Fairy Tales: The Pedagogical Stories That Keep On Giving

Posted by: Laura Crandall   -   Posted in: Pedagogy/Educational Methods and Philosophies, School Culture- Sep 24, 2013 Comments Off on Fairy Tales: The Pedagogical Stories That Keep On Giving

Growing up, possibly only a lucky few of us escaped the Disney version of Snow White.  I know it was a favorite of mine, though I did find the evil queen scary.  To my six-year-old self, Snow White was a story of a pretty girl, a mean lady,  a gaggle of happy gentlemen, and some amazing  bluebirds.  It wasn’t until I saw Bright Water School’s eighth grade class perform the play a couple of years ago that I understood the tale  from a different vantage point.

In Disney’s version, and in most American print versions of the tale, Snow White’s tormentor is her stepmother.  But in the original Grimm’s version, Snow White’s adversary, the evil queen, is her own mother.  It was this original version that our eighth grade staged.  Watching this version as an adult, it was very clear to me that it was the story of a girl crossing the threshold into womanhood as her mother moves out of her childbearing years and into old age. Of course, that’s not all there is to it, but I’ll only look at that aspect here.

Now, we all deal with growing older differently, but Snow White’s mother  seems especially perturbed by her  waning looks.   She vows to eliminate her rival and tries to do so in a number of ways: to  have her killed by the huntsman, to poison her with an apple, to strangle Snow White with her own bodice-laces, to kill her with a comb.    In the revised version, these actions are shocking and sad, but the subtext of the story is somewhat suppressed.  The real value of the tale lies in the original casting of mother vs. daughter.  This is much different than stepmother vs. daughter, because the evil queen mother disregards her primary role as parent and sees only her own needs and wants–not those of her child’s.  As  parents, we may understand this, but we may not voice such a sentiment.  It may lie in one of the darker corners of our psyche.  However, by engaging with the tale of Snow White  as an adult, I am safe to explore the feelings I have about my own aging as my youth gallops over the horizon.  This fairy tale brings me to a place of feeling about my own human condition.  Is it just for kids?

Watching the play with grown-up eyes, I could see the themes from the vantage point of the queen: here, the blossom of youth unfolded while I looked on from my own little autumnal leaf pile.  Unlike Snow White’s mother, aging hasn’t made me homicidal. But it does bring with it a dash of fear, a pinch of regret, and a splash of anger.  While there are many wonderful advantages to growing older and gaining maturity, there are, for me, some negative feelings that go along with it.  I could see that part of the Snow White story and understand it; something that I couldn’t grasp at age seven.  This was very poignant, and I confess to shedding a tear at the sight of  a  14 year-old Bright Water School student,  with whom I had walked hand-in-hand  when she was a kindergartner, now being strangled with bodice laces by her stage mother.  I looked across the audience at  the student’s real mother and wondered if she was having the experience that I was.

Snow White, of course, is a fairy tale.  We know fairy tales and folk tales to be teaching (pedagogical) stories.  We use pedagogical stories for the younger children at our school as a part of the curriculum, and to address anything from social difficulties  to rule-breaking.  This parallels how cultures around the world use these teaching tales.  Fairy tales or folk tales aren’t the only pedagogical stories: as high school or college students, we’ve all  deconstructed literature to wring some subtext out of it.

Steiner legend has it that pedagogical stories take forty years to fully unfold within the listener.  Does that mean that your first grader won’t understand the story of Michael and the dragon until he’s 47?  I don’t think so.  I think it means that for some of us, it can take that long to fully realize the deeper message of a tale, or to be able to see  it with different eyes, as was the case with me and Snow White.  

At the end of September, our school holds its Michaelmas celebration, like many other Waldorf schools around the world.  The lower grades children are busy singing about Michael and the dragon, pitching meteors, and trying to tame a fire-breathing beast made up of sixth graders.  For most children, the story of Michael, the villagers, and the dragon, is about strength, hope, perseverance, humility, and heroism.  The villagers, terrorized by a dragon, call upon Michael for help.  Michael comes to their aid, but does not slay the dragon: he tames it, and the villagers put it to work for them.  In short, they’ve taken a negative and turned it into a positive.  The villagers faced a challenge and they met it.  From the story come the activities of the festival, in which students can challenge themselves to accomplish a difficult task: strike a steel, saw a giant log, arm wrestle.  Through the festival activities, they can have the physical experience of stepping up to a challenge; they are building their resilience.

For adults, we often say that the Michaelmas festival is a time to gather courage for the dark months ahead.  But we’re not just talking about the impending change of season, though Michael’s sword of light can help us out with that.  From a grown-up perspective, that dragon threatening the villagers is really the beast within all of us that can drag us into a place of fear and uncertainty, doom and depression.  The weather doesn’t help, but our dragon lives on whether it be spring or winter.  The tale of Michael gives us a tableau upon which we can take that dark side out and look at it a little bit, maybe even contemplate how we might tame it and put it to work for us.  Do we have a sense of hope about our dragon?  Will humility help us find some relief from our shortcomings or a way to work with them?  The tale of Michael and the dragon can unite us as we admit our own struggle against fear or chaos, and search for our own sword of light to carry us through the dark times.

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