No Rhyme or Reason

Once upon a time there was a writer named Hans Christian Andersen, who lived in Denmark and wrote fairy tales for children-stories about mermaids, talking animals, and nutcrackers that come to life. Children loved Andersen's fantasies. Parents liked them, too, because of the lessons they teach. "The Ugly Duckling" warns against judging people by appearance. "The Emperor's New Clothes" warns against gullibility. But today, a hundred years later, Hans Christian Andersen has become persona non grata on some people's list of authors. Andersen, it turns out, was not politically correct. Recent editions of his fairy tales have all the offending phrases expunged. In "The Ugly Duckling," a stork is no longer allowed to refer to "the Egyptian he learned from his mother." The publishers were afraid the phrase would sound patronizing to Arab-Americans and sexist to housewives. In the story of "The Nightingale," the term Chinaman was judged to be derogatory and changed to Chinese. The term black magic was rejected as racist, and shortened to plain magic. In Denmark literary scholars are outraged over what they regard as "artistic falsification" of Andersen's tales. Maybe someone ought to tell them that here in America the campaign to recast children's literature has gone on for decades. For example, children’s author Bruce Lanskey published The New Adventures of Mother Goose because, he said, traditional children’s literature is "violent, intolerant, and sexist" and must be replaced with "literature that reflects contemporary values." In Lanskey’s revision the three blind mice have become three kind mice, and the farmer’s wife doesn’t cut off their tales with a carving knife; instead, the mice offer her a slice of cheese. Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater no longer puts his wife in a pumpkin shell; instead he eats too much sugar and his teeth fall out. In an earlier rewrite called Father Gander's Nursery Rhymes, Little Miss Muffet is turned into Little Ms.Muffet. And when "along came a spider and sat down beside her," she put it in the garden to catch insects. But wait a minute. That doesn't even rhyme. And so it is with many of these changes: They are imposed for political reasons only, without regard to rhyme, rhythm, or any other literary qualities. Whimsical nonsense verses have been turned into heavy-handed moralism. This is what’s really wrong with the politically correct rewriting of the classics. Not just that it's trendy; not just that it does violence to literature that has been traditional to English-speaking civilization for centuries. The worst part is that most of it is simply bad literature. You don't have to like Mother Goose or Hans Christian Andersen. But you do have to recognize them as part of our literary heritage, an expression of our particular niche in cultural history. If you want something better, fine. Write something better. Create something new. But don't pull a politically correct, moralizing overlay over the old classics. Once we start the Orwellian project of rewriting books, we may end up in an Orwellian world-where literature and history are molded, and remolded, to fit changing political fads.


Chuck Colson


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