to reading it, and I assume it will please me much as reading the translations of the Grimm’s tales did. I still love the Disney versions of both the fairy tales and Pinocchio, of course. They are incredibly well done, and they are a big part of my childhood. Reading this book will probably add some things to that and deepen my understanding of how this, and indeed many beloved stories work on so many different levels. Always something new to uncover...(smile)__________________________________
Here are a few links should you wish to follow up on The Brothers Grimm and Pinocchio: