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That’s Not a Fairy Tale!

Part 1 – Cautionary Tales – Maiming, with Morals

For this post, I’m going to invite you to join me on an eye-opening journey through the frankly horrific world of fairy tales. I’ve had an idea swilling around in the back of my brain for a while now, for a sort-of non-fiction book about fairy tales. I wanted to contrast the soft and fluffy modern take on fairy tales with the original folk stories, creating a suitably gory picture book for those kids (and parents) that way inclined.

The research has been great, but I’ve not really got far with the actual writing yet. As such, I thought it would be fun to share some of my findings, starting with the gothic nightmare that is Victorian cautionary tales.

For those who are more Mary Berry than Mary Shelly, cautionary tales was a genre of children’s books designed to teach kids of yesteryear valuable life lessons. If the world depicted in these books actually existed, no-one would have made it to adulthood and the human race would have perished under the wheels of runaway carts or in a match-fuelled fiery inferno. As we’re still here, we can assume that the books were possibly laying it on a bit thick. Either that, or the books' hard hitting messages are actually the reason we're here...

By way of example, let’s look at The Dreadful Story about Harriet and the Matches. The start of this charming verse is the usual sort of fare – little girl wants to play with matches, and talking cats warn her against it. Talking cats, of course, have long been known to be a highly effective way of stopping children playing with matches:

But, whilst Charlie undoubtedly saves hundreds of young lives, the Victorians weren’t taking any chances with their messaging.

Now that our heroine is reduced to a pile of ash, the cats start crying and end up crying so much, they create a pond. Just the sort of thing, in fact, that would have been really useful 10 minutes earlier to extinguish Harriet. I’m not sure if this is the author taking the mick, or teaching us a bonus lesson about the ironic cruelty of cats.

The author, in this instance, is one Dr Heinrich Hoffman. He wrote about the horrific and painful death of Harriet in 1845, apparently to help put his young psychiatric patients at ease, although I suspect it was a cunning ploy to drum up extra business.

Burning girls alive wasn’t the limit of his repertoire, oh no. His seminal work, Struwwelpeter, contained many other bowel-loosening classics, such as:

The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb If you suck your thumbs, the great tall tailor will cut them off. Conrad ignores his mum and...

The Story of Augustus who Would not Have any Soup Five days later, he's starved to death. The Story of Flying Robert The last story in the book, Dr Hoffman had pretty much given up on life-saving morals and wholeheartedly embraced killing kids for entertainment. In this story, Bob goes out in the rain and is blown away on the wind, never to be seen again. Largely thanks to these two stories, the childhood obesity epidemic can be traced directly back to Struwwelpeter’s publication.

Dr Hoffman didn’t have the monopoly on child cruelty for entertainment, however. A whole range of books provided grisly and humiliating ends for children who strayed off the straight and narrow.

Little Miss Consequence, for example, arrived in 1880. Known as an ‘English Struwwelpeter’, it was relatively tame by comparison (no-one had their digits removed by a scissor-wielding maniac, for example), but still had its own certain charm.

My favourite has to be the ‘Ronseal’-titled The Tom-Boy Who was Changed into a Real Boy. Our lead character committed a series of horrific sins, including:

· Playing with boys

· Being rude

· Liking noise

· Ice-skating

· Playing football

· Climbing trees

· Jumping over ditches

· Being bad at sewing

As punishment for these heinous crimes, ‘they’ (her parents, possibly?) gave her a sex change and paid a ship’s captain to take her to sea.

You do have to wonder if this was really meant as a cautionary tale, or whether it was an early example of trans enlightenment.

There are many more examples from the golden age of infant frightening but we’re out of time in this blog. However, my next post will focus on possibly my favourite example of Victorian child murder disguised as entertainment… Sweet dreams!

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Secret Spi
Secret Spi

If you are ever in Frankfurt, have a look at the Struwwelpeter/Heinrich Hoffmann Museum - you can hire it for children’s birthday parties! I wonder if instead of “Pin the tail on the donkey” you can play “Lop your friend’s thumbs off with gardening shears”?! This book was still a staple in Kindergartens when my son was young, fifteen years ago - with no trigger warnings 😁

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