Once upon a time, fairy tales were unspeakably brutal. The Brothers Grimm often take the flak for this, but undeservedly. They didn’t create the aura of homicide and senseless injustice, merely absorbed it from the existing oral traditions. Other European folklore collectors got much the same vibe, as did those from further afield. For much of human history, the stories we told to kids were downright
Today’s children’s literature is, relatively speaking, all sweetness and light. So what changed?
Perhaps it’s about changing attitudes to childhood. Start off with a Romantic idea of the innocence and grace of children. This one was already well underway in the early eighteenth century, and is in the background of some early criticism of Grimms Tales as corrupting. This strand of ideology turns into the Victorian desire to shelter children from the evils of the wider world — a rare chunk of ideology from that time which has only grown stronger in the intervening years.
Or you can take the approach that popular fiction is psychology writ large. Stories, like other forms of play, are about making sense of the world, and particularly learning to deal with its dangers. They may not directly depict the experience of their audience, but some emotional or thematic parallel exists.
The most direct, extreme case is in the games played by children in concentration camps. These might involve imitating guards, or learning deception:
One game of their own devising was modeled after the camp’s daily roll call and was called klepsi-klepsi, a common term for stealing. One playmate was blindfolded; then one of the others would step forward and hit him hard on the face; and then, with blindfold removed, the one who had been hit had to guess, from facial expressions or other evidence, who had hit him. To survive at Auschwitz, one had to be an expert at bluffing — for example, about stealing bread or about knowing of someone’s escape or resistance plans. Klepsi-klepsi may have been practice for that skill.
Grimms’ tales make sense in a world of high infant mortality, frequent violence and untamed nature. With childhood becoming safer, the classic fairy tales seem increasingly alien.
It’s interesting to look in this light at the dystopian trend in modern children’s books, with the Hunger Games trilogy as standard-bearers. The danger here is state and society. Survival comes less from honour and courage than from building alliances and navigating structures of power. All of which, I’d say, is a pretty decent approximation to the state of the world today.