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The Victorians weren't as prudish as we are. Five'll get you ten, you won't find this illustration gracing any children's book published in the U.S. in the past 40 years.

The Victorians weren’t as prudish as we are. Five’ll get you ten, you won’t find this illustration gracing any children’s book published in the U.S. in the past 40 years.

Sagacia held a book at arm’s length, as if it were roadkill, and wagged it under her friend’s nose.

Simplia looked up from her potholder loom. Making Christmas presents was myopic work, and she had to squint for a moment until the title of the offending volume came into focus.

“Oh. Pissing in the Snow,” she said. “It was one of my college textbooks. I was looking up some stuff for Middle-aged in Madison.”

Sagacia’s eyes grew round with outrage, alarm, disbelief.

“You what? Are you trying to besmirch Vasilisa’s name? Offend our magical friends? Create a kerfuffle with this… this… this…”

“…this American folklore? Compiled by a venerated American folklorist?”

“Middle-aged in Madison was not enquiring about dirty jokes.”

“Please,” said Simplia, “I prefer to call them ‘bawdy.'”

“She was interested in learning about fairy tales that address the concerns of grownups. You can call this smut folklore if you want to. And you can call it bawdy. But you can’t call it a collection of fairy tales.”

“I did, in fact, find one fairy tale in there. Actually, it’s the first fairy tale I ever told. To a bunch of third graders at a library where I used to work.”

With this bit of information, Sagacia was about to succumb to a fit of the vapors, so Simplia elucidated, “It was a G-rated version. No nudity or kinky sex. It’s about the lengths ‘respectable’ people will go to in order to maintain their comforts and their assumptions. Actually, I think it’s a resoundingly moral tale. Even the X-rated version in this book, which is titled ‘Fill, Bowl, Fill.'”

Sagacia was having none of it.

“Well, with any luck, we won’t need your wisdom and insight into this matter at all,” she said. “Look at the respectable responses we’ve received.” She held out a few sheets of paper for her friend to peruse.

Priscilla Howe had written

Consider how popular Clarissa Pinkola Estes book “Women who run with the wolves” was–certainly she was telling and discussing folktales for grownups (that’s the term I use, instead of “adult stories,” so people don’t think I’m telling x-rated stories). I recently went to a lecture about “The handless maiden” put on by the Jung Society. The room was packed–most of the attendees were over age 40. Most of my folktales for adults are PG-10 or so.

In September, I did a performance of Grimm for Grownups at the retirement center where my mother lives, for about 40 listeners. Before and after the show, people came up to tell me how much they liked those particular stories.

These stories show us the archetypes of every stage of our lives.

And then there was one from Miriam Nadel:

You might look at a collection like Alan Chinen’s “Once Upon a Midlife.”

I also think that the same stories take on different roles at different stages in our lives, as we identify with different characters in them.

“I just ordered that one,” Simplia said.

Finally, a blogger named Erica wrote: the stories are understood differently at different stages…. of course the level of language used/and complexity with which the story is told kind of determines who/or what age group will be interested enough to listen and be touched by the story.

Simplia laid this letter down and said, “Level and language and complexity only kind of determines the age groups to which a story is accessible. Some stories, if they’re told incredibly well, will span four generations. I’ve seen babies get still and listen to a good story, well told.”

Ah! Here was something Sagacia could agree with her friend about. “Yes,” she said, “I’ve seen that happen, too. Who knows what the baby is getting out of the story…but I’ve seen it. Stillness and total focus. And I’ve seen young children fall asleep in the middle of a story that’s too mature for them. And I’ve seen great grandparents, grandparents, parents and kids all totally engaged, totally loving the same story.”

“And isn’t that the glory of the spoken word?” said Simplia. “When it gets too intense, your brain turns off, or draws conclusions that just the right size, scariness and intensity for you to assimilate.”

Again, Sagacia agreed with her friend.

“So why does my book of Ozark humor offend you so much? Nothing happens in these stories that doesn’t happen over and over and over again in the plays of Shakespeare, in the Arabian Nights, in the Decameron, in The Canterbury Tales, in … folktales from all over the world, many of which are indeed ‘adult,’ as opposed to ‘grownup,’ stories. I wouldn’t tell these to kids, because they are so unvarnished; and if I told them to grownups, I wouldn’t ambush them with something they might find unpleasantly shocking. But sometimes, this sort of story is exactly what adults are looking for. They’re meant to titillate. Is something wrong with that?”

Chaucer was probably Sagacia’s favorite author. She couldn’t deny that his more salacious stories were meant for entertainment, not for moral edification. She held Pissing in the Snow up close enough that she could read a page or two of text. She blushed, stifled a chuckle and asked “Do you suppose Middle English once sounded as common and rustic as this Ozark vernacular?”

* * * * * * *

The book in question: Pissing in the snow & other Ozark folktales, collected by Vance Randolph. Introduction by Rayna Green. Annotations by Frank A. Hoffman. University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 1986. copyright 1976 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. (Author’s note: This book was deemed unfit for publication until after 1955.)

Illustration credit: Andersen, Hans Christian. Stories for the Household. H. W. Dulcken, translator. A. W. Bayes, illustrator. London: George Routledge & Sons, 1889.