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Tolstoy’s Children’s Stories (lareviewofbooks.org)
162 points by smiljo 40 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 101 comments

Important point many are missing: Folktales were not originally for children. They were told among adults after children had gone to sleep. But when folklorists (like the Grimm brothers) started collecting and publishing folk tales, it became a trend to publish sanitized edition for children.

Read something like the Arabian Nights tales in an uncensored version - these were clearly not intended for children anymore than 50 Shades of Grey are for children. The children's editions are heavily sanitized.

I suspect their change into children literature was because of cultural changes - educated 19th century adults couldn't take folktales serious anymore (except as anthropological studies) and found them childish. The same way that 19th century popular literature like Dumas and Verne became children's books in the 20th century.

Walt Disney is often criticized in this context, but both Snow White and Cinderella are actually pretty faithful to the source material. Cinderella is just based on the Charles Perrault version of the story, not the Grimm version which contain a lot more maiming.

> Folktales were not originally for children.

I learned this the hard way. I purchased a beautifully made "Grimm's Complete Fairy Tales" to read to my then toddler. There are some particularly disturbing stories but I was surprised by how many were flat out nonsensical or silly (like The Story of a Boy Who Went Forth to Learn Fear [0]). It's fascinating to read these in their (translated) original form. Not your typical bedtime story.

[0] https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm004.html

Even the 'sanitized' versions of them haven't aged well and are often pretty silly IMO. Maybe it's just because we tend to see them as morality plays these days and try to infer a lesson, while the originals seem to just have been local stories from various villages. Terrible people do well for themselves, lots of people die to no real gain or purpose, etc.

I recently got this surprise when practicing Japanese by translating a folk tale [0]. Even revenge I was able to understand quickly turned into outright sadism. Maybe it was the morals of another time, maybe the tellers didn't care if all the characters were unlikable.

[0]: http://life.ou.edu/stories/sarukani.html

I think it's an effective and impressive warning, which makes one think about the tale at length. And the warning is that if you piss someone off by being greedy, you might accidentally get much worse punishment than you actually deserve for a small mischief.

The tale wouldn't make nearly as much of an impression if, let's say, the crabs just roughed the monkey up a little bit and then they all made up and lived happily ever after.

Nor would it be a realistic or helpful lesson, because that is not now reality works: sometimes actions have serious consequences.

It kinda makes sense to me. In the end he learned to shudder with his SO (she did a weird trick but is it that weird?)

I must be broken because this is reasonably sensible to me. The boy was too naive and his life too austere to know fear, and thus was able to survive the night (and his other challenges). It wasn't until he knew what it was to have a warm bed, food and a wife that he was able to shudder with fear.

> flat out nonsensical e.g. The Story of a Boy Who Went Forth to Learn Fear

That reminded me of GOT... the ending was a disappointment to an otherwise interesting tale.

Wow, what a strange story. Super surreal and dreamlike

seriously what the fuck did I just read

> Important point many are missing: Folktales were not originally for children. They were told among adults after children had gone to sleep.

Do you have any evidence for this? Nothing I’ve ever read in anthropology supports it. When most children die before their fifth birthday, the average family lives in one room and a family is rich if they have two beds, a table and six good chairs people think very differently than the fabulously wealthy Victorians. And they were pretty much ok with children working in factories or as chimney sweeps.

Life used to be nasty, brutish and short. Attitudes were substantially less delicate as a result.

1.) One bit of context is that German propaganda during WWI did not allowed death at all in children books. This is something I have from book about occupied territory.

2.) The other is that "folk" likely did not told stories to kids every evening the way we do. This I gather as unprobable after reading book about childhood in Germany before wars. The kids did not get as much individual attention and general attention.

Demographic that was ok with kids working in factories had both parents working 12 hours a day with no weekend. These had 5 years old whole day alone on the streets or "responsible" for gooses with no adult present. There was no one to gently tuck them to bed and tell them story so that they learn "morals" or what. These were overworked adults desperately needing a bit of rest for themselves.

Your kids are not getting bedtime stories at all in that situation.

3.) My observation from kids: We push stories and reading on kids a lot and very soon. Sooner then they actually like it. Small kids like shorter super simple stories. The original form is not for kids not just because it is dark, but also because it is unnecessary long and slow moving for such kid.

Your “we” is likely unrepresentative even now. Reading or telling stories to children every night is not a universal pastime. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s below 50% though it’s quite common.

Children got less attention because there were more of them and people were busy but they weren’t feral. When it’s dark and cold outside they were mostly inside. There’s always work but if you spend a lot of time in cramped quarters with no tv, radio or books people’s people want entertainment apart from gossip. That means music, song or story telling. You’re not going to get a five year old to sit still for half an hour to listen to a recitation of a book of the Iliad or Odyssey but ten minutes is an unremarkable attention span.

Total agreement on reading. Be like Finland, leave it til primary school, which starts at 7 years old.

> Your “we” is likely unrepresentative even now. Reading or telling stories to children every night is not a universal pastime.

I meant we as a society. Not everyone does it, but it is general recommendation. It was not even recommendation back then. The point is, we as society are collectively doing it a lot more. We as a society also push parents to do it a lot more. In 19 century, you would not had people claiming that someone must read to babies every night - although you do see people and even educators pushing this one.

> Children got less attention because there were more of them and people were busy but they weren’t feral

The origin of kindergarten are German cities with poor kids in city running around whole day. Middle class kids lives were highly controlled, including a lot of control over their entertainment, hobbies and so on. But poor families could not afford any of that.

In rural villages, even my grandmother remembered being responsible for gooses along other kids while adults worked fields (they were comparatively rich family with rather larger farm). It was the normal way of raising kids even in 20 century.

> People want entertainment apart from gossip. That means music, song or story telling

Yes, but these are songs and story telling for adults. The kids can listen, but the original claim is that these stories were aimed at adult audience. Which is true. The fun things for children and for adults are much different. And the original stories when I read them while ago tended to be much longer then what I read to small kids. As kids grow they start to have preference for older and 10 years old will like long version. But 4-5 years old less likely.

See for example Decameron - upper class adults telling stories (many of them folktales) to each other for entertainment. No kids in sight. It was a widespread tradition before mass media, among rich and poor. It was the Victorians who turned the folktales into children's literature. (And I think you are mixing a few things up about the child factory workers and chimney sweeps - these were the urban poor after industrialization. Grimm had to go to the countryside to record the folktales because the tradition was lost in industrialized urban society.)

> Life used to be nasty, brutish and short. Attitudes were substantially less delicate as a result.

I don't think you can draw a simple correspondence between brutality in real life and brutality in fiction. For example there is a lot more explicit violence in TV today than 50 years ago, even though by all account there is less violent crime in western society overall. And it is not like Grimms Cinderella is exceedingly brutal compared to say Saw or Game of Thrones. On the other hand we don't consider public executions appropriate entertainment for the whole family anymore.

> Walt Disney is often criticized in this context

Disney hired Pixar to put out Tolstoy 1 and 2, then they acquired Pixar and have since released Tolstoy 3 and 4.

For those interested in seeing the scope/variation of cinderella stories, there’s a book “cinderella; three hundred and forty-five variants” https://archive.org/details/cu31924007918299 that is ... I wouldn’t recommend reading it cover-to-cover like I did, but there are some interesting variants hidden in it!

Were they not for children or did we decide later that children should read bowdlerized forms? After all, I read Arabian Nights uncensored with people cavorting[0] with courtesans and that one with the false sexual assault but with bad defence arguments when I couldn't have been even a teenager.

Also all the Russian stories published translated to English by Pravda involved a lot of violence and head cutting and men trying to sleep with daughters and whatnot.

Turned out all right.

0: Pretty sure that's where I learned the word 'cavorting'.

They were passed on orally, not read, and they were not in particular intended for children. The frame itself is Scherazad telling the stories to her husband, a grown man.

On the other hand I am not quite sure what these people told their kids and if one can apply the same standards. I think people used to be more cruel than they are now, for example public executions were drawing huge crowds. Also mortality was higher and people died at a younger age, especially child mortality used to be much higher. The concept and meaning of childhood was probably not exactly the same as today, child labor was quite common. As a result I don't quite know how to read the cruelty in original folk tales.

In addition to that you can't tell exactly if the Grimm brother weren't doing some editing on their own behalf.

>Important point many are missing: Folktales were not originally for children.

How does this apply? What is this in response to?

Tolstoy's stories weren't based on folk tales, and were specifically meant for children.

Yet they are, at times, pretty grim, and often lack a punchline or a clear point, other than "such is life".

Which might have been the point anyway.

I wrote in the response to the article and many comments here which assumes that folktales were intended for kids. I'm not asserting anything about Tolstoys stories which I don't know (and I'm not sure the article gives a fair representation of them).

Those books shouldn't be judged by today's norms. They were not written for the children (nor parents... especially not parents) of today, but for children back then who lived in a completely different world.

For instance, in the version of Cinderella by Charles Perrault - the version that we all know - one of the evil stepsisters was advised by her mother to cut off her toes in order to fit the slipper. She almost fools the prince, but doves warn him about blood dripping from her foot. He then goes back again and tries the slipper on the other sister. She cut off part of her heel in order to get her foot in the slipper, and again the prince is fooled. While riding with her to the king's castle, the doves alert him again about the blood on her foot.

How about that for a good night story?

Or, original Hansel and Gretel - parents dropped them off in in the woods because there was not enough food for everyone.

Or, "The Little Match Girl." Yikes.

Aren't we and our children exposed to much more violence, blood, and plain evilness in media nowadays?

I don't understand how people in those times would be less sensitive to such themes.

In older societies, people see a lot more violence/blood toward animals. In old-fashioned societies, when you need a chicken, the butcher grabs a live one, wrestles it's wriggling body, wrings its neck, and skins it in front of you. You grab the meat and it's still warm. Butchers killing larger livestock is likely a show you can see near the market, you may even have participated in some such act yourself because of customs. It would be a common thing and it's so visceral. You smell it. You can see the animal's struggle, fear and pain. After you are habituated to that, a story is not so bad.

> In older societies, people see a lot more violence/blood toward animals.

Older societies? Every farming family in Western Europe would have been familiar with how to slaughter and process their own animals until the 60s at the earliest. There are very few people more than three generations removed from agriculture, and most of those would have seen animals slaughtered up until the rise of industrial cold chains in the early 1900s.

Hum... Mozart's father (Leopold) took his son and daughter to a public hanging ‘for a jolly treat one free afternoon’.

That would not work, nowadays...


We're exposed to a lot of it, but it's Hollywood depiction of violence, which is a very sanitized, stylized version. People back then had more direct contact with nature and death, it was part of their everyday life and all around them. Many kids would die young, so they all have lost some brothers and sisters. They were expected to work on farms and land, take part in all activities. How many kids today have ever helped parents to slaughter and butcher a pig? Can you imagine today's 5-6 years olds holding a bucket to collect the pig's blood. Or 8-9 y/o being sent by mother to go and cut of the head of a chicken with an axe, and then pluck the feathers and clean the chicken by pouring boiling water over it, all alone without any supervision? And everything else was rougher also. If there was a war it was perfectly common for soldiers to rob, rape, kill and burn down villages along the way. People (poor ones at least) accused of thievery would be killed without much trial, and usually in a very bloody manner (hanging, drowning, boiling, quartering, etc.). Their corps would be left in sight in public places for days. It was a very different world than today for a majority of people.

I think this is an example of the "everything getting worse" fallacy. We're far more sheltered and lead far less awful lives these days. There's fictional violence available in movies if we choose to watch it but compared to today, life was far more nasty, brutal and short.

I think the operative term is "evilness" - if you are a moderately wealthy westerner in this century, violence and bloodshed are things you have relegated to seeing in media, and not an unavoidable part of life

> violence and bloodshed

And ideally, most of that sanitized away by the media which just talks numbers, shows air strikes from 50 km away, and tells you how many "insurgents" were killed today.

    Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetop.
    When the wind blows, the cradle will rock.
    When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall.
    And down will come Baby, cradle and all.

    It’s raining, it’s pouring,
    The old man’s snoring.
    He went to bed
    And he bumped his head
    And he couldn’t get up in the morning.
Tell me these ain't dark.

And relevant today:

Ring-a-ring o'roses

A pocket full of posies

A-tissue, a-tissue

We all fall down

(actually this is not at all related to the plague but it makes a more scary story if we say it does)

You’d think the author of the article would have thought about other contemporary stories and mentioned them on their article...

There have been lots of comments about how dark children’a books were. But, back then, children’s lives were pretty dark. With the high infant and childhood mortality, a good proportion of children had lost a brother or sister. Given maternal mortality, many children had probably lost a mother in childbirth. Given the nature of farmwork and the primitive nature of medicine, many children probably had a father, uncle, etc who was killed or main in an accident. And that is before you consider the frequent wars in which soldiers roamed across the land raping, pillaging, and killing. Death would have been all around children.

Nowadays everyone's wrong on the internet, but that doesn't mean I want to read a book about it.

This seems to be pretty much par for the course for 19th century children's books. Compare them to the original versions of H.C. Andersen's fairy tales or Hoffmann's Struwwelpeter[1].

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Struwwelpeter

My gandma used to read the Struwwelpeter stories to me as a child. I would actually disagree with the premise of the article that they make children want to die. They actually are supposed to frighten children into behaving properly.

I am willing to agree. I read Grimm really early. The purpose of those stories is not some sort of cutesy money grab slash temporary babysitter to keep the little ones occupied long enough for parents to do what needs to be done. That said, I understand the reason for both. Both are needed, but dismissing those stories, because they are scaring kids is.. it feels like a rehash of the self-esteem movement.

I actually enjoyed the stories back then and they didn't really work when it came to changing my behaviour. Probably mostly because I just didn't grasp the seriousness of the bloodier parts.

> Probably mostly because I just didn't grasp the seriousness of the bloodier parts.

And this is why the original folktales emphasize the gore. You can basically chop off the last quarter of any folktale and replace it with a direction to the story-teller, i.e. "[and now you shall carry on about bad things happening to the child protagonist, in as visceral a manner as you have the mind and words to render, until the children listening have been thoroughly traumatized as to the consequences of their misbehavior.]"

The one that would always stick out to me was the one of the child that doesn't want to eat its soup and then dies (Suppenkasper).

Same here. The thing is I don't think they're just supposed to frighten children. I can remember having lots of fun getting those stories read to me by my grandmother. Of course they're dark, but they're also comically exaggerated. There's certainly a reason why Struwwelpeter has been popular for generations.

"Tolstoy's Children's Stories Will Devastate Your Children and Make You Want to Die"

When you say “the original versions of H.C. Andersen's fairy tales,” you mean as compared to modern (Disney) adaptations, right? I know the Grimm tales were self-sanitized in later editions, but haven’t heard that of Andersen's.

Yeah, I was mainly referring to the later adaptions. Don't think there were different versions.

This is the 2nd time I've heard of Struwwelpeter. The first time was on The Office (US).


In case you skimmed the article after the first few paragraphs, note that the point is not that the stories are sad or grim but that they are only sad or grim. There is no moral or hate that leads to things happening. The characters just lives who’ve are sad.

I also read the article as lighthearted and humorous and so assumed some things may have been exaggerated it embellished slightly for effect.

Knowing Tolstoy's other writings I get the feeling that these one paragraph summaries don't do his prose justice.

I read the original story for "The Lion and the Puppy", and indeed, the summary doesn't do the story justice.

The story is more grim and heart-wrecking.

And there is no obvious take-away, everything just sucks.

But it's a story of a loss that one can relate to. Depressed people are known to listen to sad songs, and get relief from that.

I'm not in a very good place now, and reading the Lion and the Puppy story in Russian somehow was a relief. It melted the numbness away.

And that's what Tolstoy was going for, perhaps. No ham-fisted morals. Just carefully crafted vignettes of grim life.

I do think that Tolstoy never had an appreciation of the many dimensions of human happiness. "Every happy family is alike, but unhappy families are miserable in their own ways", he wrote. I disagree; I see commonality in misery, and it's the path to happiness that has to be crafted and often ends up unique. But I digress.

> And that's what Tolstoy was going for, perhaps. No ham-fisted morals. Just carefully crafted vignettes of grim life.

Which is great and a meaning in itself. Much of what’s grim in life happens without deeper meaning. Terrible things happen to those that don’t deserve it and terrible people don’t get what they deserve. The only thing is to accept that that’s how it often is. Which is not a bad thing to expose children to IMO

Check out the Mioomins, good for children and adults alike.

The series starts with books that are allegories for World War II like "The Moomins and the Great Flood" and "Comet in Moominland". Good reading in these pandemic times not gory but all about seriousnes of the world we live in and how small humans and families can cope with that.


> Tolstoy’s tales are unusual in that they lack the depth of relationships — and even hatred — that the old folk tales have. There are no stories of wicked stepparents or lurking dangers in the woods. Instead, there is a kind of dead-end romanticism: bad thing happens; a person is sad; end of story. There isn’t even that much to talk to your children about: trees are nice, don’t cut them down so much? People are not all that happy?

Wow. The author seems to be missing the morals entirely. Just from browsing their story descriptions, the lessons seem to be about, respectively:

- The overwhelming power of grief, which you may wind up suffering when you choose to love

- Don't be tricked by people trying to get you to enjoy yourself in a dangerous situation

- The feeling that makes you uncomfortable destroying beauty is a kind of conscience, so listen to it, for there is an intrinsic connection between beauty and life

- Happiness is misunderstood by nearly all -- it doesn't come from material possessions, it comes from within

- People are supported by those around them, not diminished, so don't treat those who surround you as unimportant or take them for granted

- If you tame an animal, you're responsible for their well-being. You can't "go back" or shirk your responsibilities, so think twice before you take on a personal commitment or you may generate suffering you never intended

Writers for the LA Review of Books are generally... supposed to be literary and really good at finding meaning in texts, heck even way more meaning than the author sometimes intended.

This author seems to be being deliberately obtuse about these stories. I'm not sure why. But these stories seem incredibly stimulating food-for-thought to talk with your children about.

> But frequently those stories are redeemed by a depth which feels archetypal: when Rapunzel’s prince falls from her tower and blinds himself in the rose bushes below, his blindness appears to have a meaning — it’s not just gratuitous bloodshed.

If I doubted my dismissal of this article, I felt vindicated by this line. Is the author really so blind as to believe that popular fairy tale endings are archetypal for any reason beyond the fact that they became popular? They were just as nasty and surprising back then, and it's only repeated listenings and social acceptance that has made them appear to be any more child-appropriate than a screaming, dying tree.

FWIW, I generally believe kids are way more resilient to any of these things than we think they are. Like the poplar tree, in trying to protect them, we lead them to their own downfall.

I think classic folk tales were more macabre, but since consumers today are not interested in them so much it's somewhat lost to us. We have Grimm's Fairy Stories, but as the author points out, in most modern editions they edit out the darker ones. We have this Tolstoy collection because he is a famous author and people are interested in his stories. And guess what, they are super dark. Is that because Tolstoy was dark? No, it's because the traditional stories of the time were much darker. Here's an example of a Yiddish Folktale:

Moyshele and Sheyndele

Once upon a time there was a poor woodcutter who had a wife and two small children, a boy and a girl. The boy was called Moyshele, the girl Sheyndele. The woodcutter’s wife died and he married a second wife who was a very wicked woman and a cruel stepmother to the children. One day the woodcutter left the house to chop wood in the forest, and the stepmother got ready to go to market to do the Sabbath shopping. Before she left, she gave the children some food, putting Moyshele’s in a pot and Sheyndele’s on a plate. She said, “Moyshele, if you break the pot I’ll chop off your head, So you’d better not.” She told Sheyndele, “Sheyndele, Sheyndele, just you wait, I’ll chop off your legs if you break this plate.” Then she slammed the door and went to market. The children were afraid to eat lest they break something, but the rooster suddenly flew up on the table and knocked over the pot. It fell to the ground and broke into teeny-tiny pieces. Moyshele, seeing them, was terrified and began to cry. Sheyndele comforted him, saying, “Hush, Moyshele.Don’t cry.” And she took the shards of the pot and pushed them into a corner of the room. When the stepmother came home, she couldn’t find the pot. “Where is the pot?” she asked Moyshele. “The rooster broke it,” he said. The stepmother was very angry, but she pretended that nothing was the matter. Later she said to Moyshele, “Come with me and I’ll wash your hair.” So Moyshele went with her. She took him into another room and cut off his head, after which she cooked it for supper. When the woodcutter came back from the forest he said, “Where is Moyshele?” “I don’t know,” said the stepmother. Then they sat down at the table and ate the soup and the meat. Sheyndele, unaware of what she was eating, sucked the marrow from the bones and threw them out the window. A little mound of earth covered the bones and when the glad summer came again, a new Moyshele grew up out of it. Moyshele stood there on his little mound until, seeing a tailor pass by, he called, “Tailor, tailor, make me a pair of trousers and I’ll sing you a song:

    Murdered by my mother, 
    Eaten by my father, 
    and Sheyndele, when they were done, 
    Sucked the marrow from my bones 
    And threw them out the window.” 
The tailor, hearing the song, pitied him and made him a pair of trousers. Moyshele put them on, and then a shoemaker went by. Moyshele called, “Shoemaker, shoemaker, make me a pair of boots and I’ll sing you a song:

    Murdered by my mother, 
    Eaten by my father, 
    and Sheyndele, when they were done, 
    Sucked the marrow from my bones 
    And threw them out the window.” 
The shoemaker, hearing the song, pitied him and made him a pair of boots. Moyshele put them on, and then a hatmaker went by. Moyshele called, “Hatmaker, hatmaker, make me a hat and I’ll sing you a song:

    Murdered by my mother, 
    Eaten by my father, 
    and Sheyndele,
    when they were done,
    Sucked the marrow from my bones
    And threw them out the window.
The hatmaker, hearing the song, pitied him and made him a hat. And Moyshele put it on and ran off to school.

    One log there, 
    One log gone. 
    As for my tale— 
    My tale is done.
- Weinreich, Beatrice. Yiddish Folktales

> I’m all for showing your kids reality, and bringing them to the hospital or the wake or the funeral. But Tolstoy’s tales read more like an undigested rage at the world, unfortunately misdirected at children.

Yeah no. What's the point of such a teaching story as the one above? Perhaps it's a story to teach resilience; Even if the world treats you so badly, that it sort of chews you up and spits you out, you can still make your way, though perhaps it might just be by telling your sad story and playing on people's sympathies.

Hmm. I think I saw this one as _The Juniper Tree_ in which the kid comes back as a bird first.

  My mother, she killed me, my father, he ate me,
  My sister Marlene gathered all my bones,
  Tied them in a silken scarf,
  Laid them beneath the juniper tree,
  Tweet, tweet, what a beautiful bird am I.
(Grimm 47, Aarne–Thompson type 720, "my mother slew me, my father ate me")

Remember that plenty of the original Grimm stories had been meant to entertain adults, too.

> in most modern editions they edit out the darker ones

Yeah, it's disgusting. It's incredibly hard to find actual stories now, they are always screwed up by talentless editors. Reminds me of drawing fig leaves over Renaissance pictures when protestantism took over.

Here's free collection of Tolstoy's Fables for Children


> The publicists of the most recent edition issued by Simon & Schuster, who seemingly did not read it, write of this book, “children will be able to take away important lessons, as well as laugh at silly mishaps and characters, from this timeless collection.”

This is possible but unfortunately the author of the article decided not to answer his children:

> “Daddy,” my stunned four-year-old son asked, “why did the lion die?”

> “Daddy Daddy,” my daughter asked, still wondering about the now-dead lion’s lifestyle, “why did the people feed the lion puppies?”

Instead he "took the book away and hid it from" them. Not good parenting IHMO. Don't read from that book again, OK, but find an answer to those questions.

I happen to be a close personal friend of the author, and happen to know that he answers deep and difficult questions from his children very directly and well; and that he allows them to see all facets of life (an eagle eating a mouse; a deer not surviving the winter) as a matter of course. Perhaps the paragraph is simply lighthearted :)

Find an answer? The lion starved to death before he could pass through all the stages of grief. Loose pets are free meat for the lion. Neither of these answers would be satisfying to children.

Taking the book away and hiding it is good parenting. Better parenting would be reading the book ahead of time and never sharing it with them to begin with.

> I’m all for showing your kids reality

I really don't think that's why children's stories used to be macabre. Nobody ever claimed these were accurate representations of reality.

I'm not sure why people compare these stories to folktales. These are not folktales, they are short stories Tolstoy wrote for his school for peasant children, where he also taught.

They are not meant to be read at bedtimeto small children, but thoughtful reading material for kids of all ages who are learning to read. The kids who are old enough to read the stories would be old enough to appreciate the (often very sad) stories.

Not directly related, but many Soviet era children's stories, by Sergei Mikalkhov, et al are very good and brilliantly illustrated.

A lot of the children's stories I heard growing up included violence of sorts. Not saying it was necessarily good, but it is very common, hence perhaps is either harmless or maybe beneficial in a convoluted way. fwiw, the stories kept me from wandering into abandoned old houses, tall thick bushes, or too far away from home; we were pretty much on our own when I was a kid.

> If you do this, be sure to read something lighter afterward, like perhaps Anna Karenina’s suicide scene, or a biography of Sylvia Plath

Nobody, including the author, seems to have mentioned the cultural aspect in all this. Allow me:

Q: What is the difference between a Russian optimist and a Russian pessimist?

A: A Russian pessmist thinks that things can't get any worse. A Russian optimist thinks they not only can, but will.

Im currently reading Archipel Gulag from Alexander Solschenitzyn and that joke sounds quite familliar. The reality of the past century in Russia really proved optimists wrong. Devestating to read that book. It literally puts me on breaks to just sit and think. Sad that humans are capable of such cruelty.

Keep in mind that this book was written in USA

Actually, Solzhenitsyn was still residing in the USSR at the time of completion of the book.

I'm still vaguely haunted by Never Tease a Weasel. Seen through children's eyes, probably a lot of books targeting them are rather creepy.

But it's never what you'd expect. The stuff that bothers parents skips right past the kids a lot of the time, but strange little things will freak a kid right out. My son refuses to read some books (going so far as to hide one of them), but I have no idea why; at the same time there are stories I find downright creepy that he'll request over and over.

I'll have to check it out. I've always liked the unsanitized endings. The wolf fell upon Red and ate her -- the end. The wolf fell down the chimney and into the stew, and the smartest pig ate him... probably along with a few pieces of his brothers.

There's one in the Grimm Brothers called "The Knapsack, the Hat, and the Horn" that's an incredibly bleak fable about power and corruption.

Actually, as Russian i know that most of classic Russian literature (before revolution of 1917) is highly depressing. I was attending a school while USSR was still alive, and even with relatively small number of classic russian books passed thru Soviet censorship, it was always like this: sad and depressing. Tolstoy, Nekrasov, Dostoevsky, Chekhov - no difference.

For children or for adults, the fatalist style of Tolstoy is what lends him the unmistakable charm. A part of our being, I think, will always desire to be liberated from the norm of not discussing pity or death without any moral undertone. Life and violence can be sad and violent, Tolstoy reminds us.

The Gigantic Turnip is an delightful children's book. I wore that thing to the spine with my kids:


>Anna Karenina’s suicide scene spoilers on side note, isn't Tolstoy famous for being a Schopenhaeur influenced writers why did he had 13 children? He is a great writer nontheless

Did we break their site? :(

Edit: seems to be back up with everything in order.

"Ring around the rosy" is about the plague.

"12 days of Christmas" and other tales and sings have hidden Christian symbolism due to persecution.

I don't really agree with the author at all. His examples all seem like meaningful stories.

The lion in the zoo? He lives off other animals, but when he stops to get to know one he becomes so attached he can't live without it. Could be a simple message about animal cruelty (IIRC, Tolstoy was vegetarian?). Could be a parable about aristocrats & peasants, or capitalists and workers.

Escape of the Dancing Bear? The bear was recaptured because he fell into old habits. Be careful not to do the same.

Death of the Cherry Tree? Could just be a message that all things are living, stop and consider the damage you're causing. The blasé attitude of the woodcutter is shocking: people can get used to anything. Possibly an analogy for war or other cruelty which we casually accept.

The King and the Shirt: money doesn't buy happiness. It's not sad, the poor man is legitimately happy. Possessions and worldly ties can bring unhappiness. And it's ironic and thought-provoking, for kids.

The Old Poplar: obvious lessons about family ties. Don't send grandpa to a home. And a neat lesson on systems: the obvious, common sense approach backfired because things were more complex and interdependent than they looked at first sight.

The Little Bird: some things are meant to be wild. Some things, when done, can't be undone.

I honestly kinda like these stories. Not sure I'd read them to my 4-year-old, though.

I much preferred the original title of the post -- why change it?

Those stories sound awesome, my kids would love them!

The author knows old kids tales are violent, but there is a meaning to thr tragedy. Tolstoy's stories are just meaninglessly violent and tragic.

Assuming "meaningless" truly is an apt description for them, I actually think this makes Tolstoy's stories seem all the more intriguing. Most violence and tragedy in life is meaningless, we humans ascribe meaning to it. It's sometimes fun to read a fictional piece and contemplate why the themes resonate with me, without having a ham-handed, prefabricated meaning shoved down my throat. Modernized fairy tales (and almost all modern fiction) are not intended to confront the consumer with these kinds of emotional/intellectual obstacles without a moralistic guide. This often makes it suitable for children, but I wonder if we underestimate children's ability to confront this kind of ambiguity (but that doesn't necessarily mean we should read Tolstoy's stories to them, or only ever offer ambiguity as a moral socialization strategy).

Meaningless violence is too easy, so is ham fisted moralizing. True classics find some kind of meaning, even in the meaninless tragedy of life, like the Iliad.

I grew up watching Disney-type stuff, and as I got older, it was off-putting to encounter stories that didn't seem to have a "point." A bunch of stuff happens and then you're required to just accept the utter lack of resolution. I know that some people view that lack of a resolution as "meaningless," and I'm not accusing you of that, but sometimes the lack of an obvious lesson is the lesson. People die, conflicts go unresolved, life goes on until it doesn't and sometimes all we can do is accept it.

Agreed, I think the secret is often a kind of subtlety that can often be confused with meaninglessness. For example, the first time I read "Of Mice and Men", I found the "meaningless" suffering to be infuriating - how could this book possibly be considered a classic? - until I later understood more context around the novel's time period and message, and realized it was only my juvenile tastes and expectations that made it seem meaningless (no happy ending? What is this tripe?)

I doubt Tolstoy wrote his stories without some kind of purpose, but I agree it would be a mistake to try too hard looking for meaning in case he just felt like writing up some sad shit.

The Iliad is an example of a classic with a bunch of meaningless suffering. But, the story is much deeper than 'bad stuff happens, the end' or 'bad stuff happens, that's just life'. I can write that kind of story all day, and I appeared deep to myself as a kid because I could 'see through' the meaning. At the end of the day, that sort of story is just boring. A real artist is the one who does get to some kind of coherent meaning to the whole thing. E.g. Iliad is a commentary on the Hellenist virtue ethic, and questioning why an ideally virtuous man like Hector is pulverized by a rage controlled tyrant like Achilles, without merely amounting to the juvenile 'virtue is meaningless' that passes as intellectualism these days. The same question is asked in the Psalms by the writer wondering at the fact that so many good people are oppressed and the wicked flourish. The Iliad began a conversation that echoes deep throughout history even to our present day. 'Bad stuff happens' just doesn't have that kind of staying power. People intuitively know there is more to our reality than that. That's why we are so bothered by sociopaths running our companies and governments. If 'bad stuff happens' is all there is to the story, then we would not be bothered.

Is the site down?

> * Tolstoy wrote them; they couldn’t be that bad. Now I sincerely wish I had never touched them.*

The reviewer is Disney's useful idiot. Gotta stay away from Tolstoy — it's not just disturbing, it's actually dangerous!

Only Bowdlerized and Disneyfied happy happy joy joy for your kids!

And if you aren't perpetually happy all your life, it's not not that the universe is indifferent to human suffering, it's that there's something wrong with you.

> There isn’t even that much to talk to your children about: trees are nice, don’t cut them down so much? People are not all that happy?

Yeah. Maybe "People are not all that happy" would be a good thing for kids to learn.

Please don't post in the flamewar snark style to HN, regardless of how wrong someone is or you feel they are. Maybe you don't owe the LA Review of Books better, but you owe this community better. Bashing another with your snark prowess doesn't open up thoughtful conversation.

We're trying to have a community that manages not to succumb to the default of internet-acidic. I'm sure you know this, because we've had to ask you about this several times before. If you wouldn't mind reviewing https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html and using HN as intended, we'd be grateful.

What you're asking for here only requires a minor adjustment on my part, which I'm happy to make: I'll pretend that the authors of the posted articles are HN posters.

In the big picture, it's jarring that I'm regarded one of the problem children around here considering how few of my posts I perceive as risky or potentially transgressive of HN norms (which yes, I have thought over quite a lot). But I suppose it makes sense (sigh). Tech is my second career and I'm generally horrified by the tech culture I parachuted into, especially how the hacker ethos which could be so iconoclastic and egalitarian is so exclusionary in practice. HN is more friendly than many tech haunts thanks to the moderation, but it remains alien.

> And if you aren't perpetually happy all your life, it's not not that the universe is indifferent to human suffering, it's that there's something wrong with you.

How people respond to adversity and suffering matters.

Old Disney stuff was dark. The fluffy versions are relatively recent.

How far do I have to go back? I know Sleeping Beauty (1959) is definitely much sanitized from the stories it's based on.

Thirties and forties.

Snow white is dark ???

Disney is brainwash for children.

The fluffy versions sell. How popular would Little Mermaid have been, if at the end, Ariel ended up as sea foam?

depends on the director and the script.

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