Our great desire to make childhood uncontroversial has resulted in a contemporary literature full of endings. The word "literature" belongs here in its most rudimentary capacity: modern children's stories for the most part form an undifferentiated deluge of branded, simplistic outpourings whose capacity to reflect what we are roughly matches that of the advisory literature of social services or the National Health Service, both of which, I am sure, recommend reading to children as a way of solving their problems, or yours. So widespread is our faith in the beneficial effects of this activity that it should come as no surprise to discover signs of strain in the books themselves.
It is expected that a children's story will raise a difficulty and then resolve it: increasingly, this resolution is so prompt and so resounding that one forgets what exactly the difficulty was. It becomes hard to think of enough difficulties to generate the required number of happy endings, particularly in the neutered realm of the imagination in which most such stories occur. It is a sort of suburbia, this place: a formless domain ruled by the twin diktats that everything should be convenient and nothing should be threatening. You could time a suburban story by your watch: it lasts as long as it takes a small furry animal that's lonely to find friends, or a small furry animal that's lost to find its parents; it lasts as long as a quick avowal of love; it lasts precisely as long as the average parent is disposed on a Tuesday night to spend reading aloud to children.
I have often questioned the wisdom of damping down children at the day's end with such suffocating wads of reassurance: they tend to struggle, and strain to reconnect with their natural bent for anarchy. Childhood, after all, is not an ending, but rather a state full of potent curiosity. Even small children demonstrate that distinctive reverence for Harry Potter - its mad riffs of fantasy and magic, its prodigious length, its debunking of suburbia and family life. It might be that children are better freed from their anxieties by being led far into the concept of unpredictability than by having those anxieties washed and ironed and returned to them by an ever-present fictional mum; by seeing life represented as more than it is, not less. And anyway, as Hans Christian Andersen observed, "Father and Mother often listen, and you must also give them something for their minds."
"The Ugly Duckling" might have been the progenitor of the small furry animal genre of modern storytelling, but parents should lay aside their watches: Tiina Nunnally's wonderful new translations of Andersen are an invitation to open-ended, mind-engaging reading. As the story goes:
It doesn't matter if you're born in a duck yard when you've been lying inside a swan's egg. He actually felt glad about all the suffering and hardships he had endured. Now he could appreciate his happiness and all the loveliness that awaited him . . . He thought about how he had been badgered and scorned, and now he heard everyone say that he was the loveliest of all the lovely birds.
Andersen, the son of an illiterate mother and a cobbler father who died when he was 11, escaped great poverty and harshness to become the most famed writer in the Europe of his day. Yet his stories, unlike the "fairy tales" of the German brothers Grimm, are personal masterpieces of psychological reality, in which the scorn is more real, as in the case of the ugly duckling, than the praise. Nothing is denied or forgiven in Andersen, but everything is explained. "On the very day that her mother was buried, Karen was given the red shoes, and she wore them for the first time. Now, it's true that they weren't the proper shoes for mourning, but she didn't have any others, and so she wore them on her bare feet, walking behind the humble coffin made of straw." Karen's red shoes compel her to dance until she repents of her vanity and her feet are cut off. In "The Fir Tree", a pine tree longs to be chosen by the children in the big house for Christmas: with this desire, he enters into self-consciousness and the torture of mortality.
"The Little Mermaid" and "The Snow Queen" are Andersen's most perfect disquisitions on love and betrayal, as well as being exemplars of the art of fantasy. Most of his stories have the recognisable world as their setting, and it is to express interiority - the sense of unreachableness to which he often confessed - that his narratives assert the existence of such unfathomed places as the Snow Queen's castle or the kingdom under the sea. Andersen's repressed homosexuality, as well as his lack of family, underpin his distinctive dramatisations of human emotion: like Oscar Wilde, he imagines love as tragic, innocent and vulnerable to the cruelty of nature, to coldness. A kind of mute sincerity and valour, more ethereal and childlike than the love of princes and princesses, characterises Andersen's lovers. Gerda, in "The Snow Queen", wants only to restore her friend Kai to warmth and light, while the little mermaid helplessly accepts pain as the price of feeling: "she kept on dancing and dancing, even though every time her feet touched the ground it felt as if she were treading on sharp knives".
The Brothers Grimm are rather more robust and folkloric in their methods, though no less gruesome. In "The Seven Ravens", seven boys are transformed into ravens by their father's momentary anger with them and they fly away. Their sister cannot rest until she has found them again. She is given a wishbone as a key to unlock the glass mountain where they are living, but when she gets there, she finds the wishbone is lost. "The little sister took a knife, cut off her little finger, put it into the lock, and presto, it opened up." You might want to omit that "presto" when reading aloud, for fear of seeming to give encouragement. There are plenty of princes and princesses here, freed from their years-long imprisonment in the reels of Disney: Rapunzel, Cinderella and Snow White, as well as civilian heroes - Rumpelstiltskin, Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel. This new, annotated edition is sparingly but mesmerisingly illustrated by selections from the numerous artists who have given substance to these strange, brutal, beautiful imaginings over the years.
Occasionally I found myself wishing that this great richness, this free, unhurried, wild literature that so stridently negotiates the thickets of our moral and social evolution, and of our journey from birth to death, did not belong so plainly to the past. It is one thing - though a very good thing - to rescue fairy tales from their airbrushed, deracinated, Barbie-ised place in modern culture; it is another to explain what became of all that terror, those child-eating witches, the severed feet and fingers, the frozen heart and the love that cuts like knives, all that violence of body and mind that we have seen fit to excise not just from our own stories, but more often than not from these as well. Where did it go? And is it good that it's gone? I don't know.
Rachel Cusk's latest novel is The Lucky Ones (Perennial)