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Speaking as a child

The Telegraph suggests that parents are refusing to read traditional fairytales to their children because they are not 'PC' enough. Perhaps.

Hansel and Gretel appears in the list of Top 10 fairy tales we no longer read. It was not a favorite of mine when I was a child and I have never read it to a child, so no regrets there. Snow White, on the list due to sensitivity about dwarves, isn't a story a boy or a tomboy would like, so again, not many regrets, but I will say that the children I know are well aware that dwarves are magical creatures and it would be silly to call a short person a dwarf. Curiously Goldilocks and the Three Bears (Robert Southey, 1837) appears in both the Top Bedtime Stories and the Top 10 fairy tales we no longer read. Ah well, lists can be unreliable. I loved the story when I was a l small girl, and could always be counted on to chime in with In the meantime. . . when it was read aloud.

In the meantime, it's a good thing that parents are reading to their children and their selection of stories is entirely their own affair.

A hidden historical plot?

One story which I and many British children encountered concerned King Canute (also known as Cnut). This was a good subversive story - too short - but with an excellent visual. It's only recently that I realized the story may have had a hidden historical plot.

It is supposed to be a true story about the powerful and ruthless younger son of a Danish king and a Slavic princess who conquered England in 1016. Canute paid for his ships and mercenaries with heavy taxes and with bloody efficiency became the king of Denmark and Norway as well. The story contains an unsubtle lesson for kings, dictators, presidents and prime ministers, especially those who talk pompously and naively about saving the world banking system and lowering sea levels -

Sometime before his death in 1035, King Canute had his courtiers take his throne down to the beach. He sat on it, and commanded the waves to stop. Instead they wet the hem of the king's robe and the shoes of his courtiers, and as the tide continued to roll in, king and courtiers fled up the beach.
That there are limits to the power of a king is a good lesson, but I somehow feel it may never have occurred to King Canute, the most powerful man in Europe. Supporting this idea is the fact that the story first appears in the 12th century chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon, a melancholy archdeacon who lived during the reign of Henry I. High-handed Henry was often in conflict with the English church. He had been forced to promise that a king was not above the law in the Charter of Liberties, but it had not proved easy to hold him to his pledge. Using a story about a dead king to teach this living king may have fired Huntington's imaginative powers.

What children like

Or perhaps King Canute, who was said to have become more philosophical at the end of his life, had an epiphany. Alternatively Huntington may have received the story from British tradition, which mixed historical accounts with myth. One thing I like about that tradition, which includes King Arthur and Robin Hood -

Many famous British stories are about defenders of justice.

Speaking as the child I once was, I think children love stories about justice. They have a keen sense of what is fair and what is unfair and they like to see wickedness overthrown.

And: My co-editor will be cross if I neglect to add that there are a heck of a lot of defenders of justice and freedom in the Liberty Timeline, which begins in the 1st century BC and gallops through the centuries with passionate and quirky characters.

Comments (3)

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Alan Betts:

Kings & Queens may not be above the law, but political correctness certainly is!

Since it's now 15 years old, you've doubtless heard of James Finn Garner's hilarious Politically Correct Bedtime Stories. A number of people believe these are dreadfully out of date. If only...

As a teaser, here is a sample from the first tale, of a young person in a hooded red cape:

'The wolf said, "You know, my dear, it isn't safe for a little girl to walk through these woods alone."

Red Riding Hood said, "I find your sexist remark offensive in the extreme, but I will ignore it because of your traditional status as an outcast from society, the stress of which has caused you to develop your own, entirely valid, worldview. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must be on my way."'


Concerning King Canute, the version I had as a boy, which I believe to be the correct original, was that Canute got tired of his courtiers offering ridiculous, high flown praises to him and conducted the experiment with the tides in order to demonstrate to them that he was, indeed, just an ordinary man.

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