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The brothers' tales - perhaps too grim for young children after all

Grimms' Bad Girls and Bold Boys: The Moral and Social Vision of the `Tales,' by Ruth B. Bottigheimer. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 215 pp. $22.50. The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales, by Maria Tatar. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. 208 pp. Illustrated. $19.95.

Fairy tales are among the starkest of fictional narratives. Yet despite - or more likely, because of - their simplicity, they lend themselves to an amazing range of interpretations: moral, social, religious, economic, and psychoanalytical. Charming, whimsical, grave, funny, or violent, they arouse intense emotions, not only among the children and adults who hear or read them but also among educators, psychologists, critics, and scholars. No one doubts their interest to the literary historian or the general reader, but there is continuing concern about how suitable they are for their primary audience: young children.

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Although the Brothers Grimm began collecting their ``Nursery and Household Tales'' early in the 19th century as a scholarly venture, the use of such a collection for entertaining and instructing children was soon evident. By the 1850s, Grimms' ``Tales'' were a staple of German classrooms. The Third Reich embraced them enthusiastically, inserting explicitly racist details about the Aryan purity of Cinderella (Aschenputtel in the German). ``No German childhood without fairy tales; no folk-specific and racial education without them!'' was the Nazi motto. Shocked Allied occupying powers banned them in some cities after the war.

Nowadays, liberal German educators question their continuing use in the classroom. The eminent psychologist Bruno Bettelheim defended the practice in his 1976 book ``The Uses of Enchantment.''

Many fairy tales can indeed be read as moral allegories conforming to the formula enunciated by Miss Prism in Oscar Wilde's ``The Importance of Being Earnest'': ``The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.'' Others seem to impart a very different message: Lazy louts manage to outwit their opponents; cunning tricksters lie their way into good fortune.

And even when the good do end happily and the bad unhappily, the question of which traits are considered good and which bad remains problematic. Is obedience necessarily ``good''? Is curiosity necessarily ``bad''? Mightn't tales that suggest such ideas inhibit the spirit of inquiry and strengthen the ties of authoritarianism?

Ruth Bottigheimer of the State University of New York, Stony Brook, thinks the tales express a specific moral viewpoint: an amalgam of German folkways and the more personal, 19th-century biases of the Brothers Grimm (particularly Wilhelm, who was more involved than Jacob in editing the ``Tales'').

Her chief concern is gender bias, but she also investigates the triad of work, money, and anti-Semitism. Her conclusions are provocative: Girls and women tend to be punished for displaying boldness, pride, or curiosity, while boys and men are more likely to be rewarded - or at least not punished - for the same qualities. Females are more often silenced or deprived of speech than males. Punishment of females is more frequent in the Grimms' ``Christian'' (as distinct from pagan) tales.

Bottigheimer buttresses her case against the Grimms by contrasting their tales with less sexist French and Scandinavian tales and with other German collections that are less gender-biased and less anti-Semitic. To reach her strong conclusions, Bottigheimer sometimes shifts ground, using quantitative evidence to build her argument but resorting to qualitative evidence - and mere qualifications - when numbers alone don't prove her point.

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Maria Tatar of Harvard University is less tendentious, more genuinely critical and scholarly in her approach. She too finds evidence of gender bias in the ``Tales,'' but she also notes evidence to the contrary: tales in which heroines are more individualized than heroes; tales in which males (not females) are metamorphosed into beasts. While Bottigheimer's perspective is moral and social, Tatar's is more aesthetic and psychological. She is interested in what fairy tales tell us about our wishes, fears, and fantasies, but she would agree with Bottigheimer that they are not sacred remnants of some timeless world of Jungian archetypes.

In retelling the tales, Tatar notes, the Grimms actually increased their violence, even as they minimized all references to sex and pregnancy. Tatar is concerned about the violence but undecided on the effect it may have on children: Many children seem to enjoy violent tales, but that is not necessarily an argument for giving them what they seem to want.

For scholars, students, and general readers, Tatar's book is a balanced, sensitive, and informative guide to the content and context of Grimms' fairy tales. For anyone who lives or works with children, Bottigheimer's book sounds a warning that should, at the very least, be taken into account, so that the parents and teachers of children who delight in the imaginative stimulus of fairy tales will also be prepared to discuss - and sometimes dispute - the moral lessons these tales impart.

Merle Rubin is a free-lance book reviewer.

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