From IWU Magazine, Fall 2012 edition

The true intent of fairy tales


Rachel Branson, left, will travel to St. Petersburg in the spring to work and study.

Rachel Branson’s experience as an Eckley scholar has been the stuff of fairy tales.

A junior, Branson spent the summer conducting a comparative literature study on how fairy tales “function as ideological tools under a totalitarian regime such as Soviet Russia compared with fairy tales from roughly the same time period that were produced by the American Left.”

For her research, the English literature and international studies major explored the plots of children’s stories in depth, even scanning microfilm of Soviet newspapers from the 1930s and studying the psychology of fairy tales.

“Children’s literature in the Soviet Union was an ideological tool to teach the next generation what the future could be,” Branson says. The stories were used to “promote a utopian society.”

Branson recounts one tale about a village made peaceful by a Red Army victory — a calm disrupted when a White Army soldier attacks, forcing the village fathers to retaliate. Informed the next day that those men had been defeated, the villagers send their young sons to take their place. The story focuses on one little boy who is captured, tortured and killed by the White Army.

The grim message, Branson says, is that even a child could be sacrificed for the cause.

In contrast, the American Left used children’s literature in the early ’30s “to challenge the status quo,” exploring topics such as racism, environmentalism and gender stereotypes. Later, in the era of McCarthyism and Cold War paranoia, authors such as Harold and the Purple Crayon writer Crockett Johnson were investigated for alleged communist sympathies.

Both the Soviet and American fairy tales Branson studied had different themes but also shared much in common with children’s literature from other cultures and eras. “Fairy tales have traditionally had some kind of moral message. A lot of them try to reinforce traditional values like marriage, and these moral messages root themselves in our memory.”

“Little Red Riding Hood,” for example, is at its surface a warning to children about trusting strangers, but it may also be seen a message about promiscuity and virtuous behavior. And “Beauty and the Beast” may be about not judging by appearance, but could also be considered a tool to encourage a woman to accept her spouse, “even in an unhappy marriage,” says Branson. “It was virtuous to stay with him.”

Marina Balina — Isaac Funk Professor of German and Russian and director of International Studies — first met Branson when she enrolled in her Russian 101 class. Calling her a “sensitive student of language” who was motivated to read Russian novels in translation, Balina approached Branson about working with her on the comparative analysis of fairy tales, noting authors from the American Left in the 1920s–1930s had a similar political approach to writing as Russian authors in the 1930s–1950s.

“Working together was a joy,” says Balina, a native of Russia who is known internationally for her pioneering research of Soviet and post-Soviet children’s literature. “We both love fairy tales and exploring what fairy tales are made of. This summer experience and the benefits of the Eckley scholarship went far beyond eight weeks.”

That work will continue in the spring when Branson travels to Balina’s native city, St. Petersburg, Russia, where she hopes to work in a children’s library while continuing her studies in English and Russian literature.

Click here to return to the main "Finding Their Wings" story page.

Click here to view the Illinois Wesleyan International Studies home page.