The Wolf Ate Grandma

Valerie Forde-Galvin

© Copyright 2023 by Valerie Forde-Galvin

Photo by Philipp Pilz on Unsplash
Photo by Philipp Pilz on Unsplash

In my childhood, parents read bedtime stories to their children. In theory, a child will fall asleep easily when listening to a familiar soothing voice. In reality, the story choice makes all the difference. So I have to ask why did parents chose fairy tales? What were they thinking? Nothing was held back in these stories; nobody seemed to realize that their content wasn't edited for children. Today, because of its violent themes, my little book of fairy tales would have been rated PG-13. At the time, I was six. I did not fall asleep easily after bedtime stories.

I'm not saying we should do away with fairy tales; they seem to have universal appeal. Throughout history every culture had had its own rich storytelling tradition. Scandinavian mythology is populated by elves, giants, and Valkyries. Celtic folklore features a race of otherworldly beings called the Sidhe, better known as fairies and leprechauns. Every ethnicity has its own embedded belief in supernatural creatures that inhabit the earth. Their adventures make for a rich narrative passed down through the ages.

No matter where you come from, storytelling is your heritage. And, if you should care to investigate the folklore of your particular country of origin, you might be in for a shock. The world of elves and fairies is not a Disney movie. The plot lines aren't pretty, often involving gruesome savagery, and I'm sorry to report that good doesn't always triumph over evil. Like the Bible, fairy tales are allegories that tell us: Life is tough but do your best and you might have a shot at surviving.

I grew up hearing fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm, nineteenth century researchers who compiled an assortment of fables found in German folklore. Bad things happened in these stories – I mean really bad things. Hansel and Gretel were abandoned by their parents and became lost in the forest. You must understand that the primeval forests of folklore were nothing like the manicured campgrounds maintained by today's Forest Service. These dark woods were the domain of sinister otherworldly creatures. A witch with a taste for human flesh lured Hansel and Gretel to a magical gingerbread house where they were captured, caged and fed in order to fatten them up for the dinner table. Only their quick thinking at the last minute saved Hansel and Gretel from the witch's fiery oven.

Among the the beasts who roamed the forest, wolves were notorious for their bad behaviors. Incredibly, one of these cunning animals managed to trick Red Riding Hood by posing as her grandmother. The sudden appearance of a huntsman rescued the girl from the wolf's jaws but only after the nefarious beast had already feasted on Grandma.

Jealous of Snow White's beauty, the evil queen wanted her stepdaughter killed but the huntsman who was given the task took pity and told the girl to run away. Again the forest played a part in the drama. Considering the abundance of evil forest creatures, Snow White was lucky to have been received into a household of kindly dwarfs. Much later, after another murder attempt, Snow White was rescued by a handsome prince.

Sleeping Beauty had been cursed by a spiteful fairy and was destined to die when she pricked her finger. Mercifully a younger fairy modified the curse so that the princess would fall into a deep sleep of one hundred years only to be awakened. . . again by one of those handsome princes that apparently roamed the forest in search of fair maidens in distress and ranked just above the heroic kindhearted huntsman.

If you should find these grim tales somewhat difficult to hear, you should realize that these are the sanitized versions. The historical Hansel and Gretel actually lived during a time of famine when, in order to survive, people sometimes ate their own children. The hapless duo should have counted themselves lucky to have been sent away.

And, speaking of cannibalism, the original wicked stepmother demanded that the huntsman cut out Snow White's heart because she believed that eating the heart would bring her immortality. However, having spared the girl's life, the huntsman killed a boar and presented its heart to the evil queen instead.

Meanwhile, Snow White's household of seven dwarfs represented an ugly time in history involving child labor. Undernourished children from destitute families were forced to work in poorly ventilated copper mines. As a result of malnutrition, strenuous physical labor, and environmental conditions, their growth was stunted. It's doubtful that these dwarfed individuals began their day with a robust rendition of “Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work we go.”

These were not comfortable stories to hear. (I would remind you that the wolf ate Grandma.) Yet now I wonder if these tales, passed along through the generations, might have been our benighted parents' way of preparing us for a life that sometimes takes no prisoners.

Fast forward to the bland children's stories of today. Their lackluster narrative sends the message that all is good, there are no obstacles to overcome, and life is fair. I would argue that a life without challenge is just not worthwhile. Perhaps the publishers of children's books would counter argue that hardship doesn't sell in today's marketplace.

Even those children today who do read books will spend much of their time focused on a screen watching animation videos where lifeless characters act out meaningless situations. These cartoons serve a dual purpose. While the plot numbs its audience into a vegetative state, the screen's sensory overload tends to reinforce the various forms of autism prevalent among today's young people.

When we replaced robust fairy tales with vapid stories and sterile cartoons, we lost something of value. I believe that myths are present in the human psyche. By abandoning the narratives of these fairy tales, aren't we cutting ourselves off from our connection to the universal consciousness? Are we then doomed to conform to a vacuous existence, leading shallow lives lacking in creativity and imagination?

Alright, so maybe I was traumatized by the brutalities inherent in my bedtime stories. However I prefer to think that those fairy tales were a sort of initiation for me. They provided me with a fuller understanding of the world and gave me an edge. Steeped in the power of myth, I came to see that life is full of possibility. I learned that there is always the potential for good or for evil. Many times the proverbial wolf has been at my door and many times I've defeated him.

Blandness is the death of the soul; our myths make us more fully alive. It could be that those allegories of my childhood sparked my creativity and therefore enriched my life with a sense of magic. Is it any wonder that I began to write? Thanks in part to the graphic imagery of the Brothers Grimm, I now find myself engaged in storytelling. I continue the tradition of those who came before me, weaving the myth.

And the beat goes on. 

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