Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Review: Workers' Tales (Socialist Fairy Tales, Fables, and Allegories from Great Britain)

(Review written by Tahlia Merrill Kirk)

Most people don’t associate fairy tales with political agendas, so you might be thinking, "What the heck are socialist fairy tales?!”. But when you think about it, it’s not that big of a stretch. If I started telling you about how some fairy tales have been used as serving spoons for moral ideology, you’d probably nod along knowingly. It seems to me like a natural next step for them to be turned into vessels for political agendas. But what does that even look like? Well, you’re about to find out!

Before we go any further, let’s define socialism, since it has the potential to be a little controversial.

There are many kinds of socialism. But in all types, the workers of a society own the means of production (if that sounds vague, click the link for a more detailed description).

Now, there are lots of different flavors of socialism. Probably the most famous is communism, which has no state, money, or social classes. Other variations mix socialism and capitalism by having the government collecting tax money to spend on public services like schools or roads.

This particular collection of stories was collected roughly between 1870 - 1910 from magazines and newspapers printed in Great Britain. And in case 1870 - 1910 doesn’t mean much to you, here are some historical reference points:

  • 1850 = Marx’s The Communist Manifesto published.
  • 1865 = Early Days of Women’s Suffrage Movement in the UK (right to vote won in 1918)
  • 1870 = The death of Charles Dickens.
  • 1887 = First Sherlock Holmes story published.
  • 1901 = Death of Queen Victoria
  • 1912 = Sinking of the Titanic (and the start of Downton Abbey)
  • 1914 = World War I starts.

Got it?
Don't worry, Ron. We're getting to the fun stuff soon.

Alright, now we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about the juicy stuff. Like how jarring I found some of these tales. I’d been expecting magical adventure stories with subtle winks about governing quietly slipped in. Maybe a Hansel & Gretel style tale where the Gingerbread House is a state-run orphanage that needs reforming.
Evil moustache-twirling Monopoly is coming out to get you!

Hah! Nothing could have been further from what I found. Out forty-seven tales, nearly all of them were didactic to the point where I questioned if they even fit the definition of a fairy tale anymore. Some had such heavy-handed economic messages that they felt akin to reading a political cartoon. Others were pure allegory, like an economic Pilgrim’s Progress. These threw subtlety into the rubbish bin, and stuck their characters with names like “Capital” and “Fair Trade”. About halfway through the book, I started noticing a pattern…
Here’s the gist of several stories: A hardworking everyman (ie “Labor”) meets a smooth-talking villain (ie “Monopoly”) who tricks the simple man into becoming a slave. Often, the plot is drawn out by the protagonist’s attempt to nicely voice his complaints. The villain always pretends to listen, and will offer him institutionalized religion or a complex government as a way of pacifying him. But these are all mere tricks to prolong his enslavement. The endings vary, but any solutions the writers propose lack nuance to their logic.

Now, it might sound like I’m complaining, but actually, I found this whole collection highly entertaining and genuinely thought-provoking. Yes, I'm criticizing, but not with the intention of discouraging readers. I’ll make sure to delve into this collection’s many merits later, but I can't resist giving them a good-natured roasting first!

Do all frogs go to heaven?
So, on top of being overbearingly pedantic, these stories also have a cringeworthy sentimental streak.

For example, in “Chips”, a homeless child works as a street sweeper. His only companion in the freezing winter slums of London? A pet frog, of course! Well, until the frog dies from hunger and cold. Our poor destitute boy dies shortly after--with many flowery descriptions of his pitiful state. Cue an angelic spirit, floating down from heaven. The spirit teaches the dead boy a lesson about God and love before the boy’s soul ascends to heaven. It was all very Tiny Tim meets The Little Match Girl.

Similarly, in “Nobody’s Business”, a poor old man dies alone from hunger in a bustling city. After he dies, his soul flies to heaven and God frowns upon the city. He points out that the city is prosperous and builds many churches, but the citizens are hypocritical, greedy, and don’t help those in need. Now, I'm not saying the message isn't a good one (it totally is), but both these tales feel like someone used a mad-libs list of story elements that provoke emotion and plugged them into a sob story writing machine.

Worse, they blatantly romanticize poverty, as if being poor and elderly, or an orphan, are sacred states. Chips is an innocent youth and "Nobody's Business" goes to great lengths to paint a pitiful picture of the old man’s innocence and suffering.

Do these writers think that poverty somehow purifies the soul? Because that’s how it comes across. Maybe the logic goes like this: Power and riches always lead to corruption, so therefore, poverty has a cleansing effect on your character? After all, a simple life is the best life--

Wait, stop. Let's stop trying to transform being poor into some inspirational poster. Nobody who has ever been truly poor would ever describe their experience as sublime or purifying. Sure, being poor might make you grateful for the little things in life, but sheesh, let’s not full on glamorize something that just plain out sucks.

Besides, I feel like we should help the poor because they’re fellow human beings, not because you believe they're paragons of virtue, right?


This review is becoming more difficult to write than I anticipated. I swear, I’m trying to balance the topics’ complexities without rambling too much.

I'll be honest: I had a whole rant prepared about the romanticization of the country vs the city. And I also had some strong words about the treatment of the female characters (they're always beautiful angelic figures of grace and piety). But I don't think it's necessary. I've ranted enough today.

Instead, let's take a step back. I think this quote does a pretty good job of summarizing what's going on in these fairy tales:

“This is socialism at its most hopeful, perhaps at its most innocent, untouched by world war, Stalinism, or the Holocaust.”

Every time I started getting frustrated with these tales, I found this sentence running through my brain. Despite their flaws, these tales are earnest and are written with a sincere intent to make the world a better place. And let's not forget that fairy tales aren’t usually designed to be complex. That is part of their charm. So many of my complaints are simply a tied to the nature of the genre.

This collection is a great example of how the very thing that makes a fairy tale problematic, can be the same thing that makes it so fascinating. While the fairy tales in this collection may have an agenda, the modern editors who collected them do not. If you already have opinions on socialism, this book isn't designed to reinforce or change them. Instead, this book will make you think, and it will make you want to share it with your friends so you can discuss it.

You can purchase a copy of Workers' Tales: Socialist Fairy Tales, Fables, and Allegories from Great Britain directly from the Princeton University Press website or on Amazon. There is also an excellent audiobook version (which is what I used for this review). A free copy of this book was provided in exchange for an honest review.

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