Steve sat at the dinner table eating breakfast with Steves little sister, Jessy, sat across from him. “Steve”, she said, “wheres skipper?” “Hes gone now” I said. “Is he up in heaven? I want him back.” “Me too,” Steve said. “I miss him a lot,” she said. “I know,” Steve said, “so do I.” Death is a hard concept for a small child to grasp. Its difficult to explain how someone can be here one day and gone the next. Children sometimes do not fully understand it, but when a loved one such as a parent dies a child can be devastated. Loss is something that everyone has to deal with at some point in his or her life. Fairy tales help children deal with lifes difficulties such as death and separation anxiety by exposing them to it at an early age.
Separation from a loved one is a common problem in many fairy tales. Often the heroine is separated from her lover, her parents, or the world that she grew up in. This is the case in the fairy tale “Thumbelina”. Thumbelina is taken away from her home and wanders the strange outside world for months. Eventually, she meets a mouse who has it arranged so that Thumbelina is to marry a mole and live underground for the rest of her life. Thumbelina is distressed because “she knew that after she married the mole, she would never again see the sun and the flowers or hear the birds sing” (Eisen, 301-302). In the Fairy tale “Rapunzel”, Rapunzel experiences separation anxiety twice in her life. First she suffers separation anxiety from the rest of society and then from her lover. Rapunzel is locked up in a tower deep in the forest by a witch and isolated from all human contact. Rapunzel betrays the witch and lets a young prince in the tower. Her second episode of separation anxiety occurs when the witch takes her away form her lover. Upon discovering her secret the witch takes Rapunzel to “a bleak desert place where the poor girl was to live in great sorrow and misery” (Eisen, 98). In the fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel”, the children suffer separation anxiety from the rest of society and their father. Hansel and Gretel are led into the woods and left for dead by their parents. The children get lost in the woods and wander around for days searching for a way home. “They walked all night and the next day from sunrise to sunset, but try as they might they still could not find a way out of the forest” (Eisen, 90). This fairy tale exposes children to the possibility of being separated from their parents as well as their peers. In the fairy tale Cinderella, Cinderella is forced to do slave work for her stepsisters and is forbidden from participating in certain community activities. She feels separated from the rest of the world. The anxiety is so great that she burst into tears. All of these fairy tales directly confront children with the possibility of being separated from loved ones or from society altogether.
Many fairy tales also deal with the death of a parent or the threat of death on the heroine. In “Sleeping Beauty”, the heroine is foretold that on her fifteenth birthday “she will prick her finger on a spindle and fall dead” (Eisen, 22-23). The princess and the entire kingdom fall into a deep sleep that lasts for a hundred years. Children are able to understand what death is like since it is compared to a long period of sleeping and being inactive. In “Hansel and Gretel”, the hero and heroine are faced with the possibility of death. The old witch locks Hansel up in a cage. She feeds him good food and tells Gretel that “when hes nice and fat, Im going to eat him up” (Eisen, 93). Eventually the witch decides to try to cook Gretel but she outsmarts the witch and shoves her into the oven. “The witch screamed horribly, but Gretel didnt open the door until the witch was dead” (Eisen, 93). Death is a huge part of “Hansel and Gretel”, from starving to death, being eaten by wild animals, being eaten by a witch and burning to death in an oven. Death also plays a large role in “Snow White”. The jealous stepmother wants Snow White killed because she is more beautiful. Children are not only exposed to death but also cruel intentions of an evil person. The queen eventually poisons Snow White and she “fell to the ground dead” (Eisen, 122). Young children are confronted with the heroine of the story dying as opposed to a wicked old witch dying. In “Rumpelstiltskin”, the heroine of the story is also confronted with death. The king tells the millers daughter that if she cannot spin the straw into gold then “by tomorrow morning, you will pay with your life” (Eisen, 128). Children are exposed to the possibility of a good person dying rather than an evil person dying, just as it can occur in real life.
Fairy tales are invaluable tools used to teach children about life and prepare them for obstacles that occur later in life. Most children first experience the death of a loved one when a house pet dies. Children see the animals not as pets but as a member of the family. It is hard to loose a loved one, but it is a fact of life. That is where fairy tales come in. Children can be prepared for these obstacles that occur later in life. Fairy tales help children deal with death and separation anxiety among other difficulties that life provides.
Anderson, Hans Christian “Thumbelina.” A Treasury of Children Literature. Ed. Armand Eisen. Boston: Arial Books, 1992. 296-303
Black, Shelia “Sleeping Beauty.” A Treasury of Children Literature. Ed. Armand Eisen. Boston: Arial Books, 1992. 20-36.
Grimm “Hansel and Gretel.” A Treasury of Children Literature. Ed. Armand Eisen. Boston: Arial Books, 1992. 86-95.
Grimm “Rapunzel.” A Treasury of Children Literature. Ed. Armand Eisen. Boston: Arial Books, 1992. 95-100.
Grimm “Snow White.” A Treasury of Children Literature. Ed. Armand Eisen. Boston: Arial Books, 1992. 112-128.
Grimm “Rumpelstiltskin.” A Treasury of Children Literature. Ed. Armand Eisen. Boston: Arial Books, 1992.128-136.