24 November 2008

Bubbles and the jinny

My student told me last night about one of his earliest memories. When he was very young, he jumped into a swimming pool to get a ball, and the next thing his father knew, there were just bubbles, and then, the ball popped up on the surface. His father jumped in and saved him from drowning, but I can't get that haunting image out of my head. I'm just glad the story had a happy ending.

It isn't a direct connection, but it somehow reminded me of “The Fisherman and the Jinny” from Arabian Nights, as quoted from The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by Bruno Bettelheim (29.5):

According to adult morality, the longer an imprisonment lasts, the more grateful the prisoner should be to the person who liberates him. But this is not how the Jinny describes it: As he sat confined in the bottle during the first hundred years, he “said in my heart, ‘Whoso shall release me, him will I enrich for ever and ever.’

But the full century went by, and when no one set me free, I entered upon the second five score saying: ‘Whoso shall release me, for him I will open the hoards of the earth.’ Still no one set me free, and thus four hundred years passed away. Then quoth I, ‘Whoso shall release me, for him I will fulfill three wishes.’ Yet no one set me free. Thereupon I waed wroth with exceeding wrath and said to myself, ‘Whoso shall release me from this time forth, him will I slay…’”

This is exactly how a young child feels when he has been “deserted.” First he thinks to himself how happy he will be when his mother comes back; or when sent to his room, how glad he will be when permitted to leave it again, and how he will reward Mother. But as time passes, the child becomes angrier and angrier, and he fantasizes the terrible revenge he will take on those who have deprived him.

The fact that, in reality, he may be very happy when reprieved does not change how his thoughts move from rewarding to punishing those who have inflicted discomfort on him. Thus, the way the Jinny’s thoughts evolve gives the story psychological truth for a child.

I've read that the sanitized fairy tales don't give children the same psychological satisfaction that the original fables did. In the original Snow White, for example, the evil queen dances on hot coals to her death rather than just running into the forest. With the original, the child has no doubt that 'justice has been served,' and that the scary woman won't come running back out of the woods. But then, of course, the child has to think about someone dying by forced dancing on hot coals.

Another example is in the original Cinderella, the stepsisters don't merely 'not fit' into the glass slipper; their toes and heels are literally cut off so they can squeeze their feet in. The prince only discovers that the woman by his side isn't the right one when he sees blood oozing out of the shoe.

What do you think? What would you share with children you care about? The Disney versions or the original, often more violent, versions?

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