The other day I saw the first half of an Albert Einstein quote: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent…” At this point the quote was cut off, and of course my mind went to something like “read math books!” or how about “read the newspaper!” But no, I found out later it ends with this shocker: “read more fairy tales.” Yes, that’s THE Albert E=mc2 Einstein. Same one.
The intelligentsia often dismiss fairy tales as unimportant or as bad examples that create unrealistic expectations of love and teach women to desire to be rescued rather than rescue themselves. You’ve heard all the criticisms if you’ve hung out with anyone who’s ever been to college.
But to me, there’s something primal about a fairy tale—its hypnotic storytelling teaches us things without us feeling like we’re being taught. And in these days of mass shootings and unimaginable brutality, it’s more important than ever to hear messages of kindness and courage.
My girls and I had just been to see the new Disney Cinderella the day before I saw Einstein’s quote. “It’s directed by Kenneth Branagh,” I said to them on our way into the theater, “so it can’t be too bad.” In fact, it was delightful, with the overall message being one of “kindness and courage.” Of course, it being Disney, it was magical, beautiful, and appropriately funny. We had no complaints.
However, I told my girls afterward, the originals are a little bit different than their modern Hollywood counterparts. So the next day, while we drove to a faraway mall to buy a prom dress for my daughter (I’m not kidding!), we brought along Grimm’s Fairy Tales and I had her read their version of Cinderella’s story to us in the car.
What’s wonderful about the Grimm brothers’ version is that it’s actually still very much the story of Cinderella we know and love today. There are some differences, though, such as the original ball takes place over three days, and Cinderella runs away three times—so in fact, it wasn’t just a one-night stand sort of thing; she and the prince did get to know each other over several days.
Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, is that the father never died. He was present throughout the entire mistreatment of his daughter. And the stepmother actually made both of her own daughters cut off parts of their feet in order to fit into the shoes.
The horrors found in fairy tales are not just fables. The harsh parental behaviors found in Cinderella have precedence in history—from mothers binding their daughters’ feet in China to fathers using their daughters for economic gains. And it still happens today with genital mutilation and parents selling their children into the sex trade, slavery, or marriage.
So suddenly, the prince saving Cinderella takes on even more relevance, since she truly is a prisoner of both her parents.
And lastly, in the Grimm version, the fairy godmother is represented by nature. So it is nature that both rewards Cinderella’s kindness by giving her gifts and punishes her jealous stepsisters by having doves pluck out their eyes in the end.
The best academic book I’ve read on Cinderella is Cinderella and Her Sisters: The Envied and the Envying, by Ann and Barry Ulanov. If you’re at all interested in delving into the symbolism of fairy tales—Cinderella specifically—I highly recommend it.
As you can see from the title, Cinderella is as much a story about the dangers of envy as it is about the power of love. We all know people who are consumed by envy. We all know people who have grown up with “fairy tale” parents—less than kind and in fact hurtful (not always intentionally). And we all know people who handle the ashes that life gives them with kindness and courage.
So yes, Albert, more fairy tales, not fewer. After all, fairy tales do encourage everyone to dream, to imagine a world that is good and just, and to wonder about the universe—exactly the type of skills required to come up with something like the Theory of Relativity.
If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales. —Albert Einstein