Leo Tolstoy’s Children’s Stories Will Devastate Your Children and Make You Want to Die

“In wanting to make life easier for it I had killed all its children.” The end. “The King and the Shirt.” A king falls sick and is told that the only thing that can cure him is the shirt of a happy man. The owner wants to clear out the young poplar sprouts beneath a beautiful tree so that the old tree has less competition. The folk tales collected by the Brothers Grimm, particularly in the original 1812 edition, are notoriously violent and terrifying. Instead, there is a kind of dead-end romanticism: bad thing happens; a person is sad; end of story. They can’t find anyone in the kingdom who is happy. Until we get to page two, when the puppy, now a year old, suddenly sickens and dies. Do not give this book to children. But Tolstoy’s tales read more like an undigested rage at the world, unfortunately misdirected at children. And for God’s sake, children’s librarians, spare our youngest, most vulnerable readers from the timeless Russian master. Do not believe them. He leaves the door of the cage open. The bird flies out, straight into a glass window, knocking itself out. The publicists of the most recent edition issued by Simon & Schuster, who seemingly did not read it, write of this book, “children will be able to take away important lessons, as well as laugh at silly mishaps and characters, from this timeless collection.” They even trot out the surefire line, “sure to captivate and delight children of all ages.” School Library Journal says the stories are “warm, earthy, and filled with the wisdom of everyday life.” Forty-one apparent sadomasochists at Goodreads have given this book an average 4.2 rating. The end. So what does the lion do? My first thought was: Children’s stories by the author of the inspirational The Death of Ivan Ilyich? “The Little Bird.” A boy catches a bird in a cage. “It seemed a shame to kill such a beautiful thing.” But the woodcutter has already started, so he takes up an axe and lends a hand. Then by chance, the king’s counselor is passing through the woods and hears a man in a hut talking about how happy he is. “The bear saw the ruse too late, roared helplessly, and tried to escape. But frequently those stories are redeemed by a depth which feels archetypal: when Rapunzel’s prince falls from her tower and blinds himself in the rose bushes below, his blindness appears to have a meaning — it’s not just gratuitous bloodshed. It’s about a hungry lion in the zoo, whose keepers comb the streets for stray cats and dogs to feed him. There are no stories of wicked stepparents or lurking dangers in the woods. If you do this, be sure to read something lighter afterward, like perhaps Anna Karenina’s suicide scene, or a biography of Sylvia Plath. Tolstoy’s tales are unusual in that they lack the depth of relationships — and even hatred — that the old folk tales have. But the master clung on tightly.” The end. “Death of a Bird-Cherry Tree.” A property owner orders a tree cut down, then reconsiders. ¤
John Byron Kuhner is the former president of the North American Institute of Living Latin Studies (SALVI), and editor of In Medias Res, the Paideia Institute’s online journal. That many traditional children’s stories are grim or even grisly is well known. Tolstoy recounts the lion coming for a puppy that got lost by its master: “Poor little dog. “The Old Poplar.” Remember “Death of a Bird-Cherry Tree”? This allows the keepers to grab onto his chain. Spengler. APRIL 26, 2020
THE RUSSIAN NOVELIST Leo Tolstoy, also a gentleman farmer, operated an ancestral estate called Yasnaya Polyana that included a small school for the children of the peasants who labored there. “And then an unnerving sound came from inside the very soul of that tree. Now I sincerely wish I had never touched them. It suffers for a few days, then dies. So we have:
“Escape of a Dancing Bear.” The bear runs away after the master gets drunk. The cover has a nice picture of a lion and a puppy; the illustrations by Claus Sievert are lovely throughout. Presumably, the king dies. Jude the Obscure. Later I read it through. It was as if someone was screaming in unbearable pain, a tearing, wrenching, long, drawn-out scream.” The woodcutter says, “Whew, she don’t die easy, Sir!” Then the tree falls. Tolstoy wrote them; they couldn’t be that bad. Grimms’ Children’s and Household Tales contained the story “How Some Children Played at Slaughtering,” which features a child slitting the throat of his younger brother and being murdered in turn by his mother (and things actually get worse from there). The shoots had, in fact, been supporting the old tree; without them it withers and dies. Well, this time it’s an old poplar. The rest of the stories are just as dark as the first one. His mother says he shouldn’t do that. Anything is better than this. Tolstoy was known to drop by from time to time and read stories that he wrote himself, which in his typical modesty, he predicted would be read by “thousands, even millions.”
In 1988, the children’s novelist and Russia expert James Riordan translated several of these for a collection called The Lion and the Puppy: And Other Stories for Children, published first by Henry Holt and Company. He’s too strong to capture directly, so they play his dancing music and he dances again. This is not always true, of course. Tail between its legs, it squeezed itself into the corner of the cage as the lion came closer and closer.”
The lion decides not to eat this puppy, and they become friends. The end. But even the Grimm brothers found this tale unsuitable for the uses their book was being put to, and cut it from the second edition of the book. And on the sixth day the lion died.” The end. The counselor steps into the hut and asks the man for his shirt, but the man is so poor he does not own a single shirt. Maybe some Elie Wiesel. I’m all for showing your kids reality, and bringing them to the hospital or the wake or the funeral. But pestilence has closed the schools and home reading was important. “[H]e put his paws about his cold little friend and lay grieving for a full five days. People are not all that happy? My children fell in love with that picture, and they wanted me to read them the book. The end. “Daddy,” my stunned four-year-old son asked, “why did the lion die?”
“Daddy Daddy,” my daughter asked, still wondering about the now-dead lion’s lifestyle, “why did the people feed the lion puppies?”
So I took the book away and hid it from the children. The first story turned out to be the only one we endured together. The collection also contains such inspiring content as “The ‘Dead’ Man and the Bear,” “Better to be Lean and Free than Plump and Chained,” and “A Young Boy’s Story of How He Did Not Go to Town,” which are just as uplifting as they sound. There isn’t even that much to talk to your children about: trees are nice, don’t cut them down so much?