Children can be properly scared by stories, but they know that it’s pretend and a book can always be closed. In any case, scary can be exciting. Unless, that is, it’s petrifying.
It was a Grimm brothers story, possibly Hurleburlebutz, that inspired The Singing Ringing Tree, whose creepiness was all the more effective for being made into TV, a new and mesmerizing medium for children in the early 1960s. The Märchen with its ugly and mean characters played out on a peculiar and patently fake set which imbued the tale with a strange and disturbing atmosphere. The dwarf is truly evil, the princess haughty and cruel, and in a scene that appalled me, the prince loses his human nature when he is changed into a bear. He stops being bright and friendly and becomes angry and rough. There’s a grotesque monster of a plastic goldfish and the good horse is turned into stone.
I didn’t trust the narrator with his almost mockingly insouciant delivery, as if he knew what awful things were about happen but didn’t care to break it to you gently. I didn’t even trust the tree. It doesn’t matter that the prince and princess end up living happily ever after because by then you’ve been frightened witless.
I read that a spooky aura of filme noire may have been induced when the film in garish, saturated Technicolor was transmitted to the black-and-white of our grainy TV screen, and an extra outlandishness for an English boy came from the fact that the characters could be heard speaking a foreign language. Because Das singende, klingende Bäumchen was a 1957 East German production, and you have to wonder: what was a studio in the communist GDR doing making a film about a fairy tale prince and princess? Was the disconcertingly faux mise en scène deliberate? A Brechtian deconstruction of traditional storytelling as epic theatre, aiming to educate the audience by distancing them from suspending disbelief?
If so, it failed completely. The amateurish costumes and the weirdness of the production only made it more terrifying because there was no attempt to try and pretend that it wasn’t real, giving it a mocking quality, like a bad dream that carried on after you woke up. When Doctor Who was on, I could at least hide from the Daleks behind the sofa. This tale had me transfixed.
Rapunzel, Hansel & Gretel, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Rumpelstiltskin, The Goose Girl...
Bedtime stories that delighted me as a young boy can now strike me as gruesomely violent.
“Our children are at home in a world which seems to terrify and stupefy us.”
The indelible impression of fairytales.
All those mythic archetypes being smart, helpless, wicked or brave, thwarted, helped or just lucky, firing up the oxygen of imagination in a child and leaving images of meaningful reference all life long.
Take The Emperor’s New Clothes (somebody certainly took his old ones). What stronger paradigm for the small, clear voice of truth amidst the lies? For the foolishness of kings, for blinding by flattery and mass hysteria and the cautionary lesson that the bigger the lie, the more people believe it, for the unmasking and downfall of the powerful and the simple directness of truth.
It was The Tinder Box, though, that made the biggest impression on me, possibly because at my gran’s house in Birmingham was an old clock in the shape of a dog’s head, whose eyes revolved to mark the minutes and hours. It was freakily scary. The three dogs whose eyes were increasingly huge are friendly enough to the solider but the size of them lends an edge of danger to the tale.
Come the end, it’s just extraordinary how the princess is not the least bit bothered that her royal parents are tossed up and broken to bits by the dogs. They wouldn’t be hiding her from suitors again! At her wedding feast, “the dogs sat at table and made great eyes.”
READINGS is a blog where I am presenting the books in my life, beginning with the first I can remember and carrying on through to the present day. Every book featured here meant something to me at the time and still does. Many of the physical copies got lost along the way, or succumbed to mice in the caravan, but a fair few have stayed with me and survived. Where I still have the book, I will take a snapshot outside. Always judge a book by its cover ;-)