In 1894, the same year that the Children’s Charter extended new legal protection to the young, the English painter Thomas Gotch portrayed his young daughter in majesty like a Madonna by Duccio, with a huge nimbus around her head, and called the image The Child Enthroned. Concurrently, the Swiss Ferdinand Hodler celebrated the birth of his son with an equally awed work, The Chosen One, in which the newborn and naked baby lies on the ground like a Christ Child in a Nativity painting, with a watch of winged spirits hovering a foot off the ground around him. In both images, mothers are altogether absent, and fathers are present only by implication, as votaries before the icon they are creating. The child is isolated in glory, a being in human form but quasi-divine, not quite contiguous with the adult world. As Robert Rosenblum observes in his stimulating and characteristically original essay, The Romantic Child, Hodler’s celebration – like Gotch’s – lacks some of the raw and peculiar passion of the early Romantics. The children are still represented as preternaturally different, still cast as creatures possessed with a virtuality that their progenitors can never match, but sentimentality has blurred the unsettling adoration of the primitive found in the art of the German visionaries Philip Otto Runge and Karl Friedrich Schinkel.
Sentimentality has become a great offence in contemporary aesthetics and – less justifiably – in politics, and with the new art brut, there has been a leap of interest in the late 18th century and early 19th century’s concern with fantasy and fairy-tale. The terror and cruelty of fairy-tales, the genre’s unapologetic, almost toneless admission of family violence offer a new but recognisable species of dirty realism. The Grimm Brothers’ collection, Nursery and Household Tales, claimed to listen to the authentic voice of the German Volk: truth was bound up with a presumed aboriginal literature, which was oral, female and childlike, springing from nature, undiluted by civilisation. The old nurses and servants (Mother Gooses) whom they cited as pristine sources had heard the stories in their infancy: the stories were in this sense by children, and also represented the authentic childhood of Germany, historically and culturally. They were destined for the people, who needed to touch the lost purity of youth, their roots – another preoccupation that strikes a chord today. Wilhelm Grimm called the Tales ‘Nature Poetry’, and defended them against critics who found them uncouth.
After their popularity in the last century, parents and libraries began to disagree about the curative powers of unadulterated nature, and the Grimms’ harsh versions of fairy-tales like Cinderella dropped from the canon. There has now been a complete turnabout in pedagogical thinking, of which perhaps the classic expression can be found in Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, in which he argues that the horrors and threats and subterfuges in the stories help children through the loneliness and haplessness of childhood and the difficulties of growing up.
Maurice Sendak, author and illustrator of the unforgettable dream tale Where the wild things are, has interpreted the lessons of the analyst’s couch to produce many children’s books that are copybook exempla of the Freudian – Bettelheimian – point of view. In the collection of his occasional pieces, Caldecott & Co, he speaks of returning to ‘the gritty, slaphappy German Märchen that never quite explains itself but is fiercely true to a child’s experience’, of ‘the fierce, honest and wildly imaginative tales of Grimm’. Over a period of thirty years, Sendak has remained loyal to the child’s eye view, through a kind of dream work on his own part, by returning in fantasy to the fears and pain of his youth. There’s a sense of barrel-scraping about Caldecott & Co, and it contains more insights into Sendak’s own work and motives than into those of the other illustrators he’s discussing. Sendak talks with intensity of ‘the small, quiet dilemmas of childhood ... the unspoken but deeply felt and often neglected pain of children ... the grave uncomplaining nature of that pain or confusion ... the simple heroism of children and their touching efforts at concealment, as though to shield grown ups from too much pain’. When he celebrates Winsor McKay, the creator of the newspaper strip ‘Little Nemo’ in the first decades of the century, he writes: ‘McKay and I serve the same master, our child selves.’ But Sendak also criticises McKay for concluding Nemo’s story with his growing-up: ‘Nemo exchanges childhood for manhood, never thinking he might have both.’
Sendak illustrated a selection of Grimms’ Tales in the early Seventies, and is now working on a complete edition. In 1981 he created his own Gothic fantasy with the astonishing Outside Over There, a picture book in which a little girl who is left in charge of her baby sister ‘never watched’, with the result that goblins come and carry the baby off, substituting a changeling of ice. Sendak describes how his own sister had to babysit for him, and resented it; he also recalls how the Lindbergh kidnapping shattered the security of his childhood – if a baby like that, so protected, so valuable, could be stolen away, the world he knew could dissolve like the ice changeling who melts when Ida hugs her.
Where the wild things are (1967) describes a more routine disaster of childhood: the child hero, Max, quarrels with his mother. Another Sendak classic, In the Night Kitchen (1970), dramatises fear of the dark and the emptiness of a house at night when everyone sleeps. All three are inspired but doctrinal renderings of Freudian theory. The illustrations reject the traditional tenor of childish innocuousness: when a pastel colour is used it looks crepuscular; when, like the bakers in the Night Kitchen, adults appear, they are hallucinatory lookalikes of threatening dimensions; the pale infants who inhabit the goblin world of Outside Over There fill the double-page spreads to bursting, as if swelling with demonic energy.
Rosenblum’s essay points out Sendak’s immersion in the work of the Germans, and, in particular, his debt to certain portraits of children by Runge, which also play unsettlingly with scale, so that infants and flowers seem to be inflating to outsize proportions, and the light, of an ‘uncanny intensity’, emanates from the subjects themselves. These images of Runge anticipate the oneiric atmosphere of speeded-up botanical films, in which a bud opens, blooms and ripens into fruit in a moment: Sendak manages, with an often frightening use of the turning page and juxtaposition, to give the impression that his characters are on the march, and increasing in numbers. He does this with wonderful panache and good humour in Wild Things, and it’s perhaps a shame that he has since surrendered himself so completely to the Romantic depths of Runge and others. When he began, there was a touch of Woody Allen-like wit about him (they share a similar background) but this has withered. Sendak has become a kind of Philip Roth for children.
Though there was never anything conciliating about the Sendak vision, he usually resolved his tales with tenderness and a return to safety. ‘And it was still hot’ is the wonderfully happy last line of Wild Things, when, after years of rumpus as King of the Wild Things far away, Max finds his supper waiting in his room. But illustrating the Grimm story Dear Mili, discovered in 1983, Sendak offers little comfort. An unpleasant epitome of the genre, and especially of Wilhelm Grimm’s morbid taste, Dear Mili resembles the so-called ‘Children’s Tales’ that close the collected Grimm, with their repulsive edifying morals, their tongue-furring religiosity. The child protagonist gets lost in the tentacular forest after her mother abandons her there – to save her, it’s alleged, from marauding soldiers. The repetition of sadistic motifs is common in Grimm. Sendak’s forest, drawn in ink and wash, adapts the contorted oaks and blasted trunks of the great Romantic – and Christian – painter, Caspar David Friedrich, and the drawings of his lesser contemporaries such as the illustrator of fairy-tales, Moritz von Schwind. There are enigmatic cherubim lurking in the vegetation, and Poe-like ravens and other birds of ill omen in the branches; the sulphurous clouds are fringed in sunflower petals – one of many homages to Runge. Rosenblum says that ‘the most innovative Romantic painters tend to break down a structural hierarchy centred on adults, forcing us to confront other living beings – animals, trees, flowers – on their own terms.’ Following Runge’s lead, Sendak has conjured the organic life of vegetable matter, imparting some of his earlier babies’ menacing vitality to the hugely exaggerated, flaming petals of a canna lily. But Sendak tends to coarsen his source (always a problem in quoting) and to distill the emotional tone of the image to a chilly balefulness. The transcendental can turn merely ghoulish in his hands. These stylistic problems in recent Sendak are in this instance compounded by the tale itself. The heroine doesn’t emerge refined and annealed from her ordeal in the forest, according to the Bettelheim principle, but dies, leaving a flower behind her – St Joseph’s rose. Sendak would probably argue that children need to face the reality of death: but the confrontation is here made altogether queasy – and, yes, sentimental – by a miasma of piety.
In spite of their veneration for the originating Volk, the Grimms – especially Wilhelm, the younger brother – edited, expanded, expurgated and rewrote the tales considerably, throughout the various stages of their dissemination – as Ruth Bottigheimer demonstrates with vigour and attention to detail in her very helpful study Bad Girls and Bold Boys. Dear Mili could almost have been written as a parody of the punitive isolation of all the good little girls in the tales, their passive sufferings and iconic silence having been progressively emphasised as the book went through various editions. In the phrase of another astringent critic of the world of the fairy-tale, Jack Zipes, the ‘instrumentalisation of fantasy’ is always a danger, and the Grimms, in spite of their brilliant recovery of an oral and popular literature, did not perceive their findings as a radical challenge to convention, but as conservative of traditional values, about proper behaviour for boys and girls, among other things. When they found their material disturbing, they altered it. It’s frequently repeated today that the Grimms’ Cinderella, in which the sisters cut off their toes and their heels and have their eyes pecked out by doves at the wedding, is the original, and that other, kindlier versions are doctored. Perrault’s Cinderella, in which the heroine marries off her sisters to courtiers, actually precedes the Grimms by a century, though this need not move believers convinced that, just as childhood is the era of the id, so the Ur-fairy-tale must be savage. There’s a comfort, in harsh and rivalrous times, in learning that others have been there before. But it’s important to read Bottigheimer to understand how originality is itself only a moral claim, legitimising inherent, occluded judgments.
In ‘The Three Feathers’, one of Peter Redgrove’s variations on the Grimms, written for Radio 4, the eldest brother speaks for the author when he concedes: ‘It looks like shamanism is here to stay.’ Fairy-tales invite latterday shamans with ambitions to spiritual healing, and Peter Redgrove, who combines a vocation as a therapist with the writing of poetry, believes, like Sendak (though his persuasion is more Jungian), that the tales can initiate their receivers into life and its dangers. In this collection of seven stories and one poetic play, Redgrove has taken several of the famous and best Grimms, ‘The Juniper Tree’, ‘Ashputtel’, ‘The Master-Thief’, as inspiration for a quest of his own. The tales often treat of questing, and the author’s own search for meaning, through his protagonists’ journeys, is never buried very deep: here the path through trials and griefs to triumph leads to self-knowledge, and that is identified frequently with the carnal. The Grimms, as Bottigheimer shows, recast anything smacking of sex to identify it with retribution, especially where the female was concerned: Redgrove has turned their morality upside down, gleefully rewarding his bold girls with (bad) boys and his bold boys with (bad) girls.
Redgrove cunningly undoes the mysogyny of several famous tales. In Grimm, ‘The Flounder’ is a classic caution against hen-pecking: the peasant’s wife demands that her husband ask the magic fish he has rescued for more and more riches and power until they are both left with nothing. Brilliantly and touchingly, Redgrove interprets this as a sequence of pregnancy fantasies (at least this is how I understand it), as a visionary derangement of the imagination under the influence of hormonal swings, such as he and Penelope Shuttle proposed in The Wise Wound. But the story has longueurs, the social setting remains rather general. Redgrove is not as sharp a satirist as he is a ghost-story writer. He’s at his best when evoking the concrete, tactile and macabre: the ghost rides in a horror theme park with their cast of skeletons, ghouls and monsters, the grave-digging in the title story, and the devils’ game of billiards – ‘Sonny watched unmoved as Abanazar peeled the flesh of his legs and unscrewed the long bones inside to make beautifully smooth ivory cues.’
The poet in him responds to the tales’ origins in recitation, using incantatory repetitions, charms, cumulative lists of images, the present tense now and then, and there’s a delight in nonsense of a donnish sort. He experiments with language in a style that recalls alliterative verse and Anglo-Saxon riddles, and thereby hints at the connections with a native Volk of our own: in ‘A Job at Holle Park’ Kate, the heroine, ‘sprinkled handfuls of strange feculence generously about, a daub of guano here, a shower of plastic fleas there, a smutch of scuff here, a slubber of offal there, a filth of fur over there.’
The twists he gives the stories rehabilitate the heroines, and he certainly allows them, and their supporting female cast, plenty of spirit. Where the Victorians found nature’s wisdom in children, Redgrove locates it in women, attributing to them special connections with the paranormal: as with another magus, Robert Graves, the feminine for Redgrove is a source of spiritual energy which men may tap for their own health, and he advocates a form of material mysticism mediated through female bodies. But there’s something rather creepy about his enthusiasm. His version of the Grimms’ Cinderella, Ashiepaddle, shows her as a white witch, who has inherited her powers from her mother. She strips naked to walk through fire and cast spells in a scene that recalls present-day performances of Druidic rites – again a form of nativist revival, and highly dubious.
Elias Canetti wrote: ‘Folk tales can teach us what we can expect from the world.’ Those who oppose fairy-tales’ pretensions to universal and timeless truth find in the stories a record of specific, shared anxieties of a particular time and place: sibling rivalry may reflect the material struggle for food in rural France; banquets and miraculous animals may have been dreamed up by hungry people. Similarly, the serial polygamy of Bluebeard may reflect the high numbers of widowers who remarried after their wives died in childbirth, as was common; the tales of father-daughter incest (expunged in later versions by the Grimms) may report true stories, not Oedipal fantasy. Whereas the enshrinement of the child in Romanticism accompanies a new sensitivity to children’s social conditions, the same can’t be said, unfortunately, about the worshippers of Woman. But the universalist claim of the psychoanalytically-inclined can itself be interpreted along historical lines: where a Medieval Mother Goose wants to give comfort to the stomach, the generations after Freud and Jung listen for messages to the psyche; where a Jack the Giant Killer feels he can hold his own through wiliness, chief resource of the underdog against the rich and powerful, a modern Jack wrestles with a giant libido, the beast within. While the hungry these days ask the spirits for love and ease, not for porridge, and the fairy-tale is a screen on which play changing wishes.