Careful the Tale You Tell

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  • CHILDREN & SOCIETY (1995) 9:4. PP.80-93

    Careful The Tale You Tell Fairy tales, drama and moral


    Joe Winston, Institute of Education, University of Warwick

    Careful the tale you tell That is the spell

    Children will listen. (Sondheim and Lapine, 1989)

    SUMMARY In this article, I examine theories which argue both for and against the educational potential of fairy tales, with special attention to the field of moral learning. I conclude that, in the contemporary world, stories have aparticular importance for such learning but that the hidden moral

    values conveyed by many traditional tales may well be disquieting for a teacher. I propose that educational drama offers an appropriate pedagogy for exploring such values with children and describe in some detail a case

    study, in which I used a version of a traditional Hindu tale for these purposes. I offer a brief analysis on how the strategies employed by drama teachers can be harnessed for moral educational purposes and suggest that

    drama can offer children much needed opportunities to actively and creatively engage with stories and their values in a communal framework.

    In one of Sakis short stories, The Story Teller, a beleagured aunt on a train journey attempts to quieten her unruly charges by telling them a story in which a virtuous girl is saved from an enraged bull by neigh- bours, who run to her aid because they admire her goodness so much. The tale is not a success; the children listen to it reluctantly and criticise it when the aunt has finished. A man sharing the compartment then relates the tale of a girl called Bertha who was horribly good, so good that she was awarded medals for her goodness and invited to walk in the kings garden as a special reward. While there, however, she encountered a vicious wolf. Running to the safety of some nearby bushes she hid and almost escaped; but her trembling caused her medals to clink one against the other, betraying her presence to the wolf who promptly ate her. The


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    aunt is outraged, condemning the story as improper; the children, on the other hand, love it. Thats the most beautiful story I have ever heard! proclaims the eldest daughter, wistfully.

    The story is witty, cynical and very entertaining. Whereas the reward of virtue in the aunts tale is salvation, in the storytellers tale, it is a horrible death. Written at the turn of the century, i t at once satirises and parodies a tendency within much Victorian childrens literature, particu- larly in its fairy stories for facile moralising, pious representation of the conventional virtues and an almost sadistic use of violence (see Tatar, 1992). As a n ex-headteacher from a PrimaryMiddle School background I can recall using the story with children, knowing full well that, like the unfortunate aunt, I too, was guilty of misusing stories for morally didactic purposes. This, of course, was at Assembly time when, harassed and short of ideas I could always find some suitably bland tale with a moral appendage in volumes entitled Stories for the Middle School Assembly, Volume 3 or even Stories to Inspire. Like the children in The Story Teller my pupils would often react with inattention and boredom, rejecting the overt moralising tone and the facile story lines. Indeed, their experience of such overtly didactic, oppressive tales ensured that the Saki story, with its liberating tonic of ridicule and laughter, was always a success; and it is for much the same reasons that the tales of Roald Dahl are so loved by young children today.

    However, before we deny the educational potential of the fairy story, particularly in the moral field, we should take account of the thinking of some eminent philosophers and psychologists. Walter Benjamin, for example, saw it as: the first tutor of children as it was once the first tutor of mankind (Benjamin, 1992, p101) and the moral philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre is in no doubt about its importance:

    It is through hearing stories about wicked stepmothers, lost children, good but misguided kings, wolves that suckle twin boys, youngest sons who receive no inheritance but must make their own way in the world and eldest sons who waste their inheritance on riotous living and go into exile to live with the swine, that children learn or mislearn both what a child and what a parent is, what the cast of characters may be in the drama into which they have been born and what the ways of the world are. Deprive children of stories and you leave them anxious stutterers in their actions and in their words. (MacIntyre, 1981, p216)

    MacIntyres moral perspective is Aristotelian and, as such, he sees the stock of a societys stories a s its major resource for providing exemplary answers to what was, for Aristotle, the prime moral question: What sort of person am I to become?.


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    Bruno Bettelheim, coming from a very different direction, also sees the moral value of fairy tales in terms of their potential to provide children with answers to what he calls the eternal questions.

    What is the world really like? How am I to live my life in it? How can I truly be myself? (Bettelheim, 1976, p45)

    He brings an orthodox Freudian perspective to bear on the tales, believing that they are an essential part of childrens moral education due to the beneficial effects they have on their pre-concious and subcon- cious understandings. He argues that it is through the symbolism of the tales that these understandings are conveyed; the ogres and witches rep- resent the forces of evil, the heroes and princesses the forces of good. Children project themselves into the good characters and identify sym- bolically with the triumph of good over evil. The examples of violence in the tales should also be seen as symbolic. He cites the examples of a young boy who enjoyed the story Jack the Giant Killer because, in his subconcious, he saw the giants as symbolising grown-ups. Rather than this leading to a desire to commit violence, it purged him of his frustra- tions and the rages that the adults, as agents of social control, caused within him. The story thus had a cathartic and empowering effect on the child; it purged him of anti-social feelings and presented a role model he could subconciously admire.

    Although MacIntyre and Bettelheim have very different perspectives on the moral value of fairy tales, both shun a simplistic view of them as vehicles for straightforward didactic lessons. Rather do they advocate them as a vital imaginative resource to help children learn about the nature of the moral life as it is lived. Literature, writes Goldberg, does its moral thinking in the particulars it imagines (1993, pxv). It is through their imaginative engagement with the symbolisms and the nar- rative art of the tales that children become involved, both emotionally and cognitively, with the moral issues they raise within the context of the actions of particular individuals.

    Such advocacy of the tales is not without its critics, however, and Bettelheims ideas, in particular, have been strongly challenged for their naive propagation of orthodox Freudianism and for their unwitting sexism and ethnocentrism. Two of his strongest critics are Jack Zipes and Maria Tatar. Tatar (1992) objects to the values embodied in literary fairy tales, to the negative female images they often present and to their cruel images of violence, perpetrated in particular on children and on women. Like Jack Zipes (1979, 1983, 1986) she brings a post-struc- turalist perspective to bear, critically deconstructing their values and


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    analysing their moral assumptions. Both theorists believe that new ver- sions are needed to challenge and undermine the outmoded social and moral values that typify the traditional tales. Zipes, in fact, has edited and prefaced a volume of alternative fairy stories, written from a femi- nist perspective (Zipes, 1986). Both Tatar and Zipes take a moral stand- point, recognising the power of the stories to enchant and encapture children through their symbolisms and strong narrative structures. They understand their appeal and wish to subvert what they see as the inap- propriate moral values they propogate by re-working the genre, not abandoning it. They believe that different moral values, more suited to the needs of todays children should shape these new or reworked fairy tales.

    Contemporary society - whether we choose to define it as postmodern or not - has witnessed a collapse of the dominant structures of morality, seen by the cultural theorist Fred Inglis as: the inevitable product of a global culture made up of dozens of maps of local knowledge (1993, p212).

    In these circumstances, [he postulates] a moral education composed of rela- tively secure precepts and maxims will not serve .... The guide [the] indi- vidual needs is the canon of the worlds stories .... The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are not just a help to moral education; they com- prise the only education which can gain purchase on the modern world. (ibid., p213 and p214)

    For teachers, therefore, the fairy stories of the world are a major resource for the moral education of the children in their charge. But the caveats raised by post-structuralists and their concerns about the peda- gogy of fear contained in the violence of fairy tale imagery should not be ignored. What is needed is a way to use the stories with children which allows for an engagement with their symbolisms and narrative drive. Such a way, I propose, can be found through educational drama.

    Recently I worked with a class of Year 3 and Year 4 children from an inner city primary school situated in an area of substantial social depri- vation, where crime rates are high amongst the young. Regarding, as Inglis suggests we should, the stories of the world as my resource, I chose a little known Indian fairy story to work with, to form a short unit of moral education through story and drama. Below, I present it as a case study, a simple example of how such an approach can work. It is organ- ised as follows:

    0 a summary and deconstructive analysis of the story;


  • Joe Winston

    0 a narrative summary of the lesson; a rationale for the educational relevance of the drama; an analysis of the sense the children made of the storys moral values; a brief explanation of some specific ways in which drama pedagogy can be seen to have acted as a pedagogy for moral education.

    Case study

    The story: The Brahmin, the Thief and the Ogre

    This story tells of a Brahmin who, though poor, always remained good, honest and humble and who regularly prayed to the Gods. Because of this, Lord Vishu decided to reward him and a kindly farmer made him the gift of two calves which he proceeded to take great care of. However, a thief saw the calves and decided to steal them. That night, on his journey to the Brahmins cottage, he was accosted by an ogre who, on learning of the thief s purpose, decided to accompany him in order to eat the Brahmin. Once in the cottage, however, they began to argue over whether the thief should steal the calves first or the ogre eat the Brahmin first. Their argument awoke the Brahmin who prayed to the Gods and they promptly responded by getting rid of the ogre; whereupon the Brahmin reached for his stick and put the thief to flight by clubbing him over the head.

    I found this English language version of the tale in a volume More stories from the Panchatantra (see Thomas, in References). Although the original, some two thousand years old, was a fable, this retelling, by one Vernon Thomas, reads like a nineteenth century fairy tale, the kind satirised by Saki in The Story Teller. The original fable was intended for an audience of adults and children and concluded with the moral: Even enemies may be useful when they fall out with each other.3 With the chil- drens version, however, many didactic moral values have been intro- jected. The Brahmins good fortune is portrayed as a reward for his virtue, described as follows:

    Once upon a time, there lived a Brahmin who was so poor that he went about in rags, and had hardly anything to eat. But though he faced so much hardship, the Brahmin was always good and honest. Daily he would pray, and accept without grumbling whatever fate had in store for him.

    Goodness is, therefore, portrayed in terms of meekness, passivity, hon- esty and religious piety - model behaviour for a child reared on Victorian values, in fact, a model which Bertha herself would recognize and one


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    whose residue still persists in many primary school classrooms today. That t he child should identify with this model of goodness is reinforced by the description of the Brahmins attitude to the calves he is given:

    He began to take great care of the calves. Daily he saw to it that they had enough grass to eat and water to drink.

    He is kind to animals and they are described as his pets. In the original fable, the calves are already fattened when the Brahmin receives them. The childrens version ignores their religious and economic symbolism and replaces i t with a cross-cultural image of cuddly baby animals, one that is readily accessible to any child reared in a culture where the lib- eral western tradition of childhood is dominant (including the Indian urban middle classes, a t whom this version is aimed).

    The Brahmins violence a t the end of the story provides an ethical jolt in the narrative. When he clubs the thief it is not to protect the calves from harm but his property from theft. The implied moral messages at this point seem to be that violence is justifiable when defending ones property and that thieves will be punished for their crimes. As with the Victorian fairy tale, the level of violence reinforces the lesson; just as Mr Miacca will chop your leg off if you disobey your parents, you will be beaten with a stick if you steal. Nevertheless the Brahmins use of vio- lence sits uneasily alongside the model of passive goodness that he previ- ously appeared to embody.

    Here we have an example, therefore, of how, with the literary reading of fairy stories, we get different and often contradictory values layered into the fabric of their narratives, creating moral anomalies which are difficult to resolve. Paradoxically, this makes them interesting for moral educational purposes. In deconstructing the contradictory values within the story, children can begin to reconstruct communally what they judge to be a suitable morality. Indeed, the issues raised unintentionally by the story are very relevant for a child in contemporary British society:

    a re children influenced by their exposure to violence in fiction? is violence justifiable when defending ones property and, if so, what level of violence? can one be good and violent?

    The characters in this story, as in many fairy stories are archetypal and two-dime...