The Brothers Grimm, German academics and authors in the late 18th Century and early 19th Century, became world famous for their piquant and complex folklores, fairy tales and oral tales, which offered object and classical lessons about morality and ethics and the struggle of humanity in every generation to become more civil, humane and less barbarous.
The authors collected and popularized European and German stories. The tales featured characters struggling to make good choices or striving for virtue amidst the whirlpool of vices and conceits we all enjoy.
The brothers, who were also philologists and lexicographers, adored language and understood the power of good writing to build character, to educate, to entertain – and to transform, if we are self-reflective enough and humble enough to recognize the fears, demons and compulsions which often engulf our best intentions and which sometimes lead us to betray our better angels.
The Grimm collections included stories and works, which Disney and others have further popularized through film and animation. Such iconic stories include “Sleeping Beauty”, “Cinderella”, “The Frog Prince”, “Rapunzel”, “Snow White” and others.
Most Bahamian children and adults recall these morality tales, though the versions we know were often sweetened and sanitized and made less dark and macabre for modern film audiences going out for an evening of entertainment and refreshment.
Fairy tales were originally read and were intended to frighten and to inspire children into good behavior. The Disney version of “Pinocchio” is a milder version than the original by the mid to late 19th Century Florentine and Italian humorist, writer and journalist Carlo Lorenzini, who wrote under the pen name Carlo Collodi.
Like Victor Hugo in his historical novel “Les Misérables”, Collodi’s characters in Pinocchio are more complex and multidimensional. The process of conversion for the lead characters in both masterpieces takes an extended period and is an ongoing process, not like the quick “born again” emotionalism that often wears away as quickly as a New Year’s resolution made after a flush of vodka tonics, champagne or wine.
Like most of us, the shadows surrounding and the dark dimensions within the crevices of the souls of Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables” and Pinocchio in “The Adventures of Pinocchio”, paralyze these characters much as our own deadly sins, such as acedia (sloth) or insatiable greed seduce our own intensions.
But even before the Grimm Brothers and the works of Hans Christian Andersen and novels like “Pinocchio”, there were the works of a writer in Paris in the 1600s, whose works were published seven years before Charles Perrault published “Tales of Mother Goose”.
Who was the writer? According to author Melissa Ashley, the first person to coin the phrase fairy tale and one of the very first fairy tale writers was not a man but a woman, Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, who also wrote “The Isle of Happiness”, which Ashley claims was “the very first fairy tale” or “conte de fée”.
The suggested originator of the fairy tale was married at 15 to an abusive husband who was three decades older. She grew up in a patriarchal society in which women could not inherit money or choose whom to marry.
As an act of rebellion and agency, she wrote fairy tales, which included the perennial theme of opposing arranged marriages.
According to Ashley: “She subversively wrote against some of the cultural norms for women at the time, [her] messages disguised through, very, very detailed” writing.
She eventually wrote 26 original tales. Ashley notes: “There was a royal censor at the time and you couldn’t directly criticize the regime; you’d be thrown into prison for that. So, she had coded ways of critiquing women’s lives in her fairy tales.”
Imagine a canon of Bahamian fairy tales and folklore, which each generation of Bahamian children will grow up reading and enjoying as much as lore or stories from other literary traditions.
Imagine nonfiction stories about men like Samuel and James Nixon from Inagua who helped to save the West Indian Flamingo. The number of books on The Bahamas by local authors continue to grow but we have a very long way to go.
Writing and reading native and indigenous texts are acts of freedom, ownership and agency, and are essential for national development. The treasury of world literature belongs to us all. Still, the development of a native body of works is critical for self-understanding and self-reflection.
Some years ago, a prominent Bahamian journalist suggested the reprinting and publication of two masterpieces of Bahamian literature, which have been lost to succeeding generations.
One is Sammy Swain, a Cat Island folklore, which was popularized by Clement Bethel’s opera. The story was brilliantly told by Sir Etienne Dupuch in serial form in The Tribune. The other is a lesser-known work, “Blackbeard, A Romance of The Bahamas”, an epic poem by Henry Christopher Christie.
How is it that generations of Bahamians are not as versed in these texts as they are in other world stories? To lose one’s stories or not to know one’s history is akin to losing one’s soul.
Because we read little, and write even less, our national development is that much retarded and less advanced. There is an extraordinary push for STEM education, a critical part of a modern advanced curriculum.
But, unless we dramatically improve reading and writing, none of the other areas of a national curriculum will take deeper root or flourish.
Helen Hennessy Vendler is the Arthur Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard University “and one of the foremost critics of English and American poetry in the world”.
In an interview with Harvard Gazette, she observed: “In learning, everything depends on reading. Whether you’re going to do science or history or anything else, adult intellectual accomplishment depends on being able to read widely and well and with enjoyment.
“Judging by the results from the schools, few children are proficient in reading at the fourth grade. They don’t read fast, they don’t read with understanding, they don’t read with appetite. If you’re not a good reader by the time you’re in the fourth grade, you’re probably never going to be one.
“I wish we could have, for the first four grades, the children taught ‘reading’ in every conceivable form: singing, putting on plays, reciting, looking up words in the dictionary, memorizing, reading aloud, being read aloud to.
“They could learn verbal rhythm by marching and singing and dancing. For the first four years, the chief aim would be perfecting reading, in all these ways. Then, the children could undertake other subjects — when they could actually read history, read geography, read science.
“If we could induce children to read with pleasure, and to feel the connection between thought and expression, their education could progress. [W]ith immersion in reading practices, all becomes possible.”
Next week: Ways to improve reading and writing.