Pictures of school life in former times brought thoughts of stories in such times. There were stories that every child seemed to have heard fables, fairy tales, classic children’s writers. Often the stories were unhappy, sometimes they were even horrid. It never seemed to occur to anyone that the option of changing the story was always there. Whether the story was to edify or to educate or to entertain, a happy story would suffice as well as a sad one.
When my son was small, I remember that the changing of stories began with Hans Christian Andersen. I remembered as I read The Tin Soldier to him that there would be no happy ending. I remembered the story from it being read to the class at primary school, a story that I had found it very difficult to fathom. What was the point of the story of the poor tin soldier who had been through such experiences only for him to be thrown on the fire? I came to the closing paragraphs of the story:
At this moment one of the little boys took up the tin soldier, and without rhyme or reason, threw him into the fire. No doubt the little goblin in the snuffbox was to blame for that. The tin soldier stood there, lighted up by the flame, and in the most horrible heat; but whether it was the heat of the real fire, or the warmth of his feelings, he did not know. He had lost all his gay colour; it might have been from his perilous journey, or it might have been from grief, who can tell?
He looked at the little maiden, and she looked at him; and he felt that he was melting away, but he still managed to keep himself erect, shouldering his gun bravely.
A door was suddenly opened, the draught caught the little dancer and she fluttered like a sylph, straight into the fire, to the soldier, blazed up and was gone!
By this time the soldier was reduced to a mere lump, and when the maid took away the ashes next morning she found him, in the shape of a small tin heart. All that was left of the dancer was her spangle, and that was burnt as black as a coal.
But I did not read the words on the page. I looked up and said, “The boy threw the tin soldier from the window and as the window was open, there was a gust of wind that caught the dancer and carried her out through the window as well. The wind blew and carried them upwards and far away until they landed in a wood together, far from anyone who could harm them and there they lived happily ever afterwards.” My son liked this ending; soon we dispensed with books altogether and wove our own tales of Thomas the Tank Engine and Fireman Sam and anyone else who caught our attention.
Re-telling stories with our own endings proved much more fun. Why be bound by an unhappy story when a happy one can be chosen?
I don’t remember HCA’s stories from my young days but I do remember being read too by my grandfather. Being inside him on the sofa below the big clock and correcting him for he’d read and I’d heard the 200 or so stories so many times they had become memorised.
Of the time I write, we were in a pocket missed by the ESB when they were passing through. A biggish pocket of about twenty or so houses and small farms.
On HCA and the Grimm tales. I wonder, it is now thought that the wandering poets of Greek prehistory when delivering the Iliad and Odyssey tailored the sages to the audience of the area they were in at that moment. You’ll have noted that the Greek contingent before Troy, Hero’s all, were drawn from every populated spot in Greece. But beyond the main bits, I doubt many would care too much if the Thracian was lessened if they were on the Peloponnese. So on the whole I’d say editing the Tales is not only allowed but required in order to keep them alive. For in truth the outgrown toy being burnt or taken by the wind is still a toy bereft of an owner.
But I do think the use of the tales in the 19th century and before was profoundly important in helping small kids process the loss of mothers and siblings. We forget we are the very first, those born after 1950, where kids dieing in childhood was the norm. Not normal necessarily, but everyone would know someone directly who had such a loss.
Sorry to get so wordy.
Presumably stories were much more fluid before the widespread availability of books