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Correcting ‘Youth’s Eternal Temptation to Arrogance’—One Bedtime Story at a Time

“We almost never take this out because it is really fragile,” said Christine Nelson, a curator at the Morgan Library in New York. I was sitting across from her, in her office.

She drew out a small navy-blue case and opened the lid. Inside, its glossy red leather binding embossed with gold, was the earliest surviving volume of the fairy tales of Charles Perrault. This beautiful object had been created in 1695 as a gift for the teenage niece of Louis the Fourteenth, a girl known as “Mademoiselle.”

Nelson opened to the frontispiece (illustrated above), revealing a charming little painting. A plain-faced woman in a linen coif and rustic dress sits before a fire, holding a spindle of wool. She seems to be telling a story to three young people in elegant clothes, one of whom leans forward, touching the storyteller’s knees in her eagerness. Curled up by the fire, a plump little cat listens, too. On the wooden door behind the spindle holder, a sign reads: Contes de Ma Mere l’Oye. (Tales of My Mother Goose!) More than three centuries ago, a careful hand (possibly Perrault’s son, Pierre) had dipped a pen in ink, and in beautiful cursive committed the world’s first known collection of fairy tales to this folio. Now the pages were fragile, crisp, and speckled with age spots.

There I was, sitting in a modern office building, with trucks and cars rumbling up nearby Madison Avenue, and for a fraction of a second the book before me seemed to become a portal, like a wardrobe into Narnia or a portkey at Hogwarts, that could fling me into the past. I had the fleeting idea that if I were to touch the page, I might be flashed back to a place of silks and mirrors and a laughing girl, and that if I were to squint or tip my head at the right angle, I might go deeper still, through the story and out the other side, into the hazy Indo-European folkways where the stories began. It was the impression of a moment, and it was whimsical, I know, but the tales that Perrault collected have such broad cultural resonance today that I felt giddy to be so close to the first Mother Goose.

Charles Perrault is credited with creating the literary tradition of the fairy tale, but of course the stories he told weren’t his. They had come from deep in the trackless past and were, by word of mouth, on their way into the future when he plucked them from the air and wrote them down. He and other collectors and folklorists over the centuries and across the world—enterprising individuals such as Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, Andrew Lang, Moltke Moe, Lafcadio Hearn, Charles Chesnutt, W. E. B. Du Bois, and many others—have preserved vast libraries derived from “the golden network of oral tradition” that might otherwise have been lost. Without their efforts, we would have inherited nothing like the richness of story, song, and legend available to us in the digital age.

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairytales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairytales,” Albert Einstein advised. I don’t know if the great theoretical physicist really made that remark, and I cannot promise that reading fairy tales to a child will tweak his IQ, but there is no doubt that these weird dramas of risk, terror, loyalty and reward agitate the blood and captivate the heart. To C. S. Lewis, time spent in what he called “fairyland” arouses in a child “a longing for he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his lifelong enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his actual reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: The reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.”

The reading does something else, too. It situates children in a cultural sense, equipping them to understand references to fairy tales and other classic stories that they will find all around them. When we read Hansel and Gretel or The Fisherman and His Wife or Puss in Boots, we’re at once transporting children with our voices and grounding them in foundational texts. For this reason, the time we spend reading to them can amount to a second education, one that helps children “acquire a sense of horizons,” in the phrase of linguist John McWhorter. What we give them is not schooling qua schooling, but an introduction to art and literature by means so calm and seamless that they may not notice it’s happening.

When the Dominican-born writer Junot Díaz was a boy, his elementary-school librarian in the United States showed him around the stacks and told him, he said years later, that “all the books on the shelves were mine.” It was a galvanizing moment that he never forgot. And it is a message that every child needs to hear. Owning something and taking possession of it are two different things, of course. A child may have as much right to Beowulf as the scholar who devotes his life to the study of Old English. Yet unless the child meets the hero Beowulf and the monster Grendel, and Grendel’s gruesome mother, he cannot be said to have taken possession of the property that’s his. Let that child’s mother read Beowulf in translation at bedtime (if she dares—it’s pretty gory), and the child’s custody is complete. The characters and scenes and language of the book will become part of his interior landscape.

The more stories children hear, and the more varied and substantial those tales, the greater the confidence of their cultural ownership. They will recognize allusions that other children may miss. A girl who has heard the stories of Aesop or Jean de la Fontaine will have a clear idea of what is meant by “sour grapes” and will know why people compare the industriousness of ants and grasshoppers. A boy who’s heard a parent read The Odyssey has a more complete idea of what constitutes a “siren song” than his friend who thinks it must have something to do with an alarm going off.

The narratives of the past have helped to frame the consciousness and language of the present, and it’s a gift to children to help them recognize as much as they can. The milk of human kindness, the prick of the spindle, the wolf in sheep’s clothing, the wine-dark sea: all are expressions of a vast cultural treasury.

“We all come from the past, and children ought to know what it was that went into their making, to know that life is a braided cord of humanity stretching up from time long gone, and that it cannot be defined by the span of a single journey from diaper to shroud,” Russell Baker writes in his beautiful memoir, Growing Up.

Children get a wider perspective when they’re tugged out of the here and now for a little while each day. In an enchanted hour, we can read them stories of the real and imagined past. With picture-book biographies we can acquaint them with people we want them to know: Josephine Baker and Amelia Earhart, Julius Caesar and Marco Polo, Martin Luther King Jr. and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, George Patton and Shaka Zulu, Pocahontas, Frida Kahlo, Edward Hopper, William Shackleton, the Savage of Aveyron, and the terrible Tudors.

With any luck, our children will come to appreciate that the people of generations past were as full of life, intelligence, wisdom, and promise as they are, and impelled by the same half-understood desires and impulses; that those departed souls were as good and bad and indifferent as people who walk the earth today. Those who came before us wrote stories and songs, built roads and bridges, invented and created and argued and fought and sacrificed for all sorts of causes. Do we not owe them a debt of gratitude? We wouldn’t be here without them.

Young people are inclined to think, in a vague way, that events began when they did. When I was a child, I was told that President Kennedy was shot in 1963. It seemed to me that the tragedy coincided, more or less, with the end of the Civil War. When you’re young, the decades blur together. Only years later did I come to understand that JFK died six months before I was born, and that I entered a world still shocked by his departure.

So it goes. Youth is inattentive. It thinks itself something fresh, full of energy, spirit, and insight. It feels that no one has ever cared so much, felt with such intensity, or realized truth with such exquisite clarity. It prepares for a future that is unique in its grandeur and meaning. Youth may have no idea that it is wreathed in ghosts, informed by ghosts, held up on the shoulders of ghosts. When we read aloud from the literature of the past—and all literature is the literature of the past—and when we share artistic traditions, we are not merely giving children stories and pictures to enjoy. We’re also inviting a measure of humility, gently correcting youth’s eternal temptation to arrogance.

* * *

It helps that children love the bump and tumble of rhyming words. They may not mind one way or another about the characters of Humpty Dumpty or Little Miss Muffet or Old Mother Hubbard, but most little ones find the lolloping rhythms of nursery songs irresistible. (I have the faintest memories of my mother chanting “Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross” to me. Holding my hands, she’d jog me on her knees, as her own mother had done with her. At the crucial line, “And she shall have music wherever she goes!” she’d pretend to drop me, and I’d shriek. This all came back to me with a rush when I saw her do the same with my daughter Molly, as she, Molly, will probably someday do with her own children.)

Fun to chant, and culturally grounding to learn, nursery rhymes also happen to be a terrific entry point to language. Neurobiologist Maryanne Wolf and others believe that exposure to these traditional poems can help to sharpen a small child’s awareness of the smallest sounds in words, known as phonemes. “Tucked inside ‘Hickory, dickory dock a mouse ran up the clock’ and other rhymes,” Wolf writes in Proust and the Squid, “can be found a host of potential aids to sound awareness—alliteration, assonance, rhyme, repetition. Alliterative and rhyming sounds teach the young ear that words can sound similar because they share a first or last sound.”

Fairy tales also encode a measure of philosophical and practical wisdom, as Vigen Guroian observed. It is certainly easy to see the moral precepts in Little Red Riding Hood. Perrault all but spells them out with the ominous sexual overtones in his version of the tale. Having devoured the grandmother and taken her place in bed, the wolf tells Little Red, when she arrives, to undress and join him. She does—to her ruin. In case we missed the metaphor, Perrault makes it explicit in the second half of the moral of the story (the first was at the beginning of this chapter):

And this warning take, I beg:
Not every wolf runs on four legs.
The smooth tongue of a smooth-skinned creature
May mask a rough and wolfish nature.
These quiet types, for all their charm,
Can be the cause of the worse harm.

Viewed in this cautionary light, Little Red Riding Hood seems to come to us a from a long line of parents stretching back in time, all calling, one generation after another, “Watch out! Beware the sweet-talking stranger!”

Excerpted, with permission, from The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction, by Meghan Cox Gurdon © 2019. Published by Harper. All rights reserved. 



  1. Wentworth Horton says

    This is why I come to Quillette, a little oasis of sanity.

  2. Brian Jones says

    “Neurobiologist Maryanne Wolf and others believe that exposure to these traditional poems can help to sharpen a small child’s awareness of the smallest sounds in words, known as phenomes.”

    It’s a pity that an otherwise admirable article is marred by misspelling; the smallest sounds are phonemes, not phenomes.

    • BillyJoe says

      Well, Brain Jonas, I hope you are capable of a similarly delightful piece but without a single small typo 😉

      • There might play another thing here. I notice that I make mistakes, misspellings, typos, that I would never have made if writing, only if typing. I never read an article on this type of wrongdoing, but I noticed it also in many other’s writings.

    • Sydney says

      @Brian Jones

      As a reader I say THANKS to you! A massive and sloppy oversight, and the reason why Quillette needs a copy editor and a proofreader. Two ENTIRELY different words! Yikes!

      • Jeremy says

        Oh God give me a break with your bullshit. It was a single misplaced letter. If that ruins an article for you, than all I can say is yikes your insufferable.

      • Stephenitisok says

        O instead of e gives rise to “marred” and “massive and sloppy oversight”. Yet neither of you choose, if you noticed, to comment on the fact that the fontispiece accompany the article and described in the opening, is only partially shown. No visible “plump little cat” or “a sign reads: Contes de Ma Mere l’Oye”. That got me to thinking, do we as ‘adults’ observe the illustrative world with different eyes than we do the written?

    • Cindy Satwell says

      I believe she may have been thinking of pheromones when she misspelled that. As Einstein or Freud or Louis the XIV may have said, “Read to a child about the wolf’s bed and you’ve given it a warning, but the real thing–delight.”

    • David Schultheis says

      Unfortunately, you focus on the minute rather on the substance.

  3. BillyJoe says

    What a beautiful little story! I will simply have to read the book.

    • jimhaz says

      Well written article with simple English, so the reading flow was never interrupted.

  4. Ghatanathoah says

    While later versions of Little Red Riding Hood may have been a metaphorical warning against sweet talking strangers, I suspect the earlier versions were warnings against the actual wolves that prowled the woods in the Middle Ages. It doesn’t need to be a metaphor for anything, wolves eating children was a semi-regular occurrence.

  5. If you’re going to read Beowulf as a bedtime story, and you probably should when your children are older, make sure you read Seamus Hanney’s translation — it’s so good and so enjoyable to read and hear that it has killed the joke in Annie Hall about never taking a class where they make you read Beowulf.

    Beside the Brothers Grimm and a lot of Lang’s variously colored “Fairy Books” our children got The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, the Chronicles of Narnia, Peter Pan and the Jungle Book. They were too old for family reading by the time Hanney’s translation came out, or I’d have read it to/with them as well.

  6. Natalie says

    Yes an unusually life positive and inspiring essay.

    But what is the situation in 2019?
    Every moment of the day on a world-wide basis countless millions of young people of all ages are
    now entranced, and thus being brain-washed by some kind of electronic screen, even at the age of two.
    Boys in particular are playing (or being played by) ultra violent death saturated video games. How much life-positive creative imagination do such video games cultivate.

    Many years ago in the early days of TV brainwashing someone once said that listening to radio is much better than TV.
    Because the pictures that you create in your imagination are far more alive and interesting.

    As a pre-teen and young teenager I spent many hours listening to radio plays which were hugely popular before TV took over.
    I was also a member of the Argonauts Club

    Almost everyone in the modern world has been brain washed by TV, which is perhaps why a “reality”-TV “star” who is also a life long professional grifter is now the POTUS.

    • Morgan Foster says

      Yours is the fairy tale version of how Trump became president.

      In fact, it was a peasants’ revolt, first against the Republican Party in the primary, and then against the Democratic Party in the presidential election.

    • What does Trump have to do with any of this? Good Lord stay on topic. The ‘screen culture’ started in the early 2000’s and sky-rocketed after 2007, these kids can’t even vote yet (except in CA).

  7. Natalie says

    And of course all the young men thus en-“culturated” or reduced to the level of ugly toads by such violent video games and TV can never ever be transformed into a strong handsome and wise young man (Prince) if perchance they are kissed on the forehead by a beautiful young Princess.

    Ugly toads representing the primitive reptilian brain.
    The forehead representing the frontal cortex which when connected to the feeling-heart as in the Mind-Heart Matrix is the locus of our positive cultural potential(s).

    Such violent video games and most movies too, reinforce the reptilian brain at the expense of the feeling intelligence of the Mind-Heart Matrix

    Indeed they would be more likely to grab her pussy, or perhaps do “golden showers”, and much worse too, as per the current POTUS or Reptile in Chief

    Meanwhile is anybody familiar with this intriguing set of “fairy” stories.

    • Stephanie says

      Never ceases to amaze me how many minds Trump lives in, rent-free. As long as we’re talking about being brainwashed by TV, it’s astounding how the media has taught millions to project their deepest fears onto the man.

    • I was brought up with Struwelpeter, Natalie, especially the drawings in the booklet caused me many nightmares, really horrible, burning children, having your fingers cut off, dying for not having your soup eaten, etc etc. Yet, it was meant to be an educational booklet, to teach the kids manners, it’s unbelievabe indeed. Every German or Austrian kid of above 50 surely knows this horrible figure. This really is no bedtime story, better Snowwhite, especially the Disney version.

  8. Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says

    ” known as phenomes. ”

    Perhaps the author means ‘phonemes’?

    Nice article.

    • See above Ray, you are not the first to note.
      There are two possibilities
      1) the author knows the word very well, but is little bit dyslectic or not good in spelling and sequencing
      2) the author does not know the word, and is confused with phenomeen, phenomenal

  9. Prairie Pirate says

    Fairy tales! Now that’s fake news I can support!

  10. My younger sister studied sociology and her first job was in monitoring families with less means and some problems. Once, she came home to tell about her experiences in that new job of her.
    -Imagine, the young kids out there are not read stories or fairy tales before they go to bed-
    I remember, that my parents did not believe her, this couldn’t be, why should these parents, even if poor, withhold their kids amusing stories? Lateron, I figured out that many well to do and well raised adults have not the slightest ideas about the social behaviour of other classes and manners. And, more important, as dealt on here above, what is the influence on the morality and psychology of those kids?

  11. Trimegistus says

    Looks like the Open Society Foundation paid trolls have found Quillette.

  12. hmm… we made a point of reading to the kids before bed every night, even slightly past the point we needed to since they could read by then. To this day 20+ years later I’ve yet to see my son read a book. I know that’s not the trust of this piece, but it saddens me no less.

    Today whenever my son is in my audience I regale him with stories and facts about the past, so that he understands that world didn’t start in the 1990’s. Sometimes you can do thing right and still lose them to dwell on the surface of modern culture.

  13. @Craig: my best friend (now passed away) also felt pain because of the heading uncultured (no more books, nonsense ) of his son, whereas he himself had a bookshelf of probably over 200 books (as we all, friends of that time, had), on all kinds of stuff, history, literature, fiction, fairy and real,politics, ecology, insects, birds, you name it. Now, an old man, I wonder, whether the one type of life, is any better (for this or that matter) than the other type of lifestyle. Really, I don’t know. But, feel happy with my books and education.

  14. I was struck by how different the theme of this article is from our current cultural wars narrative. The article posits the value of stories of the past, and of dangers, to increase awareness in children. The counter narrative emphasizes such stories as stereotypical, repressive, and based in a corrupt western cultural context that deprives children of discovering their own identity.
    Clearly, while their have been some children who lost sleep after one of these bedtime stories, they probably survived the experience. Despite the evident flaws in our Western Greco Roman Judeo Christian Enlightenment cultural past, the current vogue to throw our the baby with the bathwater is not the solution.
    We need to continue to develop the narrative that draws from the best of our collective experiences, rather that discard them as useless based on dis proven theories.

    • I see what I did their.
      Haven’t figured out how to edit yet.

    • Discard them as useless Rick? I guess, they continue to be be read and told to 100s of millions of western (and other) kids, at bedtime, for the next 100s years or so, because, they are rather eternal.

  15. These stories were written by the patriarchy, and are read to children in order to indoctrinate them into their privileged positions. The “wolf” is a colored person. The “witch” is a lesbian, or maybe a trans./s.

    • The wolf of little riding red cap was the dirty old toxic white man, Benita, so well known from the #metoo wave, just read the end of above, the story of the wolf asking red cap to undress and join him in the bed was subsequently adapted (meaning: leave out the sexual part) to have a more childfriendly story, though, I wonder, in our time where we want to keep young people childlike, and to only confront them much lateron with sexual and such things, is that really the good path to follow??, I really ask myself sometimes.

  16. markbul says

    “Charles Perrault is credited with creating the literary tradition of the fairy tale, but of course the stories he told weren’t his. They had come from deep in the trackless past and were, by word of mouth …”

    No, this claim was debunked long ago. The stories are not based on oral tales passed down through the generations – they come mostly from written sources, and from Italy in particular. Same for the Grimm’s tales – they were taken originally from books, and shared among literate and non-literate upper- and lower-class people by read-aloud friends.

    • The lower, illiterate (no books, but oral tradition) class as the source of fairy tales….. pretty well illustrated by that old booklet that Meghan found and was shown in the Morgan Library, Chapeau for that Meghan, btw. The kids obviously are of the upper class, the fairy teller the lower class, the bookless worker class (spinning). Also the name, Mother Goose, probably hints at the fact that it was not their own biological upper class mother they were listening to. Also, it was not due to the enlightenment, but to romanticism (brothers Grimm) that fairy tales were discovered, and found worthy to be added to official literature. Though, I can imagine the reactions of the upper class teachers and savages of the time:
      – What on earth, why have attention for these nonsensical, heathenly folk stories, and even take the trouble to write it all down, funny, not rational, and not even pedagogical. No use and no value, misleading, better read Cicero, Aquino or Dante-.

      • correction: not ‘savages’, but ‘scholars’. I was confused with the French sages, so, am not the only one here.

  17. Michael Kupperberg says

    Another favorite of times gone by, Just so Stories. In a world with out television books were by savior. Read insatiably and the worlds that they brought into view, Beowolf, the Song of Roland, Mort d’ Arthur, Perry Mason, Shakespeare, and many more.
    Others of course have taken different courses, for me books are the path less traveled and have made all the difference.

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