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In praise of small feet and a royal behind

For parents and grandparents this Christmas the bad news was that fairy tales are a health hazard. According to US academics Liz Grauerhoz and Lori Baker-Sperry, stories such as Grimms' reinforce traditional gender roles in a way "that may be a confusion for modern children". Girls might grow up thinking beauty is crucial. As a reteller of such tales, I sincerely hope parents were not convinced.

Given the blessing of a little child, the first thing we do is to surround her (or him) with beauty - decorate the cot, paint the nursery. So naturally, as soon as we can, we adorn the inside of their heads too, with glittering ballrooms and velvet waistcoats, gingerbread houses and sugarplum fairies. In fairy tales it isn't just the princesses who are beautiful; it's the princes, palaces, swordhilts and snow. Oh, and the words, we hope.

It's true: Cinderella does contain odd messages - chiefly that the size of your feet decides your fate (vestiges of its Arabian past still snagged in the warp and weft). But nobody notices. They are too busy watching Goodness win out over Evil. No, the kind of "beauty" fairy tales deal in is sweetness of nature and a numinous soul. Beauty is as Beauty does.

Cinderella is lovely because she is kind and patient. Her stepsisters are rendered ugly by temper, spite and vanity. Plenty of fairy stories actually warn against judging by appearances: Beauty and the Beast for one. Who is the fairest one of all? Snow White, because her stepmother, despite being a ravishing beauty, is cruel and jealous, whereas Snow White is innocent and gentle.

To me, the worst landmines in Grimm aren't stereotypical gender roles.

Death, torture and maiming meted out with unChristian relish to the villains offend me more. But then people don't serve neat Grimm to their children, do they? They read them updated versions remodelled for a modern market.

At worst the originals get sanitised into pap. At best they are adapted with one eye on raw tradition and one on the target audience - young children.

The stories the Brothers Grimm dropped into formaldehyde 200 years ago were plucked like lice from semi-pagan adults. I freely admit, the moral of the Princess and the Pea is dubious: that heredity and a delicate bum fit a girl for the Happily-ever-after. But forgive me - you must have heard it as a child and did you mentally tuck the moral under your belt and grow up thinking that a soft bum was a girl's only true power base?

As for plain children being disheartened by tales of beautiful princesses - anyone who has told such a story to a little girl has seen her grow beautiful then and there - feel beautiful - know with perfect certainty that she IS beautiful. My particular little Cinderella, in telling the story back to me, dispensed with the fairy godmother altogether and had the brilliant idea of wearing "a lovely skirt and cardigan" to the ball instead. (Swift action by the Union of Fairy Godmothers stopped this version entering general circulation.) If you want to avoid the B word altogether, you could give them Tam-Lin, where plain Janet rescues her lover from the Fairies by sheer physical bravery. But be warned: academics may tell you what your five-year-old won't: it's the most erotic story in all folklore.

If we fed our children only on sweets and gave them only fairy stories, we might be bad parents. But I refuse to assume fairy stories are the first and last kind a child will ever read. Time enough at seven, eight, 10 for books about cerebral heroines, mediocrity and everyday life.

Fairy tales are simply Lesson One in training up a child's imagination. The listener becomes special, behaves admirably, draws gasps of admiration, discovers perfect happiness - then falls asleep amid dreams illustrated by Jan Pienkowski. Christmas, which just went by like a big, red, lighted bus, wasn't a realistic preparation for life either. In future life, children won't write out a shopping list and have Mr Tesco miraculously deliver it for free down the chimney. But we adults want for children a little span of life when their wishes really do come true.

That's what fairy tales supply - a place where wishes come true, Good triumphs and the bluebird of happiness sings overhead. Let's not get parsimonious in doling out the bliss.

The most important thing is to make a child's imagination - and the inside of a book - wondrous places to be. And fairy tales are very good at that.

Geraldine McCaughrean's Oxford Treasury of Fairy Tales is illustrated by Sophy Williams. Never Let Go (Tam-Lin), illustrated by Jason Cockcroft, is published by Hodder

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