Agnes Repplier

Battle of the babies

A warfare has been raging in our midst, the echoes of which have hardly yet died sullenly away upon either side of the Atlantic. It has been a bloodless and un-Homeric strife, not without humorous side-issues, as when Pistol and Bardolph and Fluellen come to cheer our anxious spirits at the siege of Harfleur. Its first guns were heard in New York, where a modest periodical, devoted to the training of parents, opened fire upon those time-honored nursery legends which are presumably dear to the hearts of all rightly constituted babies. The leader of this gallant foray protested vehemently against all fairy tales of a mournful or sanguinary cast, and her denunciation necessarily included many stories which have for generations been familiar to every little child. She rejected Red Riding Hood, because her own infancy was haunted and embittered by the evil behavior of the wolf; she would have none of Bluebeard, because he was a wholesale fiend and murderer; she would not even allow the pretty Babes in the Wood, because they tell a tale of cold-hearted cruelty and of helpless suffering; while all fierce narratives of giants and ogres and magicians were to be banished ruthlessly from our shelves. Verily, reading will be but gentle sport in the virtuous days to come.

Now it chanced that this serious protest against nursery lore fell into the hands of Mr. Andrew Lang, the most light-hearted and conservative of critics, and partial withal to tales of bloodshed and adventure. How could it be otherwise with one reared on the bleak border land, and familiar from infancy with the wild border legends that Sir Walter knew and loved; with stories of Thomas the Rhymer, and the plundering Hardens, and the black witches of Loch Awe! It was natural that with the echoes of the old savage strife ringing in his ears, and with the memories of the dour Scottish bogies and warlocks lingering in his heart, Mr. Lang could but indifferently sympathize with those anxious parents who think the stories of Bluebeard and Jack the Giant Killer too shocking for infant ears to hear. Our grandmothers, he declared, were not ferocious old ladies, yet they told us these tales, and many more which were none the worse for hearing. “Not to know them is to be sadly ignorant, and to miss that which all people have relished in all ages.” Moreover, it is apparent to him, and indeed to most of us, that we cannot take even our earliest steps in the world of literature, or in the shaded paths of knowledge, without encountering suffering and sin in some shape; while, as we advance a little further, these grisly forms fly ever on before. “Cain,” remarks Mr. Lang, “killed Abel. The flood drowned quite a number of persons. David was not a stainless knight, and Henry VIII was nearly as bad as Bluebeard. Several deserving gentlemen were killed at Marathon. Front de Bœcuf came to an end shocking to sensibility, and to Mr. Ruskin.” The Arabian Nights, Pilgrim’s Progress, Paul and Virginia—all the dear old nursery favorites must, under the new dispensation, be banished from our midst; and the rising generation of prigs must be nourished exclusively on Little Lord Fauntleroy, and other carefully selected specimens of milk-and-water diet.

The prospect hardly seems inviting; but as the English guns rattled merrily away in behalf of English tradition, they were promptly met by an answering roar from this side of the water. A Boston paper rushed gallantly to the defense of the New York periodical, and gave Mr. Lang—to use a pet expression of his own—“his kail through the reek.” American children, it appears, are too sensitively organized to endure the unredeemed ferocity of the old fairy stories. The British child may sleep soundly in its little cot after hearing about the Babes in the Wood; the American infant is prematurely saddened by such unmerited misfortune. “If a consensus of American mothers could be taken,” says the Boston writer, “our English critic might be infinitely disgusted to know in how many nurseries these cruel tales must be changed, or not told at all to the children of less savage generations. No mother nowadays tells them in their unmitigated brutality.”

Is this true, I wonder, and are our supersensitive babies reared perforce on the optimistic version of Red Riding Hood, where the wolf is cut open by the woodman, and the little girl and her grandmother jump out, safe and sound? Their New England champion speaks of the “intolerable misery”—a very strong phrase—which he suffered in infancy from having his nurse tell him of the Babes in the Wood; while the Scriptural stories were apparently every whit as unbearable and heart-breaking. “I remember,” he says, “two children, strong, brave man and woman now, who in righteous rage plucked the Slaughter of the Innocents out from the family Bible.” This was a radical measure, to say the least, and if many little boys and girls started in to expurgate the Scriptures in such liberal fashion, the holy book would soon present a sadly mutilated appearance. Moreover, it seems to me that such an anecdote, narrated with admirable assurance, reveals very painfully the lack of a fine and delicate spirituality in the religious training of children; of that grace and distinction which are akin to saintship, and are united so charmingly in those to whom truth has been inseparably associated with beauty. There is a painting by Ghirlandaio hanging over the altar in the chapel of the Foundling Asylum in Florence. It represents the Adoration of the Magi, and kneeling by the side of the Wise Men is a little group of the Holy Innocents, their tiny garments stained with blood, their hands clasped in prayer; while the Divine Child turns from his mother’s embraces, and from the kings’ rich gifts to greet the little companions who have yielded up their spotless lives for him. Now, surely those lean, brown Florentine orphans, who have always before their eyes this beautiful and tender picture, absorb through it alone a religious sentiment unfelt by American children who are familiar only with the ugly and inane prints of American Sunday-schools, in which I have known the line, “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” to be illustrated by a man with a magnifying-glass in his hand. Possibly our Sunday-school scholars, being more accurately instructed as to dates, could inform the little Florentines that the Innocents were not slaughtered until after the Magi had returned to the East. But no child who had looked day after day upon Ghirlandaio’s lovely picture—more appealing in its pathos than Holman Hunt’s brilliant and jocund Triumph of the Innocents—could desire to pluck “in righteous rage” that chapter from the Bible. He would have at least some dim and imperfect conception of the spiritual meaning, the spiritual joy, which underlie the pain and horror of the story.

This reflection will help us in some measure to come to a decision, when we return to the vexed problem of nursery tales and legends. I believe it is as well to cultivate a child’s emotions as to cultivate his manners or his morals, and the first step in such a direction is necessarily taken through the stories told him in infancy. If a consensus of mothers would reject the good old fairy tales “in their unmitigated brutality,” a consensus of men of letters would render a different verdict; and such men, who have been children in their time, and who look back with wistful delight upon the familiar figures who were their earliest friends, are entitled to an opinion in the case. How admirable was the “righteous rage” of Charles Lamb, when he wanted to buy some of these same brutal fairy stories for the little Coleridges, and could find nothing but the correct and commonplace literature which his whole soul abhorred! “Mrs. Barbauld’s and Mrs. Trimmer’s nonsense lay in piles about,” he wrote indignantly to papa Coleridge, “and have banished all the old classics of the nursery. Knowledge, insignificant and vapid as Mrs. Barbauld’s books convey, must, it seems, come to a child in the shape of knowledge; and his empty noddle must be turned with conceit of his own powers when he has learnt that a horse is an animal, and that Billy is better than a horse, and such like; instead of that beautiful interest in wild tales which made the child a man, while all the time he suspected himself to be no bigger than a child.”

Just such a wild tale, fantastic rather than beautiful, haunted Châteaubriand all his life—the story of Count Combourg’s wooden leg, which, three hundred years after its owner’s death, was seen at night walking solemnly down the steep turret stairs, attended by a huge black cat. Not at all the kind of story we would select to tell a child nowadays. By no means! Even the little Châteaubriand heard it from peasant lips. Yet in after years, when he had fought the battle of life, and fought it with success; when he had grown gray, and illustrious, and disillusioned, and melancholy, what should come back to his mind, with its old pleasant flavor of terror and mystery, but the vision of Count Combourg’s wooden leg taking its midnight constitutional, with the black cat stepping softly on before? So he notes it gravely down in his Memoirs, just as Scott notes in his diary the pranks of Whippity Stourie, the Scotch bogie that steals at night into open nursery windows; and just as Heine, in gay, sunlit Paris, recalls with joy the dark, sweet, sombre tales of the witch and fairy haunted forests of Germany.

These are impressions worth recording, and they are only a few out of many which may be gathered from similar sources. That which is vital in literature or tradition, which has survived the obscurity and wreckage of the past, whether as legend, or ballad, or mere nursery rhyme, has survived in right of some intrinsic merit of its own, and will not be snuffed out of existence by any of our precautionary or hygienic measures. We could not banish Bluebeard if we would. He is as immortal as Hamlet, and when hundreds of years shall have passed over this uncomfortably enlightened world, the children of the future—who, thank Heaven, can never, with all our efforts, be born grown up—will still tremble at the blood-stained key, and rejoice when the big brave brothers come galloping up the road. We could not even rid ourselves of Mother Goose, though she, too, has her mortal enemies, who protest periodically against her cruelty and grossness. We could not drive Punch and Judy from our midst, though Mr. Punch’s derelictions have been the subject of much serious and adverse criticism. It is not by such barbarous rhymes or by such brutal spectacles that we teach a child the lessons of integrity and gentleness, explain our nursery moralists, and probably they are correct. Moreover, Bluebeard does not teach a lesson of conjugal felicity, and Cinderella is full of the world’s vanities, and Puss in Boots is one long record of triumphant effrontery and deception. An honest and self-respecting lad would have explained to the king that he was not the Marquis of Carabas at all; that he had no desire to profit by his cat’s ingenious falsehoods, and no weak ambition to connect himself with the aristocracy. Such a hero would be a credit to our modern schoolrooms, and lift a load of care from the shoulders of our modern critics. Only the children would have none of him, but would turn wistfully back to those brave old tales which are their inheritance from a splendid past, and of which no hand shall rob them.

(1892)

MLA Citation

Repplier, Agnes. “Battle of the babies.” 1892. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 24 Mar 2007. 28 Jul 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/repplier/battle_of_the_babies/>.

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