We’ve been considering a trip to BeNeLux next spring which has gotten me thinking about two of the childhood stories that my children have never heard, but that were favorites of mine, stories that somehow wove themselves into the fiber of my moral worldview. I can’t say whether I gravitated toward these stories because of my own natural inclinations or if they were stories I liked due to the way my parents read them, or the illustrations, or what it was that attracted me to them. I am convinced, though, that our favorite childhood stories are one way to understand ourselves better, whether those stories are a part of what makes us tick or whether what makes us tick is why we liked those stories.
Here are some of my favorite childhood stories, a few of which I don’t think are very popular any more, ones that I still occasionally think about within my own life events.
The Dutch Boy & the Dike
A Dutch boy is walking home past the dikes (walls to keep the sea from flooding Holland which is below sea level) when he notices a small crack in one with water starting to come through it. He knows he is supposed to be home and is afraid of getting in trouble, but he realizes that if the crack grows, the entire village will be wiped out, so he puts his thumb in the hole to stop the sea water from coming in. The sun sets, and the night gets colder, and nobody comes by. He only has a thin jacket, and he’s shivering, but he continues to hold his position, knowing that his entire village is at stake. He stays there all night, while his hands turn blue and he shivers with cold.
Every time we read this, I would root for a villager to come by a few hours earlier to rescue the boy from his own heroic efforts.
The Little Red Hen
A pig, a dog and a hen are unlikely roommates. The pig is selfish, the dog is lazy, and the hen is industrious. She finds some grain and takes it to the mill to have it ground into flour. Then she uses the flour to bake bread. Every step of the way, she asks the others who will help her with the next step, and at every step, they decline. Then, when the bread is ready, they all volunteer to help eat it, but she declines and eats it all herself.
This story always had a self-righteous tone that I found appealing.
The Shoemaker’s Elves
A shoemaker and his wife are getting old and tired and poor. The man cuts out the leather to make one last pair of shoes, like the widow in the Bible making her one last cake before she and her son die, and he goes to bed planning to make the shoes in the morning. In the middle of the night, two elves, naked as jaybirds, come in and use the shoe leather to make exquisite shoes, the best the shop has ever had. As a result, the shoemaker gets extra money for them, enough to make two more pairs of shoes. Like the night before, he cuts out the leather and plans to make the shoes in the morning. Again, the naked elves come in and make beautiful shoes that fetch twice the value of the leather so the shoemaker can again double the following day’s order. He and his wife are curious about who is making the shoes, so they sneak into the shop at night and see the elves. Taking pity on them, they use some of the extra money to make suits of clothes for the elves which they leave out the next night. The elves are thrilled with their new clothes and hightail it out of there, never to be seen again.
Aside from elf nudity which was an obvious draw, I liked the idea that you could double your investment with high quality work.
I Can’t Remember the Name
I can’t find this story anywhere for some reason. It’s a story about a flax seed growing in Flanders, and the flax seed turns its face to the sun as it grows into a plant and flowers. Then, it’s cut along with other flax, and while it’s afraid it’s going to die, it’s carted off to a processing plant where it is pressed and its fibers are made into threads, and those threads are woven together into linen, and the linen is the strongest and fairest cloth ever. It seems like a pretty clear metaphor for death and resurrection, as well as the sacrifice of one for the many.
I always loved the image of the flax turning its face to the sun, only to be rudely cut down in its prime! The story felt so unjust from that point on.
All of these stories have a few themes in common: sacrifice and reward, patriotism (that the good of the whole depends on the actions of the individual), and investment. While I was reading stories to my children, I don’t recall them having these themes so prominently.
Two other stories that I liked, although they were longer and had plots that didn’t resemble communist Russia, that are much more popular:
Beauty and the Beast
The version I liked had drawings with a plump curly-haired Beauty (no francophile Belle in this version) whose merchant father is leaving on a voyage and asks his children what he can bring them back. Beauty, like Cordelia in King Lear, is the only daughter who truly loves her father and not just the riches he brings her. Unlike her sisters who ask for jewels and gowns, she asks for a single rose after initially demurring and saying she only wants her father’s safe passage. His ships are wrecked by storms and he barely escapes with his life, but doesn’t want to disappoint his youngest and most deserving daughter. He cuts a single rose from a hedge to take to his daughter, and he’s confronted by a curly haired but soulful, frankly Rococo-looking, beast who sadly informs him that his daughter has to pay for his theft by coming to live with him. The father, like Jephthah in the Bible, sighs and agrees, informing his most deserving and favorite daughter that her life is now forfeit. Her scornful sisters, upset over the loss of fortune, blame her for her selfish request of a rose and say it’s her own fault. Off she goes to live with the beast who is really just a hairy depressed guy more than anything else in this version.
East of the Sun and West of the Moon
This one is similar to Beauty and the Beast, but with a Nordic twist. A polar bear comes to the family’s hut and requests that the youngest, most beautiful daughter come away to live with him. In exchange, her family will have all the wealth they need. Like Mrs. Bennet in Pride & Prejudice, they quickly agree to this economically advantageous match with little thought to the plight of their daughter. The polar bear explains to the girl that they have to share a bed, but that she is not allowed to look at him during the night while they sleep. During the day, he reverts to polar bear status and the two of them wander around like Ladyhawke without Matthew Broderick as a sidekick. The bear is kind to her, but eventually curiosity gets the better of her, and she sneaks a candle to her bedside. When he’s asleep, she lights the candle to look at him and sees that he’s a handsome prince (how you can tell he’s a prince while sleeping is a detail not provided). Three drips of tallow land on him, waking him up as hot wax does, and instantly, he disappears as does the house and the bed. She’s left alone in the snowy countryside to wander. She has to enlist the aid of the four winds to find him and rescue him from his betrothed, a long-nosed troll.
These two stories are fairly similar on the surface. A daughter who isn’t valued by her family is the means to redeem her family. Her lover is cursed, and she is the means to free him, but she also endangers him because he doesn’t trust her with his story. Two people so seemingly different (a prince and a peasant, a beast and a merchant’s daughter) are actually similar in unexpected ways either because of their kindness or their bravery or their integrity. And both stories are a little rapey, really, with a girl being taken off against her will into a situation outside of her control with danger around. But she overcomes and is the hero of her story, the one who rescues the prince.
- What stories spoke to you as a child that have had a formative influence on you?
- Did your children like different stories than you did?
- Do you think these stories formed who we are or that we chose the stories that were most like how we already were?