I've just begun teaching Kao Kalia Yang's lovely memoir The Latehomecomer in my composition classes, and it's got me thinking about the act of storytelling. The Hmong language did not have an alphabet until the 1950s, and it remains a culture rooted in oral tradition. I found this when I taught orientation classes to new Hmong arrivals. I used all the pictures I could--so many of our handouts had writing on them, and so few of the adults in those particular classes could write in either language--but I found that the best way I could keep their attention through our 3 hour classes was through anecdotes. Health care, housing..."I have a story for you," I'd say, and they would listen.
And so, in attempt to get my students thinking about the forms that stories take, I told them a story in class. The Latehomecomer includes a story about a beautiful woman named Yer who is kidnapped by a tiger and later re-kidnapped by a handsome man in her village, to her chagrin. And so, I told the class the story of Beauty and the Beast--the late 1800 French version. None of them would say the last time they'd been told a story in that way, and I have to say it felt strange to me, too. It took me until the second class to get into a rhythm and let the story carry itself, and when I tripped over a word, I could feel the whole class thinking "hey, get back on rhythm." What a wonderful tradition, telling stories.
And yet, entertaining as they are, many of our old fairy tales served another important purpose that most of our bedtime books today do not: warning children. Even in Beauty and the Beast, which is remarkably tame when compared to, say, Hansel and Gretl or Cinderella, has a very stern warning about keeping promises. The beast allows the father to go home and bring one of his daughters to take his place; he must promise to return within a month or else be hunted down. Later, Beauty is allowed to return for two months to see her family, but she must promise the beast to return, lest he die. In the Disney version, on reflection, Belle charges off both times to save her father. In both versions, she is selfless, but in the Disney movie there are no promises made which carry consequences if broken.
If you'd like to read the original versions of some of these tales, with annotations, check out www.surlalunefairytales.com.