Family Matters, Literature, Plain Speaking, Quote of the Day

Cautionary Tales, Both Imaginary and Real

I think back on my early childhood sometimes, and regard it as something of a miracle that I survived to adolescence, let alone adulthood.  No child car seats.  No seat belts.  In fact, my fondest childhood “car” memory is of sitting on the front bench seat next to my Daddy, at about the age of two, with a plastic kid’s steering wheel stuck to the dashboard in front of me–it had a suction cup at the base, which you spat into and then stuck it on the car, something very like this:

I’d spin the wheel around like mad, beep the horn, jiggle the gearstick up and and down and scream with laughter, as we bounced around on the substandard red laterite roads of Northern Nigeria, in the old green Ford Zephyr with one front door that had fallen off at some point and was only still attached to the car because Dad had threaded a thick piece of rope through both front-door armrests, pulled it tight, and tied everything together with a giant knot.


Then there were the poisonous snakes.  The scorpions.  And sundry tropical diseases.  Not to mention the occasional plots to kill us all.

But somehow I did survive.  And I suppose life improved, or at least got somewhat safer (for us, anyway), when we moved to the United States.  Three weeks before JFK was shot.

Certainly, the books I read (and I was a voracious reader from a very early age) would probably be regarded as wrong, dangerous, and beyond the pale these days, too.  Little Black Sambo. Peter Pan. The Brothers Grimm. Pippi Longstocking. Treasure Island.  Robinson Crusoe.   Beatrix Potter seems largely to have escaped the attention of the nattering ninnies–well, except for that appalling Sony release a few years ago.  (Far be it from me to speculate on the nature of the relationship between Lucinda and Jane, the two dolls who shacked up together in the Tale of Two Bad Mice, or that of the partners and co-owners of the general store, Ginger and Pickles.  Glory be.)

Somehow, I’ve always thought that these stories, almost all of which had improving moral lessons at the heart did at least as much to teach me right from wrong, to keep me safe, and to set my feet on the straight and narrow, as the interfering busybodies of the nanny state and ever-more-lengthy list of safety precautions and proscribed behaviors children suffer from today.  Yes, some of the stories were frightening.  Some of them contained reprehensible characters who treated others poorly.  Some of them shamelessly stereotyped classes of people as “better,” or “worse,” than others. Some portrayed unspeakable violence.

But somehow, my childish imagination managed to sort through it.  And I don’t seem to have been damaged by it.  I didn’t emerge from the experience feeling superior to other races or classes of people.  Nor do I know anyone who grew into a hot mess of an adult because he or she read, at the age of four or five about Hansel and Gretel stuffing the mean old witch into the oven and burning her to a crisp.  Or about Snow White being raised from a never-ending slumber by a kiss bestowed (gasp!) without her consent.  (I expect, actually, that at that point, she was just glad to be revived. I mean, consider the alternative. Amirite?)

I said, a while ago in another post, of the literature I enjoyed as I child, that while I recognized that most of it wasn’t “real,” I did realize that much of it was “true.”  And I took the lessons I learned from it and applied them in life.

Which brings me to my quote of the day; one of the poems from Hillaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children (the book is reprinted in full at Gutenberg, here, where it’s best to view it with the illustrations).  These are a marvelous series of horrifying tales describing in verse the awful fate that befalls naughty little children who don’t do as their parents instruct them.  I can’t imagine something like this being recommended today by any public-school educator:

Who slammed Doors for Fun and Perished Miserably.

A Trick that everyone abhors
In Little Girls is slamming Doors.

A Wealthy Banker’s Little Daughter
Who lived in Palace Green, Bayswater
(By name Rebecca Offendort),
Was given to this Furious Sport.

She would deliberately go
And Slam the door like Billy-Ho!

To make her Uncle Jacob start.
She was not really bad at heart,
But only rather rude and wild:
She was an aggravating child….

It happened that a Marble Bust
Of Abraham was standing just
Above the Door this little Lamb
Had carefully prepared to Slam,
And Down it came! It knocked her flat!
It laid her out! She looked like that.

Her funeral Sermon (which was long
And followed by a Sacred Song)
Mentioned her Virtues, it is true,
But dwelt upon her Vices too,
And showed the Dreadful End of One
Who goes and slams the door for Fun.

The children who were brought to hear
The awful Tale from far and near
Were much impressed, and inly swore
They never more would slam the Door.
—As often they had done before.

The children in these stories frequently end up dead–“Jim, Who ran away from his Nurse and was eaten by a Lion,” or “Matilda, Who told Lies and was Burned to Death,” or they cause the deaths of others and are horribly maimed themselves–“George, Who played with a Dangerous Toy and suffered a Catastrophe of considerable Dimensions.”

The horrible fates of Belloc’s naughty children pale in comparison to those in Der Struwwelpeter, a mid-19th century German book of cautionary tales.  Translated into English not long after it was published, it was another of my childhood favorites.  Some of its stories have a more acceptable message, in modern terms, at least: The hare steals the gun from the hunter while he’s napping, and then hunts him down herself; little boys who pull the wings off flies suffer an alarming fate; the nasty children who tease the “harmless blackamoor” are dipped in a vat of ink and themselves become the target of mockery and scorn; still, it’s hard to imagine an elementary school class of today being allowed to enjoy–and I did enjoy–such horrifying stories.


And yet.

Struwwelpeter, and Jim, and Matilda, and George, and many others, served a useful purpose in my formative years.  They served as negative examples of how to behave, as exemplars (before it was a ‘thing’) of the “Don’t be that guy” meme.  (Because every generation thinks they’ve invented, all by themselves, such ideas.  LOL.)

In short, absorbing these horrifying stories, early in my life, taught me the following: “Don’t lie.”  “Don’t boast.”  “Don’t cheat.”  “Don’t hate.”  “Don’t be a jerk.  And, above all, “Be kind.”  Lessons for a lifetime.  Which I absorbed.

I’ve not thought about Struwwelpeter for quite some time, and I’m grateful to beloved stepdaughter for reminding me of a time in my life when things were simpler, and also for some clarification in the present moment.

Just the other day, she and I were talking about a former dear friend of hers whose close relative had recently died.  When notified (by the former dear friend) of the event, my stepdaughter processed the information, and then thought about whether or not she should respond with sympathy and humanity, given that said former dear friend had been a bit of a jerk in his behavior towards her in recent years.

And she said, “then I thought of ‘John,’** a person known to both of us, whose awful behavior towards both myself and Mr. Right has become something of a benchmark of ‘how not to behave’ between us for the past couple of years.

“And” (she continued) “I realized that ‘John’ had behaved abominably when Dad [her father, Mr. Right] died and so I used his negative example, and responded kindly to my former friend. Because that was the right thing to do.”

She ended by saying, “Maybe that’s ‘John’s’ actual purpose in life.  Maybe he’s a real-life Struwwelpeter, serving as a negative example to us all.”

Crimenutely.  That’s it!

For that reason, I finally understand and am grateful to have had ‘John’ in my life.

Because, in my declining years, God sent me a real-life Struwwelpeter to keep me on the straight and narrow.

Thank you God.  Thank you, ‘John.’

Maybe that really is your only purpose in life.


**Using that name (‘John’) only because it’s one of the most common in the English language.  Don’t waste your time wondering whether or not it’s the right one.

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