Everyone is familiar with the sense of justice derived from fairytales. These familiar and time-honoured stories are first encountered when reading with parents at bedtime or watching Disney adaptations on TV. Reinforcing what may be an innate sense of fairness, fairytales promote a sense of right and wrong that lasts a lifetime. Whether or not strengthened later by religious instruction, fairytale justice provides communities with a common conscience, a silent voice that passes judgement on every thought, word and action. Yet, for all the benefits that it conveys, fairytale justice is often dismissed as naive and not representative of real life.
Historians of literature tell us that what we now know as fairytales were originally old wives’ tales, stories, often savage and bloody with no particular moral compass, related at the communal workplace to help speed the hours away. It wasn’t until the 19th century that collectors of fairytales saw their potential as educational tools. The tales were adapted to persuade young listeners that good behaviour is rewarded and bad behaviour is punished. This evolution has been described as an attempt to socialise children in days before universal government-sponsored education.
There is no doubt that fairytale justice does not represent what always happens in the real world where many good deeds go unrewarded and evil deeds often seem to go unpunished. Nevertheless, most people would agree that it is good to strive for a better world, in the famous words from Man of La Mancha: ‘to see the world not as it is, but as it should be.’ Generations of parents have wittingly or unwittingly perpetuated this believe and the result has been a generally growing sense of social justice and concern for the welfare of the underprivileged.
This powerful tradition has presented the modern author of children’s books with an appreciable challenge. The modern trend for several decades had been to present life in its reality, warts and all. Many would argue that children must be protected by being made aware of all the dangers in a far from perfect world. This may be true, but education is a slow and lengthy process. The mission can still be started by presenting the world ‘as it should be?’ There is still a role in the early years for fairytales, new and old. Then later, when the wicked ways of the real world are introduced, they can often be a source of humour, as the reader shares with the author a knowing wink at delinquent behaviour. Fairytale justice can remain a goal to which we all aspire.