Fairy Tales Were Cynical

A recent New Yorker article on fairy tales fascinated me (quotes below). Apparently the fairy tales once “told at rural firesides” were for adults, full of sex and violence, and cynical – they did not often affirm common ideals. This stands in sharp contrast to most fiction genres today, especially today’s fairy tales targeted at kids. Why were long ago stories so much more cynical? They remind me of some joke genres, like dead baby jokes, and of the crudeness often found off the record in many close social groups.

Here’s my homo hypocritus explanation. Our forager ancestors evolved intricate capacities to affirm standard ideals when what they said or did might be visible or reported to distant observers, and to coordinate to violate such ideals when they were less visible. Shared private rejection and violation of wider ideals can signal close bonds with associates, and reveal more about ourselves to intimates.

So when stories become more visible, such as by getting published in books, stories had to become more ideal. Similarly, when kids were taught in schools, with a curriculum visible to all, that curriculum had to become more ideal. And as law enforcement has become more visible, it has been held to higher standards.

Today harassment laws make it harder to be very crude and cynical at work, and divorce custody battles punish parents who act this way around their kids. Today, more interactions are governed by officially idealistic norms: teachers around students, doctors & lawyers around clients, etc. What costs do we pay for this panopticon-like suppression of our natural crude/cynical styles? We are probably less able to form very close social groups where we can more clearly see each others’ weaknesses and vulnerabilities. But what else?

Added 26Aug: Another contributing factor may be that in general our idealism just rises with rising wealth.

Those promised quotes:

In Grimms’ Fairy Tales there is a story called “The Stubborn Child” that is only one paragraph long. …

Once upon a time there was a stubborn child who never did what his mother told him to do. The dear Lord, therefore, did not look kindly upon him, and let him become sick. No doctor could cure him and in a short time he lay on his deathbed. After he was lowered into his grave and covered over with earth, one of his little arms suddenly emerged and reached up into the air. They pushed it back down and covered the earth with fresh earth, but that did not help. The little arm kept popping out. So the child’s mother had to go to the grave herself and smack the little arm with a switch. After she had done that, the arm withdrew, and then, for the first time, the child had peace beneath the earth.

The tale, without details to attach it to anything in particular, becomes universal. Whatever happened there, we all deserve it. A. S. Byatt has written that this is the real terror of the story: “It doesn’t feel like a warning to naughty infants. It feels like a glimpse of the dreadful side of the nature of things.” That is true of very many of the Grimms’ tales, even those with happy endings. …

The Grimms grew up in the febrile atmosphere of German Romanticism, which involved intense nationalism and, in support of that, a fascination with the supposedly deep, pre-rational culture of the German peasantry, the Volk. … They had political reasons, too—above all, Napoleon’s invasion of their beloved Hesse. …

The Grimms … first edition was not intended for the young, nor, apparently, were the tales told at rural firesides. The purpose was to entertain grownups, during or after a hard day’s work, and rough material was part of the entertainment. But the reviews and the sales of the Grimms’ first edition were disappointing to them. Other collections, geared to children, had been more successful, and the brothers decided that their second edition would take that route. … What they regarded as unsuitable for the young was information about sex. In the first edition, Rapunzel, imprisoned in the tower by her wicked godmother, goes to the window every evening and lets down her long hair so that the prince can climb up and enjoy her company. …

Grimm tales, many of which feature mutilation, dismemberment, and cannibalism, not to speak of ordinary homicide, often inflicted on children by their parents or guardians. … You get used to the outrages, though. They may even come to seem funny. … Some stories do tear you apart, usually those where the violence is joined to some emphatically opposite quality, such as peace or tenderness. … The stories are still extremely short. … They come in, clobber you over the head, and then go away. As with sections of the Bible, the conciseness makes them seem more profound. … W. H. Auden once described the Grimm-sanitizers as “the Society for the Scientific Diet, the Association of Positivist Parents, the League for the Promotion of Worthwhile Leisure, the Cooperative Camp of Prudent Progressives.” …

Marina Warner … says that most modern writers ignore the Grimms’ “historical realism.” Among the pre-modern populations, she records, death in childbirth was the most common cause of female mortality. …

The Grimm tales are no different from other art. They merely concretize and then expand our experience of life. The main reason that Zipes likes fairy tales, it seems, is that they provide hope: they tell us that we can create a more just world. The reason that most people value fairy tales, I would say, is that they do not detain us with hope but simply validate what is. Even people who have never known hunger, let alone a murderous stepmother, still have a sense—from dreams, from books, from news broadcasts—of utter blackness, the erasure of safety and comfort and trust. Fairy tales tell us that such knowledge, or fear, is not fantastic but realistic. (more)

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  • Michael Vassar

    I agree that people behave in the manner you call “homo hypocritus”, but it doesn’t seem plausible to me that evolution had enough time to shape such behavior.  My guess is that it’s a consequence of some more basic design feature, though evolution might have accentuated or cultivated it.  In general, self-deception doesn’t seem to me to need an evolutionary explanation.  Motivated cognition in general is clearly frequently maladaptive, and seems driven by reinforcement learning and a failure to distinguish internal models from external data.  Likewise, we wouldn’t expect, to have accurate self-knowledge by default, any more than a computer program knows about its features and hardware by default.

  • Michael Vassar

    It seems generally the case that those in power would want to prevent the formation of close social groups.  The PC term for that is “stamping out corruption”, e.g. the existence of groups with mutual loyalties to one another rather than to the larger system.  The constitution originally protected freedom of association for a reason.
    Another obvious cost of suppressing cynicism is locking in far-mode ideals as a guide for behavior when that’s not the purpose they are there to serve. BTW, I think that there are probably several “modes” in the sense you refer to, not just two.  Near and Far seem related to the classical “Hermetic” and “Apollonian” styles, suggesting a third “Dionysian” style

    • Richardsilliker

       Bingo on the prevention of close social groups by those in power.  Governments create ideological camps.

      • Richardsilliker

         For those interested in more on the fairy tale there is a book by Joseph Campbell called The Flight of the Wild Gander. Chapter one “The fairy tale” may be helpful.

  • Kebko

    This phenomenon that the article refers to in the Grimms’ first edition is currently displayed in a lot of stand up comedy sets, forwarded e-mails, and blogs.

  • Vlad

    Reminds me of this book: The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (http://www.amazon.com/Great-Cat-Massacre-Episodes-Cultural/dp/0465012744/). It was more than just the fairy tales that were shocking.

  • Curious:  Were they as bad as 
    http://lesswrong.com/lw/yl/an_african_folktale/ ?

  • Robin Hanson

    Eliezer and Vlad, you offer interesting examples to consider. There are probably other reasons than the visibility I identify for our society telling more ideal stories, and holding more ideal standards. Simple wealth is one plausible theory.

  • V V

    Apparently the fairy tales once “told at rural firesides” were for
    adults, full of sex and violence, and cynical – they did not often
    affirm common ideals. This stands in sharp contrast to most fiction
    genres today, especially today’s fairy tales targeted at kids. Why were
    long ago stories so much more cynical?

    Perhaps they were the equivalent of our modern urban legends, which are also usually violent and cynical.

  • Hm, I’m struck by the similarity to Wikileaks’ stated goal, to make conspiracies harder by forcing them to expend more effort on concealment. 

  • Do you equate idealistic to mutual and respectful or simply to a hypocritical sugar coating of reality from official institution? Aka political correctness and idealism are sometimes ridicolous, but too often its criticists are biased in simply wanting their disrespect and prejudice or obnoxiousness to have a patent or aura of “alternative” and “cool.