European Fairy Tales versus American Fairy Tales — and how they affect the American psyche and the school yard bully

I love fairy tales.  I’ve always loved fairy tales.  Growing up, I devoured fairy tale books, with special emphasis on the Disney movies, with their beautiful princesses.  My personal favorite was Disney’s Cinderella.  I saw it once when I was a child and then, in a pre-video era, all I could do was replay endlessly in my memory the wonderful scene when Cinderella’s rags are transformed into a princess’s ball gown.  When I saw the movie again as an adult, I was worried that it wouldn’t live up to my expectations, but I needn’t have feared.  The movie was as charming as I’d remembered, and the transformation scene was a perfect piece of animation (and, rumor has it, Walt Disney’s own favorite animation moment):

The message in Cinderella couldn’t be more clear.  First, be beautiful.  But if you can’t achieve beauty, at least be a patient Griselda, one who tirelessly toils for cruel tyrants, with the promise of future reward.

That’s the theme in the majority of fairy tales that originated in the old world:  be good, be passive, and some deus ex machina figure, usually magical, will come and rescue you.  Passivity is the name of the game.  In one fairy tale after another, the lead character, usually the youngest child of at least three siblings, prevails by virtue of being nice.

The other way to prevail in fairy tales that started life in the old world was to use guile.  My favorite in this genre is The Valiant Little Tailor:

A tailor is preparing to eat some jam, but when flies settle on it, he kills seven of them with one blow. He makes a belt describing the deed, “Seven at one blow”. Inspired, he sets out into the world to seek his fortune. The tailor meets a giant, who assumes that “Seven at one blow” refers to seven men. The giant challenges the tailor. When the giant squeezes water from a boulder, the tailor squeezes water (or whey) from cheese. The giant throws a rock far into the air, and it eventually lands. The tailor counters the feat by releasing a bird that flies away; the giant believes the small bird is a “rock” which is thrown so far that it never lands. The giant asks the tailor to help carry a tree. The tailor directs the giant to carry the trunk, while the tailor will carry the branches. Instead, the tailor climbs on, so the giant carries him as well.

The giant brings the tailor to the giant’s home, where other giants live as well. During the night, the giant attempts to kill the man. However, the tailor, having found the bed too large, sleeps in the corner. On seeing him still alive, the other giants flee, never to be seen again.

The tailor enters the royal service, but the other soldiers are afraid that he will lose his temper someday, and then seven of them might die with every blow. They tell the king that either the tailor leaves military service, or they will. Afraid of being killed for sending him away, the king instead sends the tailor to defeat two giants, offering him half his kingdom and his daughter’s hand in marriage. By throwing rocks at the two giants while they sleep, the tailor provokes the pair into fighting each other. The king then sends him after a unicorn, but the tailor traps it by standing before a tree, so that when the unicorn charges, he steps aside and it drives its horn into the trunk. The king subsequently sends him after a wild boar, but the tailor traps it in a chapel.

With that, the king marries him to his daughter. His wife hears him talking in his sleep and realizes that he is merely a tailor. Her father the king promises to have him carried off. A squire warns the tailor, who pretends to be asleep and calls out that he has done all these deeds and is not afraid of the men behind the door. Terrified, they leave, and the king does not try again.

Old world fairy tales do not feature epic battles of good against evil, or even minor battles of good against evil.  They abandon the heroic tradition of Greek dramas or even the mighty warriors of the Bible.  Instead, they present a world of little people who prevail because of good deeds or guile.

Different scholars have theorized that fairy tales originated to keep children in line (hence the emphasis on passivity and good house-cleaning skills as the way to achieve worldly success) or as fireside stories, often quite ribald, that peasants told each other during long, dark nights (explaining the tales that featured otherwise insignificant people prevailing through stealth and guile).  Regardless of origin, the net result is a genre that instructs children that assertiveness and self-reliance are much less important than submitting to tyranny with good grace and being sneaky when possible.

American-born fairy tales are vastly different.  Of course, I use the phrase “American-born” advisedly.  Because America is a nation of immigrants, we imported our fairy tales too, which explains why every American child is conversant with Cinderella, Snow White, and Aladdin.  Nevertheless, Americans did create their own canon.

To begin with, American children dined on political hagiographies of our first leaders, with Parson Weems’ delightful, and untrue, stories about Washington leading the pack.  These tales focused on distinctly American virtues:  being honest, straightforward, and physically brave, virtues that are the antithesis of the trickery or downtrodden apathy in European tales.

American tales also dreamed big.  We had the imaginary Paul Bunyan, John Henry, and Pecos Bill, whose size or energy literally changed the landscape in which they lived.  Real figures, such as Johnny Appleseed or Davy Crockett had their actual exploits mixed with a large dollop of artistic license, and these tales opened up the West for Americans.  Popular literature imagined dynamic, self-confident young people who made their own way in the world.  They had help, but it wasn’t magical.  Instead, it came from people who were attracted to the hero or heroines can-do spirit and gave them a helping hand.  (Louisa May Alcott and Horatio Alger were masters of this genre.)

That notion of the pushing, striving, dynamic American hero got a spectacular boost when Hollywood came into being.  Old Hollywood quickly discovered that American audiences craved big stories, with big heroes.  Western movies impressed upon Americans that America’s fictional heroes didn’t succeed because they sat around waiting for magic to appear; they succeeded because they blazed trails, fought battles, civilized the wilderness, and generally took control of their own destinies.

World War II movies also emphasized Americans’ fighting spirit.  We didn’t have endless movies about our victimization at Pearl Harbor.  Instead, movie after movie celebrated America’s fighting spirit, both at home and on the battlefield.  We had an enemy, said Hollywood, and we valiantly met in on the field of battle.

In the 1970s, Hollywood started feeling terribly guilty about the cultural imperialism in these tales and came up with the anti-hero.  That played well to a guilty middle class, but was never a dramatic trope that had legs.  The anti-hero works only if he acts . . . heroically.  Americans want the little guy to win because he’s got guts.  The artsy crowd may enjoy a Dog Day Afternoon, but ordinary Americans want to see little ole Luke Skywalker take on the empire, intrepid Indiana Jones fight bad guys the world over, or (with a big thank you to the British woman who dreamed him up) Harry Potter and Co. face off squarely against evil, and win through a combination of virtue and martial skills (all nicely packaged in some sparkly magic gimmicks).

The recent staggering success of The Avengers is just one more indication that Americans want their fairy tales to be proactive.  The characters in The Avengers are pretty (it is Hollywood after all), but their attractiveness — an attractiveness that has generated a staggering $1 billion in ticket sales — comes about because they are strong and aggressive.  They defeat the evil alien force by rock ’em, sock ’em, beat ’em up action.  There is no room for negotiation, house cleaning, or even guile here.  The only “goodness” that counts is one that is folded tightly into loyalty, patriotism, and physical bravery.

The Left is busily trying to chip away at these classic American virtues.  Leftist movies have failed at the box office, but the Leftist challenge to the American virtues of physical bravery can be seen in the Left’s wholeheartedly embrace of the anti-bullying campaign.  Many have asked why bullying has seemed to be on the rise in recent years.  I think I figured out the answer when, in a casual conversation with my kids, I mentioned “school-yard fights.”

I got a surprising response to that throw-away line:  “What’s a school-yard fight, Mom?”

“In the old days,” I said (just like a fairy tale), “when kids, especially boys, would get into fights, they started hitting each other.”

“Did they get suspended?”

“Maybe.  But what usually happened was that they’d start swinging at each other.  Everyone in the school yard would instantly circle them and start hollering ‘Fight!  Fight!’  Then, a teacher would wade through the crowd, saying ‘Come on, everyone, break it up.  Break it up now.’  The teacher would then wade into the fight, separate the two kids, shake ’em out and, more often than not, tell them to stop fighting.  And that would be the end of it.”

“That would never happen today.”

(Incidentally, I am not talking about gang fights, which are a form of urban warfare.  I’m talking about the old-fashioned elementary school playground battle, where two little kids settled the matter with some kicks and punches.)

No, it certainly wouldn’t.  The focus today is on the bully.  The bully gets suspended and the bully gets counseling.  Kids are told that, if they get bullied, they should immediately get teachers involved.  Good kids know that any type of self-defense is dangerous, as it could lead to suspension.

I hate bullying.  I was bullied when I was a child and, I’m sad to say, when I had the opportunity, I immediately turned around and bullied others (verbally).  I had a sharp tongue and wasn’t afraid to use it.  But that sharp tongue was my self-defense.  A well-timed insult, especially one that raised a laugh from the audience, deflected the bully and kept me safe.  I never ran to the teacher.  I got a reputation for being somewhat mean (which was partially deserved), but people left me alone.  Had I been a boy, I might have punched someone and been left alone.

My point is that the best way to deal with bullying is two-pronged:  First, create an environment in which bullying is frowned upon and mutual respect is the order of the day.  This starts at the top, with teachers and administrators.  In too many schools, however, teachers and administrations treat students with condescension, disdain, arrogance, or fear.  Second, teach the victims how not to be victims.  If you take away the targets, you take away a lot of the bullying.  If students see themselves as warriors, not victims, bullying will become a much less enticing activity for those who are naturally inclined to dominate cruelly those around them.

I can already hear people saying that, if you emphasize the warrior spirit, our schools will start looking like a gladiator camp.  Au contraire.  If you emphasize brutality, that’s true.  But if you emphasize the honorable side of the warrior, one that sees him respecting widows and orphans (so to speak), our schools will actually be much more civil than they are now.  I’ve never known nicer kids than those who are martial arts black belts.  They have a quiet self-confidence about them, that makes it unnecessary for them to lash out.  Moreover, their peers respect them, and feel no need to test them.

It times to take the European Leftism out of our fairy tales, and reinstate an American ideal that involves honor, strength, and the willingness to fight for what’s right.

  • weathtd

    Amen!  I was bullied also because I was small and did well in class.  I did not start growing until the end of my junior year in high school.  My parents taught my siblings and me to take up for ourselves and not “take any crap” from anyone.  I learned early to stand up to the bullies and fight back.  Got my butt kicked a few times and came out on top some also.  Word spread that I would stand-up for myself and the bullys backed off and went for less “reactive” targets.  Show the bully that “paybacks are a bitch” and they will move on.  You have written before about the immasculization of our young boys, the left’s anti-bully campaign is just the next episode.

    • I agree wholeheartedly with Earl that fighting should be a last resort, not a first resort, and that a young, adrenalin-driven mind can be a very dangerous thing when in the grip of rage. Nevertheless, I agree with those of you who think that young people must have more arrows in their quiver than “Stand there and take it until you’re saved by an administrator who will lavish attention, both positive and negative, on the bully, while never teaching you the skills that will prevent the bully from coming back.”

      The current approach reminds me of the parenting technique that sees parents tell small children, who must surely be the most literal humans on earth, “Don’t let me see you hit your sister/brother.” The clear message to the literal-minded child is that you’re free to hit if the parent can’t see it happening. So too do bullies know that they can go back for a second helping provided that they can prevent the adult in the school from learning about it. Only if the victim can defend him/herself will this bullying cycle end.

  • Charles Martel

    A kid I knew in high school, Chuck, had a baby face. Big eyes, round head, pouty lips. Girls wanted to nurse him and guys wanted to dunk him into a high chair. Naturally he attracted bullies, and he got shoved around a lot. 
    In the three summer months between 10th and 11th grade, Chuck locked himself in a garage and started punching weights like a Muslim husband punches his womenfolk around—grimly, ceaselessly, and with a vengeance.
    When he reappeared in September, he still had a baby face. Only now it was mounted atop a Captain America torso that rippled in the sunlight. Girls still wanted to nurse him, but added other desires to their list of things they hoped to do with him. The bullies took one look and backed off.
    Look at Chuck. See Chuck go. Watch Chuck take care of business.

  • Caped Crusader

    Charles Martel:
    You are probably not old enough to remember the old Charles Atlas advertisements in every boy’s magazine stating — “I was once a 97 pound weakling, and bullies kicked sand in my face, until I took the Charles Atlas course”. Chuck must have found an old magazine or someone who had the course.

  • Danny Lemieux

    Er, I think that you could probably have posed the question about the magazine to…Chuck, directly.

  • Michael Adams

    So, Danny, I was not the only one who made a pretty good guess who Chuck was. Heh!
    Fairy tales, or, more broadly, folk tales, convey a lot of the values in a culture, and the fears, too.  It is thought that stories about kids lost in the woods may have originated in the period of deterioration of law and order at the end of the Western  Roman Empire, when children who had been sent to the country because country air was healthier, not flowing over the long cesspools that passed for sewers in Roman cities, were sometimes abandoned there, because their parents could not go out to fetch them home.
    The last time we were in Europe, twenty nine years ago, the small hotels and B & B’s where we stayed had a shelf in the hall, where people left books they had finished, and picked up new ones. There was quite an assortment, including really stupid pornography, and youth fiction, written by Europeans, in which the hero or heroine was no better off at the end than at the beginning. There was a kind of limited outlook, almost futility, that made my wife and me shudder. That, and other experiences on that extended trip were truly the beginning of our transformation from college educated (indoctrinated) Liberals to the robust, sometimes cranky, Conservatives we have become.

    I was small for my age through freshman year, and I used my tongue to protect myself – it was both sharp and quick.  I learned when to use it like a knife and when to talk my way out of trouble.
    When I grew before sophomore year, I got more aggressive physically – looking for payback, in a subconscious way, I suppose.  Two events made me go back to protecting myself verbally.
    First, I got really mad at a kid – younger, but as big as I was.  I was ready to take him on and he ran.  I chased him, but he was faster…and when I stopped, I realized that had I caught him, I was out of control enough that I’d have likely hurt him, maybe seriously.  That sobered me up a bit.
    Then on the (flag) football field, a smaller and extremely mouthy kid got mad at ME.  I egged him on and on and genuinely humiliated him until he attacked me, and then punched him and made him cry.  It made me feel like a worm….took all the joy out of “winning” my one and only fight.  
    It’s quite possible to avoid physical brawling….and the best policy.  But a kid without the verbal skills I had should learn to box or do martial arts, for sure.  It likely would have been really good for me, but that kind of thing has NO history in my family and it never came up.

  • Book’s rendition of the school fight is actually recently modern. The older version is when the authority figure stands around and waits until the fight has a definitive winner, then they step in and break it up. It works better than letting things be ambiguous.   The reason why people often avoid each other after a fight is because the purpose of the fight was to tell all of their social circles that no matter who was wrong or right, stronger or weaker, both had the courage to do something about it. Now the loser might not want to talk about it, since the rumors of him losing will be active, but it will only be active for a few days. A few days of people talking about you behind your back is far superior to the 24/7 worry a kid has to worry from bullies.

    My first school fight involved someone who was a semi-acquaintance and kept saying he wanted to fight me. He looked like he was full of talk, and since I didn’t respond to his words, he might have taken that to be a sign of weakness. Plus I was pretty quiet back then. Well, he kept this up for a few days until one day we all got off at the same bus stop to walk back home and I decided I wasn’t going to tolerate this any more. So I put down my backpack on the ground, then while he was still talking I walked up to him and front kicked him in the stomach. I used this opportunity to test some of the moves I had imagined. Some of them didn’t work quite as well as I thought, others ended up being disasters. Just when my knife hand strike against his neck seemed to be causing him some issues, one of the others locked both of my arms. At first I thought it was a double team so tried to muscle out of it, then I realized the other party in the conflict was just standing there. At that time, having been denied my full out offensive strike I was just about to launch due to the other person’s weakened defenses, I turned to verbal violence.

    I was surprised that the next day, all kinds of rumors started flying around. People were asking me “did you really beat up so and so”. And I’m like, who the hell are these people and where did they hear that from.

     The technical problems and tests I learned in that fight, I carried on to my future training. There were things from that that I remembered perfectly. And then there’s the part where I blacked out and couldn’t remember. I’m pretty sure it was after I tried to evade his front kick but activated the wrong muscles, so I took the hit on my upper right quadraceps. It really hurt at the time, then the pain went away entirely during the course of the fight. It took about a week for it to heal, was limping slightly with each step next day.

    I’m not really sure what I learned from that fight, other than that the experience was relatively valuable to me several years into the future. For various reasons. In terms of how it came out, it was pretty much optimal for me, although I didn’t know it at the time. It was one of the first signs that I had a talent for violence. Because it was a great, fun, and exciting experience. At the end where I was about to head home, one of the others in the group asked me “are you going to cry now”, and I’m feeling the aftershocks of instant euphoria and could only shake my head. Better than almost anything else. For one reason or another, I’ve always put a lock on my anger. Thus when people hit me in school, I wouldn’t hit them back. Not because I was afraid of them or the consequences, though that played a small part, but because I was afraid of what would happen if I unlocked the barrier around my anger. After that fight, fully repressing anger became an impractical option. Using violence worked too well for me to ignore it entirely. But the other problem was, things such as liking the ability to beat the hell out of people became omnipresent.

    The stories I’ve heard from other people like me, who had lived in a more violent, crime infested environment, was that they eventually had such success with physical violence that they made it into a career such as enforcement for the mob. One guy had to get help from his girlfriend before he was able to change from an unfeeling monster into an actual human being.

     At times after 9/11, I wondered whether it was a good or bad thing that my current training manifested after high school. Because, I’m not sure what would have happened if I had used my current training during school or when I was angry. Regardless, by the time I learned how to use or control lethal force in H2H, I no longer communicated or met with bullies. They either ceased to exist, or opportunity to meet them ceased to exist. I suppose when one is training to kill suicidal mass murderers, serial killers, terrorists, etc, school bullies tend to be a threat level that doesn’t even exist on the radar. I suppose this can be called growth.

    Often I see people ask questions on YA about bullies. They often report that teachers are powerless to help. Either because the admins stop them, they really are powerless, or because the teachers themselves are in league with bullies doesn’t matter. In a world where children can no longer look to adults for security and aid…is a world where the totalitarian nation called Obamaca ruled by Leftist totalitarians will Reign Supreme.


  • Mike Devx

    Looking back, it seems to me that the junior high fights and high school fights were mostly controlled by a cultural truth: it would have been very uncool to REALLY f’ your opponent up.  It was good to win convincingly, but you didn’t want to go too far and land the loser into the hospital for a week (or more).

    The fights were basically boxing and wrestling matches without gloves or protection.  Pummel the hell out of each other standing up or on the ground.  The really good fighters would inflict enough pain to take the fight out of the other guy, get em to the ground, make them publicly admit they just lost (“Holler uncle or I’ll break your arm, I swear!”), then get up and walk away the winner.

    As Ymar noted, an authority figure would often weigh in towards the end when the outcome was clear.  That was useful to, to ensure you didn’t have a sadist who wanted to go on inflicting terrible damage once the fight itself was over.  Maybe that’s why most such fights were actually on school grounds.

    These days, I dunno.  Our culture is very different, and I doubt there are any cultural rules any more that cause restraint.

  • Beth

    We had an incident with our box-schooled freshmen (homeschool the youngers).  Long story short, one or two students in the class were acting up, as usual, so the teacher gave the entire class an assignment, due on his desk by the end of the day.  Our son, not one of those goofing off (not beyond him just not him that day) was not able to get the assignment completed in time due to three tests, etc, yadda, yadda, yadda.  So, his grade was docked and pushed him to a “B” for the class….phew my husband was ticked and here’s why:  In this world of anti-bullying, compassion, let’s-talk-things over balony, this teacher is still trying to use the get-the-students-to-police-each-other trick to control his classroom.  In my school days, if a full class punishment was assigned, the offending kids would have heard about it on the playground.  But OH, you can’t talk to someone like that so the classrooms continue to be out of control, real learning is compromised and kids carry grudges (some quite warranted).
    SO glad we started homeschooling……

  • Pingback: Bookworm Room » More on the European fairy tale, both at home and abroad()

  • In Japan, the teachers let the students enforce most of the discipline, but the adult authority is always around when needed. That was the purpose of the adult authority coming in at the end of a fight. First, the hormones and social status of the fighters are challenged and presented for everyone to see. And everyone knows everyone else saw it. This admits certain social truths. Then when a victor is finally decided, the adult authority comes in and asserts the authority of grown ups as the final decider, even though the fight was already decided. Everyone also recognizes this by voluntarily leaving. The parties in the conflict recognize the greater authority by having their issues resolved in a way that didn’t see either one killed. This reinforces both social order at the top down and from the bottom up.

    There is no such thing as social order in the Left’s socialized experimentations on humanity, btw. Just in case anybody had any illusions on that point. A totalitarian order does not so much have social order as it has fear controlling people. Fear is effective and good in a totalitarian society. Order is not necessarily correct or beneficial. In the fact the more chaos and disorder happens, the more the totalitarian society can find an external enemy to massage the populace to hate and thus control the populace effectively. Just look at Palis, LibProg Jews in the US, and black enslaved Democrats. Or rather if you’re black, you’re already a Democrat 95% of the time so it is rather redundant to say black with Democrat. That’s what it means to be enslaved. You’re black so that means you’re…. you do what the Master tells you.

     Bullies use fear. Thus bullies are the Left’s allies in the educational department. In fact, many teacher’s unions are currently covering up the rape of white women by Muslim boys in schools. This applies mostly to Europe, but don’t be surprised when it happens in the US. In fact, it may have already have happened if I recall correctly. Just like the Left covers up the mysterious disappearance of white women in Gaza and the West Bank…

     I’ve also heard of this “Collective Punishment” used. Noticeably by the YOUNGest generation of teachers. One wonders what those socialized totalitarian muckity bucks are teaching them over at their Concentration Camp for Future comptrollers… If one person gets out of line, it’s time to punish the entire “class” is it… So if if you get out of line, the government will now punish your entire family. Say you bought the wrong light bulbs or disposed of them incorrectly or have fat children or have too many guns or know too much self defense like Zillerman… it’s time for that Old Collective Punishment, darou. And for children, this is normal. It will be normal at least when they grow up, but right now they are getting acclimated to it. Like a dog with food and bells. Although with the Left, you never know if you are the dog or the food…



    Here’s a video of a “modern fight”.

    Notice the reality of what is now to what your memories of the past were.