On my sixth birthday, my grandmother gave me a book of fairy tales. It was very thick -- 832 pages -- and the top of the book's pages were edged in gold, like a proper treasure. In wonderfully neat cursive, she had written my full name in blue marker on the inside of the front hardcover. On the flyleaf, she wrote, "To the sweetest -- smartest -- dearest child I know, with love from Mamaw on her 6th birthday (Christina's birthday -- not mine)"
It might be the best gift I've ever received. Three years later, Mamaw would be excommunicated from our family. That's another post.
When you're a child, the most profound thing that an adult can do for you is to take you seriously. A Reader's Digest Anthology: The World's Best Fairy Tales was more than two inches thick and contained 69 fairy tales. I read each and every one, many of them multiple times. I loved running my fingers along the gilded edge of the book. It was special, and it was mine.
The anthology contains all of the classics -- "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," "Sleeping Beauty," "Hansel and Gretel," -- but some of my favorites are the lesser-known ones. Thanks to Reader's Digest, I was able to enjoy these tales unbowdlerized, in all of their politically incorrect glory. Who better than Hans Christian Andersen or the Brothers Grimm to reveal to a child the wonders of arranged marriage, kidnapping, theft, despotism, cannibalism and murder?
I would recommend the following fairy tales to those who are not familiar:
"Little Match Girl": I think of this tale nearly every Christmas, and other times of the year too. A little girl freezes to death with a smile on her face, imagining a happier life in the light of the matches she can't sell. She dies, you guys. Because she is poor and no one helps her out. Scarring passage: "But in the cold dawn, in the corner formed by the two houses, sat the little girl with rosy cheeks and smiling lips, dead -- frozen to death on the last evening of the old year. The dawn of the new year rose on the huddled figure of the girl. She was still holding the matches, of which a packet had been burned more than halfway down." Invaluable life lesson: Sometimes, a society can completely fail its children. Also, if you're cold and poor on the streets, you should probably try selling something other than matches.
"The Snow Queen" : This is a freaking masterpiece. A little boy is lured away from his home and his little girlfriend playmate, and she sets off on a journey to find him. Scarring passage: "Little Kay was almost black and blue with cold, but he never felt it, for the Snow Queen had kissed away his feelings and his heart was a lump of ice. He was sitting in the hall, pulling about some sharp, flat pieces of ice and trying to put them together into a pattern. He thought they were beautiful, but that was because of the splinter of glass in his eye. He was able to fit them into a great many shapes, but he really wanted to make them spell the word 'Love.' The Snow Queen had said, 'If you can spell out that word you will be your own master. I shall give you the whole world and a new sled.' But Kay could not do it." Eventually his friend Gerda finds him and the two of them melt the ice shards into the word love and Kay goes free. Invaluable life lesson: True love can bring us back to ourselves when we are lost. Also, never accept a ride on a strange sleigh. Also, boys can be named Kay.
Blue Beard: By far the scariest story in the book, "Blue Beard" is about a woman who discovers that her husband has murdered all of his other wives, and she's next. Disney isn't making this shit into a movie anytime soon. Scarring passage: "She took the little key and opened the door, trembling, but could not at first see anything plainly, because the shutters were closed. After some moments she perceived a bloodstained floor on which lay the bodies of several dead women. These were the wives Blue Beard had married and murdered, one after another. She thought she would die of fear, and the key, which she had pulled out of the lock, fell from her hand." Invaluable life lesson: Don't marry a crazy dude. Also, if someone warns you not to peek in that closet, you'd better check and see what's in that fricking closet.
"The Little Mermaid": Um, first of all, "Ariel" does not get the prince. In the real story, she fails to get him to marry her, and according to the terms of the witch's deal, she becomes foam on the sea. Scarring passage: "Your tail will part in two and shrink to what the people of the earth call 'pretty legs,' but it will hurt as if a sharp sword were cutting through you. Everybody who sees you will say that you are the prettiest human being they have ever seen. You are to keep your gliding motion, no dancer will be able to move as gracefully as you, but at every step it will feel as if you were treading on a sharp-edged knife, so sharp that your feet will seem to be bleeding." Scarring passage II: "Her delicate feet seemed to be cut by sharp knives, but the anguish of her heart was so great that she did not feel the pain. She knew only that this was the last evening she was ever to see the Prince, for whom she had forsaken her people and her home, had given up her beautiful voice to the Sea Witch and had daily suffered untold agony, while he remained unaware of it all." Invaluable life lesson: Men are often unbelievably clueless. Also, metaphorically speaking, losing one's virginity is a bitch. Also, as directly stated in this story, "One must suffer to be beautiful."