Ordinarily, I don’t like to have the classics tampered with. I don’t think Christmas ballads, even the syrupy ones like Bing Crosby’s rendition of “White Christmas,” should be rearranged into snappy jazz tunes. Syndney Carton, one of literature’s most self-sacrificing heroes (spoiler alert if you haven’t read it!), should not be magically spared of the guillotine in the movie version of Tale of Two Cities. Changing these time-tested and familiar pieces of culture is like trying to rewrite history.
However, while we don’t rewrite history, we do expand upon it. The word ‘story,’ embedded in the word ‘history,’ explains how we get away with this. History as presented in the textbooks is someone’s story, but not everyone’s story. And every once in awhile, we see a movement attempting to tell a more inclusive one. For instance, when we relate Christopher Columbus’s role in discovering America, Native Americans are now part of the story. Another example is the scrutiny Confederate war heroes are undergoing, as some people clamor for the removal of the monuments commemorating them.
Asking questions and painting a broader picture in light of additional information is a healthy thing. It means we’re continuing to learn. But fairly representing all sides of an issue is like walking a tightrope. We don’t want to silence the old by giving voice to the new. Invoking an apt cliche, we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Monuments don’t have to be made of stone; some are made of words. Some classic children’s stories are monuments in our literary history, and maybe it’s time to reexamine a few of them, too. As with all history, we don’t want to rewrite anything, but only provide a broader picture if it’s warranted.
What parents haven’t read “The Three Little Pigs” and “Little Red Riding Hood” to their children at one time or another? The perennial popularity of these stories and their age, dating back centuries, qualify them as literary monuments. A more recent addition to the repertoire of the timeless is “Peter and the Wolf,” written in 1936 by the Russian composer Sergei Prokoviev. He wrote the tale to teach children about the orchestra, and he cleverly symbolized each character with a distinctive instrument playing a distinctive theme. With this musical accompaniment, it’s a story that delights the ear as well as the imagination.
What unites these three children’s stories is that they all have a “big, bad wolf” as their villain. And as with any villain, it doesn’t end well for the wolf: he’s either shot, or boiled and eaten by a crafty pig, or captured and taken to a zoo by helpful hunters. (In some versions of “Little Red Riding Hood,” the story ends when the wolf, pretending to be Grandmother, successfully tricks the little girl and eats her whole! But the wolf is still portrayed as the villain.)
I would be the last one to advocate the removal of any story’s villain. After all, a good guy and a bad guy are often what make a story. And the conflicts depicted in these tales are symbolic of the kind children have to deal with. But after teasing out the life lessons, parents should do more. To be fair to both their children and to wolves, they should provide historical context.
When the two older stories were written, the forest really was a scary place. Much more forest existed then, for one thing, and it could contain both animal and human threats; a wolf was merely one of them. Wolves today do not eat children, and I doubt they did in medieval times, but the likelihood of a child encountering a wolf—a terrifying prospect, if not a potentially lethal one—was definitely greater in those times than it is now.
Stories like these offer parents the opportunity to tell their children the truth about animals in general. Wolves might be big, but they aren’t bad, any more than a dog, pig, camel, or alligator is bad. We’re all animals, and we all have to eat. The fact that wolves might eat animals we find tame or cute doesn’t make them evil; it simply means they were hungry.
Parents can also tell their children what science should have taught all of us: wolves are important predators in a healthy ecosystem. The several ways gray wolves have reinvigorated Yellowstone National Park since being reintroduced there in 1995 is almost legendary. They are no less important in other ecosystems.
Depending on children’s ages and maturity levels, parents might even inform their kids of the current effort by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to remove gray wolves from the endangered species list. Let them know that one of the arguments in favor of the delisting—that wolves kill cattle—is highly overblown. Studies show that ten times more livestock die from disease, birthing problems, weather events, and theft than do from wolf attacks. Whatever opinion we hold about the wisdom of that proposal, the conversation will likely lead to an important question that children are never too young to ponder:
How do we live in harmony with animals and all of Nature without destroying what happens to be scary or inconvenient?
Read your children “The Three Little Pigs,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” or any other story that uses a wolf as a character. Listen to Prokoviev’s “Peter and the Wolf” if you haven’t heard it. Soften the wolf’s gruesome end if necessary for very young children. Otherwise, expand upon these original tales by considering that character whose whole story isn’t told. Talk with children about that wolf that isn’t a villain at all in real life, but rather a wild, majestic, and beautiful animal simply living his life—just as we’re all trying to do.