The Europeans called their stories “Fairy Tales”, probably because they harkened back to a time when magical creatures existed. Native American stories for children also harken back to a more magical time, a time when animals and man could talk to each other and coexisted equally. In both cases, children’s stories usually explained where things come from or how things work. The old stories were told orally and passed down generation to generation in Europe and in America. Fortunately for us, many were finally written down and preserved.
In Europe, the Grimm brothers were probably the most notable scribes of the European stories. Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm were brothers living in Hanua Germany when they decided to collect the traditional domestic tales of the German people. Their “Kinder- und Hausmarchen”, published in 1812, was the first attempt to preserve such stories and were gathered from Hanua and Hesse in Prussia, and other provinces of Germany, Austria, and even Switzerland.
The most notable collector of stories from Native Americans was James Mooney, who lived with the Cherokee and published his “Myths of the Cherokee” in 1900. One of the similarities that I find fascinating is the way in which most of the stories begin. In Grimm’s tales, they invariably start out with “There was once upon a time …” whereas the Cherokee stories usually begin with “This is what the old men told me when I was a boy …”, although Mooney tended to omit this qualifier in many of the written versions.
Another similarity I find is that originally, children were not the primary target of the stories. In fact, the Grimm’s first volume was not deemed suitable for children. In the case of the Cherokee, the stories were suitable for children but were probably told around the fireside to all ages. Many of the Cherokee stories told of the origins of the earth, man and animals.
In both instances, most of the stories ended “happily ever after” and are witty and clever. But, because of their purpose, they come across to the reader quite differently. The Grimm’s original purpose was to collect stories that preserved a truly Germanic folk literature and the stories, before the Grimm’s edited them to be more suitable for children or middle-class families, were cruel, sometimes sadistic, and shocking. I think this difference in the stories comes from the times and conditions of the cultures. At the time of the Grimm Fairy tales, times were very hard in Germany and they were occupied by France. And, although the Cherokee were experiencing very hard times after European contact, the “myths” recorded by Mooney were the stories “told by the old men” for generations prior to European contact.
Today, we know the stories of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White as staples of children’s stories. But, the versions we know are very different from the originals because of the editing of the Grimms and Disney. For instance, in the original version, Cinderella’s step sisters, at the coaxing of their mother, cut off their toes and parts of their heels to try to fit into the “golden” shoes. The prince only caught their deception when a dove pointed out the blood dripping from the shoe. The dove later pecked out the sister’s eyes.
In Snow White, originally it was Snow White’s natural mother that sent a hunter to kill her and bring back her heart and liver. While asleep in the cabin, a prince comes by and when he cannot wake her, he rapes her and she gives birth to two children. In Rapunzel, after a visit from the prince, she asks her godmother, “Tell me, Godmother, why are my clothes are so tight and they don’t fit me any longer?”
The Cherokee stories are not without cruel and shocking events, too. In the story “Kanati and Selu: The Origin of Game and Corn”, Kanati brought home game and his wife, Selu, washed the blood off the meat in the river where their son played. From the blood and water emerged a “wild” boy. The two boys became best friends but the wild boy was a bad influence. One day they spied on Selu and saw her magically making corn by rubbing her stomach over a basket. The boys decide their mother is a witch, kill her, cut off her head and set it on the roof.
When I was a child and heard the fairy tales from mother, I never really paid any attention to the weird or quirky parts. But when it was my turn to read them to my children, I often shook my head and thought, “What?”
For instance, think about the words in “Rock a bye Baby, on the treetop, when the wind blows the cradle will rock. When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, and down will fall baby, cradle and all!” If a baby is really listening to the words, this nursery rhyme should not put them to sleep, it ought to scare them to death! And what does it say about us as parents, singing it to them in the first place?