Last week I bought some finger-puppets, cunningly knit by Peruvian women, to have when my grandaughter comes to visit. (When her cousin Arthur comes — he’s younger! — I’ll find another set for a story to interest him.) We are a low-tech household and I’m sure there will be complaints when the grandchildren are older — “Oh, do we have to go to Grandma Theresa and Grandad John’s? They always want to read to us and their internet connection is so slow! Can’t we stay home and play on our I-phones?” But when I had a little Skype date with Kelly and showed her the puppets, she reached for the computer screen (in slow-motion, because of that connection!) to touch these beautiful little figures.
I spent time this morning looking at versions of “Little Red Riding Hood”. The one I thought I remembered best was the Brothers Grimm tale, the one in which Red and her grandmother are both consumed by the wolf but then removed from the animal’s belly by a huntsman who just happened to be passing by. He filled the cavity with stones and the wolf stumbled and died from the weight of the stones. And pulling out my copy of Philip Pullman’s Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm, I see that is indeed the narrative arc of the tale. But my little collection of puppets includes a woodcutter — he’s on the right, with the floppy axe — and it’s the French version that features a woodcutter. This would reflect the changing nature of European forests, I suppose — some of them owned by aristocrats as large hunting preserves and some in the process of being deforested for farm crops and cattle. I remember reading Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment perhaps 35 years ago and being intrigued by his analysis of fairy tales as important adjuncts to shaping the emotional lives of children. Red Riding Hood was an example of a story that allowed children, specifically girls, to grapple with the unsettling fears and dangers of puberty, among other things. I think it also situates a child in the force-field of generational responsibility. A girl is asked by her mother to take sustenance to an ailing grandmother and she moves from the safety of a village to the isolated forest, from her own home with her parents to the house where her mother had grown up. Although she’s been warned to be careful on the way, how could she ever know the specific dangers along the way? Her mother mentions a few things to be alert to but her concerns are more to do with etiquette once Red arrives at her grandmother’s cottage. Does she warn about a wolf? Or a well-armed hunter? A woodcutter?
I will search out the right story to go with my puppets and if we’re lucky, Kelly might hear wolves in the night when she sleeps at her grandmother’s house in the isolated forest. And when she’s a little older, she can help chop wood herself. Just so she learns to use an axe and doesn’t wait for someone else to do it for her.
Postscript: I wrote this post three years ago. Since then, two more grandchildren have been born and many stories have been read. I love how much these children want stories. A book is a spell. Hold one up and all the wild racing around comes to a halt. This photo arrived on the weekend, a testament to the call of of stories. One family was visiting the other in a snowy city. And the youngest grandchild? I suspect he was napping.