Maria Tatar Essay
In Grimms’ Fairy Tales there is a story called “The Stubborn Child” that is only one paragraph long. Here it is, in a translation by the fairy-tale scholar Jack Zipes:
Once upon a time there was a stubborn child who never did what his mother told him to do. The dear Lord, therefore, did not look kindly upon him, and let him become sick. No doctor could cure him and in a short time he lay on his deathbed. After he was lowered into his grave and covered over with earth, one of his little arms suddenly emerged and reached up into the air. They pushed it back down and covered the earth with fresh earth, but that did not help. The little arm kept popping out. So the child’s mother had to go to the grave herself and smack the little arm with a switch. After she had done that, the arm withdrew, and then, for the first time, the child had peace beneath the earth.
This story, with its unvarnished prose, should be clear, but it isn’t. Was the child buried alive? The unconsenting arm looks more like a symbol. And what about the mother? Didn’t it trouble her to whip that arm? Then we are told that the youngster, after this beating, rested in peace. Really? When, before, he had seemed to beg for life? But the worst thing in the story is that, beyond disobedience, it gives us not a single piece of information about the child. No name, no age, no pretty or ugly. We don’t even know if it is a boy or a girl. (The Grimms used ein Kind, the neuter word for “child.” Zipes decided that the child was a boy.) And so the tale, without details to attach it to anything in particular, becomes universal. Whatever happened there, we all deserve it. A. S. Byatt has written that this is the real terror of the story: “It doesn’t feel like a warning to naughty infants. It feels like a glimpse of the dreadful side of the nature of things.” That is true of very many of the Grimms’ tales, even those with happy endings.
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were born to a prosperous couple (the father was a lawyer), Jacob in 1785, Wilhelm in 1786. The family lived in a big house in the Hessian village of Hanau, near Kassel, and the boys received a sound primary education at home. But when they were eleven and ten everything changed. Their father died, and the Grimms no longer had any money. With difficulty, the brothers managed to attend a good lyceum and then, as their father would have wished, law school. But soon afterward they began a different project, which culminated in their famous book “Nursery and Household Tales” (“Die Kinder- und Hausmärchen”), first published in two volumes, in 1812 and 1815, and now generally known as Grimms’ Fairy Tales.
The Grimms grew up in the febrile atmosphere of German Romanticism, which involved intense nationalism and, in support of that, a fascination with the supposedly deep, pre-rational culture of the German peasantry, the Volk. Young men fresh from reading Plutarch at university began sharing stories about what the troll said to the woodcutter, and publishing collections of these Märchen, as folk tales were called. That is the movement that the Grimms joined in their early twenties. They had political reasons, too—above all, Napoleon’s invasion of their beloved Hesse, and the installation of his brother Jérôme as the ruler of the Kingdom of Westphalia, a French vassal state. If ever there was a stimulus to German intellectuals’ belief in a German people that was culturally and racially one, and to the hope of a politically unified Germany, this was it.
Two things sustained the Grimms. First, their bond as brothers. For most of their lives, they worked in the same room, at facing desks. Biographers say that they had markedly different personalities—Jacob was difficult and introverted, Wilhelm easygoing—but this probably drew them closer. Wilhelm, when he was in his late thirties, made bold to get married, but the lady in question simply moved into the brothers’ house and, having known them for decades, made the domestic operations conform to their work schedule.
That was their other lodestar: their work. Eventually, their specialties diverged somewhat. Wilhelm remained faithful to folklore, and it was he who, after the second edition of “Household Tales” (1819), did all the editorial work on the later editions, the last of which was published in 1857. Jacob branched out into other areas of German history. Independently, Jacob wrote twenty-one books; Wilhelm, fourteen; the two men in collaboration, eight—a prodigious output. Though their most popular and enduring book was “Household Tales,” they were serious philologists, and, in the last decades of their lives, what they cared about most was their German Dictionary, a project on the scale of the Oxford English Dictionary. Wilhelm died at seventy-three. Jacob carried on for four years, and brought the dictionary up to “F.” Then he, too, died. Later scholars finished the book.
There are two varieties of fairy tales. One is the literary fairy tale, the kind written, most famously, by Charles Perrault, E. T. A. Hoffmann, and Hans Christian Andersen. Such tales, which came into being at the end of the seventeenth century, are original literary works—short stories, really—except that they have fanciful subject matter: unhappy ducks, princesses who dance all night, and so on. To align the tale with the hearthside tradition, the author may also employ a certain naïveté of style. The other kind of fairy tale, the ancestor of the literary variety, is the oral tale, whose origins cannot be dated, since they precede recoverable history. Oral fairy tales are not so much stories as traditions. In the words of the English novelist Angela Carter, who wrote some thrilling Grimm-based stories, asking where a fairy tale came from is like asking who invented the meatball. Every narrator reinvents the tale. The historian Robert Darnton compares the oral tale tellers to the Yugoslavian bards studied in the twentieth century by Albert Lord and Milman Parry, in the effort to understand how the Homeric epics were composed. The premodern tale tellers might also be thought of as descendants of the scops of the Anglo-Saxon Dark Ages or of the griots of West Africa, men whose job it was to carry stories. But scholars tend to associate fairy tales with women, at home, telling stories to one another to relieve the tedium of repetitive tasks such as spinning (which often turns up in these narratives). Each woman would add or subtract a little of this and that, and so the story changed.
In the Grimms’ time, industrialization was starting to simplify or eliminate certain domestic chores. For that reason, among others, the oral tale was beginning to disappear. Intellectuals considered this a disaster. Hence the many fairy-tale collections of the period, including the Grimms’. They were rescue operations. The Grimms, in the introduction to their first edition, assert that almost all their material was “collected” from oral traditions of their region and is “purely German in its origins.” This suggests that the tales were supplied by humble people, and the brothers say that their primary source, Dorothea Viehmann, was a peasant woman from a village near Kassel. They claim that they did not change what Viehmann or the others said: “No details have been added or embellished.” [cartoon id="a16709"]
Much of this was not true. The people who supplied the first-edition tales were largely middle class: the brothers’ relatives, friends, and friends of friends. As for Viehmann, she was not a peasant but the wife of a tailor. She was also a Huguenot. In other words, her culture was basically French, and she was no doubt well acquainted with French literary fairy tales, Perrault’s and others’. So much for the material’s being “purely German in its origins.” But at least Viehmann was an oral source. Many items in the Grimms’ first edition came not from interviewees but from other fairy-tale collections. Most important, the brothers, especially Wilhelm, revised the tales thoroughly, making them more detailed, more elegant, and more Christian, as one edition followed another. In the process, the stories sometimes doubled in length. The folklore scholar Maria Tatar supplies three sentences from the brothers’ original draft of “Briar Rose,” which we call “The Sleeping Beauty”:
[Briar Rose] pricked her finger with the spindle and immediately fell into a deep sleep. The king and his retinue had just returned and they too, along with the flies on the wall and everything else in the castle, fell asleep. All around the castle grew a hedge of thorns, concealing everything from sight. And here, after seven successive revisions, is how that passage reads in the final edition of “Household Tales”:
[Briar Rose] took hold of the spindle and tried to spin. But no sooner had she touched the spindle than the magic spell took effect, and she pricked her finger with it. The very moment that she felt the prick she sank down into the bed that was right there and fell into a deep sleep. And that sleep spread throughout the entire palace. The king and the queen, who had just come home and entered the great hall, fell asleep, and the whole court with them. The horses fell asleep in the stables, the dogs in the courtyard, the pigeons on the roof, and the flies on the wall. Even the fire that had been flaming on the hearth stopped and went to sleep, and the roast stopped crackling, and the cook, who was about to pull the kitchen boy’s hair because he had done something wrong, let him go and fell asleep. And the wind died down and not a single little leaf stirred on the trees by the castle.
All around the castle a briar hedge began to grow. Each year it grew higher, and finally it surrounded the entire castle and grew so thickly beyond it that not a trace of the castle was to be seen, not even the flag on the roof. As Tatar has pointed out in her book “The Classic Fairy Tales” (1999), what the Grimms produced falls somewhere between the oral and the literary tale. But the brothers should not be reproached for departing from the original. First of all, whose original? Perrault had written a famous version of “The Sleeping Beauty” more than a century before—Wilhelm, in expanding “Briar Rose,” probably drew on it—and the story was older than Perrault. Most literary tales were derived in some measure from folk sources, and, once they were published, they in turn influenced folk versions. Finally, oral tales, when transcribed faithfully, are often barely readable. Tatar offers an example from the first draft of the Grimms’ first edition. This is part of a sentence:
Early the next morning the forester goes hunting at two o’clock, once he is gone Lehnchen says to Karl if you don’t leave me all alone I won’t leave you and Karl says never, then Lehnchen says I just want to tell you that our cook carried a lot of water into the house yesterday so I asked her why.
Though a scholar might publish this in, say, the Journal of American Folklore, nobody else would try to get anyone to read it.
The Grimms, however, changed more than the style of the tales. They changed the content. Their first edition was not intended for the young, nor, apparently, were the tales told at rural firesides. The purpose was to entertain grownups, during or after a hard day’s work, and rough material was part of the entertainment. But the reviews and the sales of the Grimms’ first edition were disappointing to them. Other collections, geared to children, had been more successful, and the brothers decided that their second edition would take that route. In the introduction, they dropped the claim of fidelity to folk sources. Indeed, they accurately said more or less the opposite: that, while they had been true to the spirit of the original material, the “phrasing” was their own. Above all, any matter unsuitable for the young had been expunged.
As with the rating committee of the Motion Picture Association of America, what they regarded as unsuitable for the young was information about sex. In the first edition, Rapunzel, imprisoned in the tower by her wicked godmother, goes to the window every evening and lets down her long hair so that the prince can climb up and enjoy her company. Finally, one day, when her godmother is dressing her, Rapunzel wonders out loud why her clothes have become so tight. “Wicked child!” the godmother says. “What have you done?” What Rapunzel had done goes unmentioned in the second edition. Such bowdlerizing went on for a half century. By the final edition, the stories were far cleaner than at the start.
But they were not less violent. The Grimms were told by friends that some of the material in the first edition was too frightening for children, and they did make a few changes. In a notable example, the first edition of “Hansel and Gretel” has the mother and the father deciding together to abandon the children in the woods. In later editions, it is the stepmother who makes the suggestion, and the father repeatedly hesitates before he finally agrees. Apparently, the Grimms could not bear the idea that the mother, the person who bore these children, would do such a thing, or that the father would readily consent.
This is an admirable scruple, but a puzzling one, because it is largely absent from other Grimm tales, many of which feature mutilation, dismemberment, and cannibalism, not to speak of ordinary homicide, often inflicted on children by their parents or guardians. Toes are chopped off; severed fingers fly through the air. A typical, if especially appalling, case is “The Juniper Tree.” As usual, there is a stepmother who hates her stepchild, a boy. He comes home one day and she asks him if he wants an apple. But no sooner does the boy lean over the trunk where the apples are stored than she slams the lid down and cuts off his head. Now she starts to worry. So she props up the boy’s body in a chair, puts his head on top, and ties a scarf around the neck to hide the wound. In comes Marlene, the woman’s own, beloved daughter. The girl comments that her stepbrother seems pale. Well, give him a slap, the mother says. Marlene does so, and the boy’s head falls off. “What a dreadful thing you’ve done. But don’t breathe a word,” the stepmother says. “We’ll cook him up in a stew.” Then the husband comes home and she serves him the stew. He loves it. “No one else can have any of it,” he says. “Somehow I feel as if it’s all for me.” You can hardly believe what you’re reading. [cartoon id="a16687"]
You get used to the outrages, though. They may even come to seem funny. When, in a jolly tale, a boy sees half a man fall down the chimney, are you supposed to get upset? When you turn a page and find that the next story is entitled “How Children Played Butcher with Each Other,” should you worry? Some stories do tear you apart, usually those where the violence is joined to some emphatically opposite quality, such as peace or tenderness. In “The Twelve Brothers,” a king who has twelve sons decides that, if his next child is a girl, he will have all his sons killed. That way, his daughter will inherit more money. So he has twelve coffins built, each with a little pillow. Little pillows! For boys whom he is willing to murder!
In sum, the Grimm tales contain almost no psychology—a fact underlined by their brevity. However much detail Wilhelm added, the stories are still extremely short. Jack Zipes’s translation of “Rapunzel” is three pages long, “The Twelve Brothers” five, “Little Red Riding Hood” less than four. They come in, clobber you over the head, and then go away. As with sections of the Bible, the conciseness makes them seem more profound.
Since the Second World War, some people have argued that the violence of the Grimm tales is an expression of the German character. Louis Snyder, in his book “Roots of German Nationalism” (1978), has a whole chapter on what he sees as the Grimms’ celebration, and encouragement, of pernicious national traits: “obedience, discipline, authoritarianism, militarism, glorification of violence,” and, above all, nationalism. Of course, the Grimm tales were nationalist: the brothers hoped to make their young readers feel and be more German. But in the nineteenth century there were fervent nationalist campaigns in most European countries. That is how many Western empires fell. And though ethnic pride was the Nazis’ chief justification for their movement, that wasn’t necessarily the fault of ethnic pride. Nazism fed on many trends that, previously, had been harmless—for example, the physical-culture movement of the early twentieth century, the fad for going on nature hikes and doing calisthenics. This became a feature of Nazism—an argument for purity, strength, the soil—but it existed also in countries that fought the Nazis, including the United States.
Nevertheless, the Grimms are premier representatives of the nationalism that became Aryanism in the nineteen-twenties and thirties, and the Nazis were grateful to them. Hitler’s government demanded that every German school teach the Grimms’ book. After the war, accordingly, the Allies banned the Grimm tales from the school curricula in some cities. Still today, certain people, notably feminists, would like to move them to the back shelves of the library, because, so often, the villain is a woman, doing violence to girls, and also because the girls seldom resist. When, in “Snow White,” the heroine is being hunted down by the terrible queen-stepmother, she does almost nothing to save herself. Finally, she sinks into utter passivity, immobilized in a glass coffin, waiting for her prince to come. In the words of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in “The Madwoman in the Attic,” she is “patriarchy’s ideal woman.”
Gilbert and Gubar actually defend the wicked stepmothers, whose arts, they say, “even while they kill, confer the only measure of power available to a woman in a patriarchal culture.” That is, these women at least have some gumption, unlike the little Barbies they are trying to eliminate. Such feelings are widespread. On a rock at the edge of Copenhagen harbor sits a bronze statue of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid (who, unlike Disney’s, does not get her man). Over the years, her head has been sawed off repeatedly; she has been blasted off her rock with explosives. A dildo was once affixed to her hand, apparently in celebration of International Women’s Day. At the same time, some writers have recommended that the feminist critics look more closely at the Grimm collection. According to the novelist Alison Lurie, an expert on children’s books, it is primarily the most popular tales, especially the ones adapted by Disney, that feature the wilting violets. Others of the stories have spunky heroines.
But you do not have to be a member of any special political camp to object to the Grimm tales; you only need to be a person interested in protecting children’s mental health. After the Second World War, there was a powerful movement in the United States for realism and wholesomeness in children’s books. No more cannibal stews but, rather, “Judy Goes to the Firehouse.” (This is the trend that Maurice Sendak, to the outrage of many, bucked with “Where the Wild Things Are,” in 1963.) Writers reluctant to part with the Grimm tales suggested that we go on reading them to our children but point out the poisonous stereotypes they contain. Presumably, as your child is nodding off, you are supposed to give her a shake and tell her how the prince’s rescue of Snow White reflects the hegemony of the patriarchy. Other writers have proposed that we revise the tales again. Why not? Why should the Grimms have the last word? Jack Zipes, in his book “Breaking the Magic Spell” (1979), addresses “Rumpelstiltskin,” the story in which, as the Grimms tell it, a king offers to marry a miller’s daughter if she can spin straw into gold. She has no idea how to do this. A gnome, Rumpelstiltskin, offers to do the job for her. But, once she marries, he says, she must give him her first child. When, at the end, she reneges on the deal, he becomes so angry that he tears himself in two. With apparent sympathy, Zipes quotes a writer, Irmela Brender, who, saddened that Rumpelstiltskin is destroyed, when all he ever wanted was a little companionship, has proposed a version in which the miller’s daughter, instead of denying Rumpelstiltskin the baby, invites him to move in with the royal family:
“We could do a lot of things together. You’ll see how much fun we can have.” Then Rumpelstiltskin would have first turned pale and then blushed for joy. He would have climbed on a chair and would have given the queen a kiss on her cheek. . . . And they would have been happy with each other until the end of their days.
W. H. Auden once described the Grimm-sanitizers as “the Society for the Scientific Diet, the Association of Positivist Parents, the League for the Promotion of Worthwhile Leisure, the Cooperative Camp of Prudent Progressives.”
Then, there are those who believe that the Grimm tales, whatever their cruelty, are indirectly good for us. One camp here consists of the psychoanalytic critics, most notoriously Bruno Bettelheim, whose 1976 book “The Uses of Enchantment” dropped like a hot brick into the tepid waters of children’s literature of that period. Bettelheim argued that fairy tales, by allowing children to attach their unsavory repressed desires to villains (dragons, witches) who were then conquered, helped the children to integrate and control such desires. To Bettelheim, a Freudian, the most important conflict was the Oedipus complex. In his view, it was because of that nasty struggle that the Grimm tales so often featured a wicked stepmother. The child is given the opportunity to hate her mother (in the form of the stepmother) and still, as she does in life, love her mother (the real mother, conveniently absent from the tale).
Such an interpretation makes some sense. Bettelheim went further, though. In “The Frog Prince,” he says, the reason the princess dislikes the amphibian in question is that the “tacky, clammy” feel of a frog’s skin is connected to children’s feelings about the sex organs. This seems a perfect example of the psychoanalytic critics’ habitual indifference to the obvious. Human beings—and probably princesses, especially—don’t generally like creatures that are sticky and warty. To provoke such recoil, you do not have to resemble a sex organ. Furthermore, this particular frog has been pursuing the princess day and night. Finally, he invades her bed. In response, she picks him up and hurls him against a wall, whereupon he explodes and his little guts dribble down the plaster. Fortunately, this causes him to turn into a prince, but, even if he hadn’t, many of us would have endorsed her action. [cartoon id="a16466"]
While Bettelheim tells us that fairy tales help us adjust, Jack Zipes has said the opposite: that the value of fairy tales is that they teach us not to adjust, because the oppressive society in which we live is something we should refuse to adjust to. Zipes, a professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota, has written sixty books on or of folk tales: critical studies, collections, translations. His newest entry is “The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre” (Princeton), but it does little more than repeat the theory of fairy tales that Zipes has been putting forth for several decades. Zipes is a Marxist of the Frankfurt school. He was also heavily influenced by the German philosopher Ernst Bloch and by the student movement of the nineteen-sixties. In keeping with those positions, he believes that fairy tales, because they are grounded in a naïve morality, offer us a “counterworld,” which encourages us to step back, consider the dubious morality of our own world, and take steps to reform it. As he puts it, fairy tales may “expose the crazed drive for power that many individual politicians, corporate leaders, governments, church leaders, and petty tyrants evince and to pierce the hypocrisy of their moral stances.” This interpretation leads to expectable conclusions. In “The Ugly Duckling,” for example, the duck, in envying the swans, shows “a distinct class bias if not racist tendencies.”
If some of this seems comical, it should be said that Zipes, in his books, shows a real love of fairy tales, especially the Grimms’. Such are the mysteries of literary criticism. His views, however dated, are still, like Bettelheim’s, endorsed by some writers. Maria Tatar seems to be inheriting the position of dean of fairy tales, and in her “Annotated Brothers Grimm” (2004)—this is one of Norton’s series of copiously annotated classics—she apparently feels that she can afford to be nice to everyone. This makes some of the notes in her edition bewilderingly latitudinarian—she nods to Zipes, to Bettelheim, to Gilbert and Gubar. Also, at times she seems very wide-eyed. She tries to find some basis for what seems to her the surprising appearance of anti-Semitic feeling in a few of these nineteenth-century stories. Had Wilhelm been consorting with the wrong people? In any case, she says, such characterizations are unfair to Jews.
Still, her edition is the one I would recommend. The book is dazzlingly illustrated, by Walter Crane (the best), Arthur Rackham, Gustave Doré, Maxfield Parrish, and others. (In the second edition, due to be published in October, there will be six new stories and many more pictures.) Another virtue of Tatar’s edition is that she has isolated, at the end, a group of “Tales for Adults”—stories that she feels should be examined by parents before they are read to children. Included in this section is “The Stubborn Child,” together with such items as “The Hand with the Knife” and “The Jew in the Brambles.” Still, “The Juniper Tree,” which Tatar herself describes as “probably the most shocking of all fairy tales,” is not placed among the “Tales for Adults,” presumably because it is too characteristic, too echt Grimm, to be cordoned off in a special section. (Parents should simply not read it to children. If they give the child the book, they should get an X-Acto knife and slice the story out first.) In truth, most of the Grimms’ tales cannot be made wholly respectable. The rewritings that seem most persuasive are sometimes more unsettling than the Grimm versions—for example, Angela Carter’s “The Company of Wolves,” inspired by “Little Red Riding Hood.” This story stresses the eroticism of the girl’s encounter with the wolf. When she enters her grandmother’s cottage, she almost immediately understands what her situation is, but she decides not to be afraid. She asks:
What shall I do with my shawl?
Throw it on the fire, dear one. You won’t need it again.
She bundled up her shawl and threw it on the blaze, which instantly consumed it. Then she drew her blouse over her head; her small breasts gleamed as if the snow had invaded the room. And so on with the rest of her clothes. Then she laughs in the wolf’s face, rips off his shirt, and throws that, too, into the fire:
She will lay his fearful head on her lap and she will pick out the lice from his pelt and perhaps she will put the lice into her mouth and eat them, as he will bid her, as she would do in a savage marriage ceremony.
The blizzard will die down.
The blizzard died down, leaving the mountains as randomly covered with snow as if a blind woman had thrown a sheet over them, the upper branches of the forest pines limed, creaking, swollen with the fall. . . .
See! sweet and sound she sleeps in granny’s bed, between the paws of the tender wolf.
Does the violence in the Grimm collection need a symbolic reading? Marina Warner, in her book on fairy tales, “From the Beast to the Blonde” (1994), says that most modern writers ignore the Grimms’ “historical realism.” Among the pre-modern populations, she records, death in childbirth was the most common cause of female mortality. The widowers tended to remarry, and the new wife often found that her children had to compete for scarce resources with the children of the husband’s earlier union. Hence the wicked stepmothers. As for the scarcity of resources, Robert Darnton has written that a peasant’s basic diet around that time consisted of a porridge of bread and water, sometimes with a few homegrown vegetables thrown in. Often, there was not even porridge. In the Grimm story “The Children Living in a Time of Famine” (Tatar moved this, too, into “Tales for Adults”), a mother says to her two daughters, “I will have to kill you so that I’ll have something to eat.” The little girls beg to live. Each goes out and somehow finds a piece of bread to bring back. But it is not enough. The mother again says to the girls that they must die: “To which they responded, ‘Dearest Mother, we’ll lie down and go to sleep, and we won’t rise again until Judgment Day.’ ” And so they lie down together and die. This is a hair-raising story, but also, I think, a wishful fantasy—that the children might die without crying.
And so you could say that the Grimm tales are no different from other art. They merely concretize and then expand our experience of life. The main reason that Zipes likes fairy tales, it seems, is that they provide hope: they tell us that we can create a more just world. The reason that most people value fairy tales, I would say, is that they do not detain us with hope but simply validate what is. Even people who have never known hunger, let alone a murderous stepmother, still have a sense—from dreams, from books, from news broadcasts—of utter blackness, the erasure of safety and comfort and trust. Fairy tales tell us that such knowledge, or fear, is not fantastic but realistic. Maybe, after this life, we will go to Heaven, as the two little girls who starved to death hoped to. Or maybe not. Though Wilhelm tried to Christianize the tales, they still invoke nature, more than God, as life’s driving force, and nature is not kind. ♦
A glaring anomaly stares out from the curriculum vitae of Maria Tatar, whose 10 scholarly books and scores of articles otherwise display a pleasing consistency. Her works deal with fairy tales and children’s literature: the Brothers Grimm, Bluebeard, Hans Christian Andersen. Even her first book, from 1978, on mesmerism and literature, bears an enchanted title: Spellbound.
But in 1995, Tatar, who is Loeb professor of Germanic languages and literatures, published a wild exception to this rule, digging into sensational material that is Adult with a capital A. Lustmord: Sexual Murder in Weimar Germanyexplores the vengeful underside of German national character during the 1920s. That Zeitgeist manifested itself both in lurid crimes (such as murder-rapes in which the chronology of those acts was not always clear) and in the powerful, disturbing paintings of George Grosz and Otto Dix—who sometimes “signed” his work with a blood-red handprint—as well as in Fritz Lang’s films and in plays and novels by Frank Wedekind, Hermann Hesse, and Alfred Döblin. A decade later, similar primal feelings, less examined and controlled, helped fuel the Nazis’ organized savagery.
The daughter of Hungarian émigrés, Tatar has been fascinated since childhood by German culture and the Holocaust. “My parents had come from Europe and Europe was a place that signified really deep horror,” she says. “I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. In the 1950s, a lot of things like the diary of Anne Frank were appearing, and reports of the Nazi atrocities were coming out in the newspapers.”
The young Tatar also gravitated to the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales—evoking adventure, glamour, and virtue, but also seething with violence, sadism, revenge, and horrific punishments—where the Teutonic “dark side” symbolically expressed itself. She wanted to understand how a culture that produced these enticing stories and the rapturous beauty of Beethoven, Wagner, and Goethe could also erupt in genocidal rage.
“Violence might be the bridge that connects German folklore and the Holocaust,” Tatar muses. “In fairy tales, you have that same brutality and monstrosity: there’s something really primal about what is going on in these stories—and in those Weimar artists. What I admire about the Weimar artists is that they faced up to what’s inside. Fairy tales also face up to the facts of life: nothing is sacred or taboo. Meanwhile they glitter with beauty. I work at the weirdly fascinating intersection of beauty and horror.”
Tatar’s passions for the Brothers Grimm and Anne Frank stayed with her, but at Princeton in the late 1960s, she discovered that both were verboten at the graduate level. “The Grimms were off limits because fairy tales were not deemed worthy of scholarly attention,” she explains, “and studying the Holocaust was taboo because it raised too many anxieties about the status of German culture in the academy.”
She redirected her attention to nineteenth- and twentieth-century German literature, studying romanticism and Weimar culture. She earned a doctorate in 1971, writing her dissertation on Gotthilf Heinrich von Schubert (1780-1860), a German Romantic philosopher who delved into the “dark side of nature,” Tatar explains—subjects such as animal magnetism, the unconscious, and dreams. “You could call him a precursor of Freud,” she says. “I didn’t want to study just the good, the true, and the beautiful—which was what many of my mentors in graduate school encouraged me to do—but to inquire into human pathologies, and what leads to events like the Holocaust.”
Eventually Tatar found her scholarly calling: since the 1970s, she has focused on fairy tales. Her books include annotated editions of what she calls the “classics” (including “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Hansel and Gretel”) and of tales collected by the Grimms, an exploration of Bluebeard, and a new edition of the stories of Hans Christian Andersen (just published by W.W. Norton, with translations from the Danish in collaboration with Julie K. Allen, Ph.D. ’05). “This field has moved from the periphery into the center of things,” Tatar explains. “Like women’s studies, ethnic studies, or film studies, the study of childhood and its literary and material culture has attained academic legitimacy.”
Tatar began with archival work that found its way into The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales(1987), which probes harsh themes like “murder, mutilation, cannibalism, infanticide, and incest.” More recently, she has moved into interpretive and empirical scholarship that examines the effects of the narratives. “Her interdisciplinarity has included psychology and psychoanalysis alongside literary history and theory,” says Porter professor of medieval Latin Jan Ziolkowski, director of the University’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, who has worked with Tatar on the committee on degrees in folklore and mythology. “Maria has made an ever-deeper imprint upon the field of fairy tales, which lies at one of those all-too-rare intersections between the general public and scholars. Her elegantly written books meet the highest academic standards while remaining accessible to the endangered species known as the general reader.”
During the past academic year, Tatar was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, on sabbatical from her faculty duties. (She also served as dean for the humanities in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences from 2003 to 2006.) At Radcliffe, she pursued her newest book project, “Enchanted Hunters: The Transformative Power of Childhood Reading,” broadening her focus from folklore to the general subject of children’s stories.
“‘Enchanted hunters’ is a phrase from Nabokov,” she explains. “It has an edge, for it applies, on one level, to Humbert Humbert and his pursuit of Lolita. But it also defines us as readers of Lolita—readers who search and explore as we fall under the spell of Nabokov’s language and his recasting of ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ It’s no accident that many children’s books begin with bored children, like Alice on the riverbank reading a book and nodding off. How do you move from boredom to curiosity—how do you animate the child? My answer is: by using the shock value of beauty and horror, administering jolts and shimmers that flip a switch in the mind.”
Fairy tales emerge from an oral tradition; they were passed down through generations by retellings long before being inscribed on paper; Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm were early folklorists. “Fairy tales should never be considered sacred texts,” Tatar says. “They existed in thousands of versions; there wasn’t one ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’”
Adults recounted these stories to a multigenerational audience, and typically the narrator spun out the tales to the rhythms of work. “We have drawings and paintings from seventeenth-century France showing fireside images of someone telling a story while others are minding children, repairing tools, or patching clothes,” Tatar says. “You’ve always got this fire. It’s a communal situation, where people are also getting warmth and comfort from the stories. The fire reminds us of the ‘ignition power’ of fairy tales, their ability to excite the imagination and to provide light in the dark. And with the fire, you also have these shadows, where fearful things might lurk. The tales not only have this magical, glittery sparkle, but also a dark, horrific side that stages our deepest anxieties and fears.”
The story itself, Tatar suggests, may be less important than the interchanges it stimulates. “In the telling, there are always interruptions—hissing and booing, clapping and cheering,” she says, referencing folklorists’ reports. “The tale is ‘thickened’ by the audience until it becomes a kind of collective product. When we read to children, we should bring in that creative dimension and talk about the story as it unfolds. Have a kind of conversational reading, and don’t let it end at, ‘They lived happily ever after.’ You want to let the story become more than a talisman or mantra—it should continue to shape-shift and resonate in new ways.
“Think about the way you read as a child,” she continues. “There are constant epiphanies. It’s an intellectual process, but it also involves the body in a way—you read with your spine, you have a somatic response.” She quotes Graham Greene: “What do we ever get nowadays from reading to equal the excitement and the revelation in those first fourteen years?” The young hunger for such discoveries. “They are searching for enlightenment,” Tatar declares. “They want to know about adult matters. Grown-ups talk about murder, violence, and death in hushed tones, because they want to protect children. But children are wildly curious about what adults keep from them. Adults read with a critical, reflective, detached mind—it’s a complex experience—but children just dive right in and identify powerfully with the characters. Maybe that’s what raises our anxiety level about what we read to them.”
Illustration by A.H. Watson for Cinderella
Take “Bluebeard,” the saga of a serial killer who murders six wives before getting his comeuppance. The story makes readers tremble for the seventh wife while rooting for her somehow to outwit the villain. “‘Bluebeard’ is a marriage tale, not really a tale for kids,” Tatar explains. “Though maybe a cautionary tale for young women entering arranged marriages!”
Yet this European folktale powerfully moved an African-American child, the novelist Richard Wright, who heard a “colored schoolteacher” named Ella read it to him. “I hungered for the sharp, frightening, breath-taking, almost painful excitement that the story had given me,” Wright recalled in Black Boy, his 1945 autobiography. “He hears this story and he is transformed,” Tatar says. “He wanted to read every novel he could get his hands on. ‘I burned to know the meaning of every word,’ he said, ‘because it was a gateway to a forbidden and enchanting land.’”
Indeed. Tatar’s Secrets beyond the Door: The Story of Bluebeard and His Wives (2004) begins, “Magic happens on the threshold of the forbidden.” Recall that Bluebeard gave his seventh wife keys to all the rooms in his mansion, but forbade her to open one remote chamber—which, of course, she does, when he is away, and so discovers the corpses of his former spouses. Fairy tales began as stories for adults, and they dig into precisely those subterranean aspects of adult life (especially family life) that so intrigue children, Tatar says. The tales have become a way to crash the grownups’ party. When the stories “migrated from the fireside into the nursery, they lost some of their bawdiness and violence,” she believes, but the Grimms worried more about censoring sex than violence, and even thought that the violence might scare children into good behavior. The tales nonetheless grapple with raw, fundamental emotions: “They are like miniature myths.”
Discover, for example, echoes of ancient Greece’s House of Atreus in “The Juniper Tree,” a tale recorded by the Grimms. “It is filled with revolting deeds,” says Tatar. “A stepmother chops up her stepson and serves him in a stew to his father, who declares the dish tasty. Touchingly, his sister buries the boy’s bones under a juniper tree and waters the tree with her tears. The boy is reborn as a beautiful bird that sings, and then he becomes a boy again.”
An abomination like a mother dismembering a child sometimes takes on a surreal or almost humorous dimension in the tales. (In stories such as “Cinderella,” the Grimms changed wicked mothers to stepmothers, to protect the image of motherhood: “You can see it in the manuscripts for different versions of a tale,” Tatar says.) “You get this kind of preposterous violence,” she asserts. At the end of one story, the hero declares that everyone’s head is going to be chopped off. (Indeed, one of Tatar’s books is Off with Their Heads!) Bluebeard murders not one or two, but six wives. In “Snow White,” the stepmother dances to her death in red-hot iron shoes. Another stepmother dies when a millstone falls on her head, and the protagonist of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes” has her feet cut off. One version of “Cinderella” has doves peck out the eyes of the evil step- sisters.
These maimings can actually allay childhood fears. “Kids have a lot of anxiety about their bodily integrity,” says Tatar. “They worry about loss on so many different levels. Psychologists are right to emphasize the therapeutic value of fairy tales and how they enact and work through fears in symbolic terms. Fairy tales move in the subjunctive: ‘Once upon a time’ means that it isn’t real and that you can laugh about it in a licensed form of release.”
In her own childhood, Tatar had deeply affecting experiences as a reader. The third of four children in a Hungarian family that came to the United States in 1952 (her father was an ophthalmologist, her mother a stay-at-home parent), Tatar grew up in Highland Park, outside Chicago, in a trilingual household (her parents also spoke German). She herself reads Latin and Danish, and speaks French in addition to German.
Their home was only two blocks away from an “extraordinary library.” Tatar clearly recalls the moment when, at age nine, “I took a deep breath and crossed the threshold into the adult section—there were strict boundaries at that time. I curled up there with this book of Danish fairy tales—from the folklore collection, without illustrations. My older brother came in and told me I wasn’t allowed there. The book I treasured most was Grimms’ Fairy Tales—in German. I couldn’t read the words, but my older sister would tell me the stories.”
She learned German at Denison University in Ohio, spending her junior year in Munich; she later lived for a year in Berlin. Tatar has spent her entire career at Harvard, having joined the faculty in 1971, fresh from her doctorate at Princeton; she received tenure in 1978. (Her daughter, Lauren, graduated from Harvard in 2006 and her son, Daniel, is a senior at the College.)
Tatar’s concept of “ignition power” speaks to the way these tales can fire a reader’s imagination, and, as with Richard Wright, stimulate a child’s desire to read. She herself, having grown up with three languages, has a powerful response to the written word, in which she finds both “monumental stability and a thrilling mutability.” She recalls the “Bump!” in The Cat in the Hat—a signal for manic madness, the “logical insanity” that Dr. Seuss aimed for in that book. “Words have always felt to me like [magic] wands,” she says, “and they open the door to new worlds in which anything is possible—talking rabbits, phantom tollbooths, flying carpets. I started out as a math major; the prospect of infinite permutations and combinations was always intoxicating.”
She calls reading a highly creative activity: “Words on the page give you instructions for imagining new worlds, not with a barrage of descriptive details but with spare cues that, even in their filminess and flimsiness, create complete images.” She recalls Nabokov’s description of how an author constructs a house of cards that, in the reader’s mind, becomes a castle of glass and steel, part of a sturdy and durable world.
Tatar’s researches began by addressing violence and horror, but, as she says, “I discovered beauty.” A turning point came on a book tour, when she was telling library audiences about The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales. “I wanted to talk about the origins of the stories, their evolution, and their cultural meanings,” she recalls. “But people kept coming back to me with descriptions of their enchantment with the stories and how beautiful they were. They wanted to know more about the magic of the stories, the deep melodrama and passion—they were almost operatic about it. That inspired me to go back to reading the stories at a visceral level—it was almost like reconnecting with childhood, the way you read as a child.”
Consider the spell cast by “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” in which Hans Christian Andersen describes the emperor’s magical garments: “as exquisite as cobwebs” in their pattern and design. “The magical clothing takes over,” Tatar says, “even though it cannot be seen.” Fairy tales stay on the surface. “Beauty is always presented in totally abstract terms,” Tatar says. “In a description of a princess, all you get are light and sparkle, dazzle, shine, golden dresses and silver shoes. You never get a description of her face. You have to use the power of your imagination.”
Then comes the Disney animated film of the story, which fills in all the details and renders an exact image of the princess. Most of the students in Tatar’s popular undergraduate courses, like “Fairy Tales, Children’s Literature, and the Construction of Childhood,” know these stories via Disney versions, and so are amazed to learn, for example, that in Andersen’s original, the Little Mermaid dies at the end. Tatar explains, “Disney turns Andersen’s story—literally and figuratively—into a cartoon version of itself.”
Yet a Disney film is simply another version, another retelling, of a narrative that already exists in countless variations. And Tatar is quick to point out that without Disney, we might not have these stories. “Film has an instant way of pulling you in,” she says. “There’s intensity, there’s melodrama, and you identify closely with the characters. Hollywood has mastered the art of the popular aesthetic, getting us to buy into on-screen fictions in powerful ways. Yes, there’s cause for concern, in that movies are so much easier to get into than books are. But Disney films [have] kept fairy tales alive. And alongside the Disney version, 15 different print editions of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ will be published, for different levels of readers.
“Competition among media isn’t always a bad thing,” she continues, pointing out that the beautiful illustrations that have so often accompanied printed fairy tales amount to a “second text.” “I try not to get too romantic or nostalgic about the book,” she says. “Media feed off each other in interesting ways; the printed word, oral storytelling, film, and television interact with each other, are embedded in each other, and generate new interest in the old, as well as new versions of old stories.”
Illustration by Warwick Goble from The Juniper Tree
And the audience itself has changed. “Our conception of childhood has changed dramatically in the past couple of decades,” Tatar says. She cites the work of French social historian Philippe Ariès on the “invention” of childhood in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: in earlier times, children were immediately conscripted into the labor force when they were physically able to work. In his 1982 book The Disappearance of Childhood, media analyst Neil Postman argued that the literacy gap between adults and children formerly allowed adults to control information and so create a two-tiered society; when electronic media broke down adults’ ability to control information, adult and child converged. “Today, you could argue that we’re going back to the older model,” Tatar says. “With exposure to media at early ages, children have access to what was once adult knowledge—they know what we didn’t know until we were teenagers. Kids seem to be savvy about the facts of life. Yet they are still infantilized, and more dependent on their parents than ever.”
In “Enchanted Hunters”—a project that Tatar says has been in the works for 10 years—she examines how children interact with stories and investigates what happens when kids migrate into worlds that have been created by different media. Some of her ideas have emerged from more than 300 interviews with her students about childhood memories of their reading experience—how one student used a purple crayon (less successfully than Crockett Johnson’s Harold) on his bedroom wall, how another (very much a swan, Tatar notes) had read “The Ugly Duckling” hundreds of times during adolescence, how a third tried desperately to develop telekinetic powers after reading Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Tatar marvels at the ways in which students approach stories: undergraduates, for example, will “read all the Harry Potter novels or the entire Chronicles of Narnia over a weekend, becoming effortlessly absorbed by a world they construct from nothing but black marks on a white page.”
The seven Harry Potter books, having sold 325 million copies in more than 60 languages, of course represent the worldwide megahit of children’s literature for the past decade. Tatar draws on her scholarly expertise to account for their vast success. Author J.K. Rowling “writes for children but never down to them,” she says. “[Rowling] does not shy away from the great existential mysteries: death and loss, cruelty and compassion, desire and depression. Think of those fiendish Dementors who are experts in making you lose hope—what could be more frightening than that?” Furthermore, “Rowling puts magic into the hands of children—they are the anointed and the appointed,” Tatar says. “But there’s more to it than that: Rowling declared that the books are not so much about good and evil as about power, and Harry Potter gets the chance to defeat [arch-villain] Voldemort and to seize power. The sorcery of the books involves more than wizardry and magic, for the child has the chance to right wrongs.”
In addition to the deep themes and the struggle for justice, “Rowling taps into rich literary traditions,” Tatar explains. “She is a master of bricolage: recycling stories and stitching them together in vibrant new ways. Rowling is on record as declaring her favorite author to be Jane Austen, but in the Harry Potter books there is also much of Dickens and Dahl, with heavy doses of fairy tales and Arthurian legend, British boarding-school books, and murder mysteries. We have all the archetypal themes and characters of children’s literature: an abject orphan, toxic stepparents, false heroes, helpers and donors, villainy and revenge.”
With its staggering popularity, “Harry Potter has created a global cultural story, one that will be shared by multiple generations of literate children and adults,” says Tatar. Indeed, one factor in the series’ success is that the stories appeal both to adults and to younger readers.
Children’s books, of course, are primarily written by adults, and much scholarship on children’s literature also embodies adult viewpoints. Psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim ranks among the best-known fairy-tale theorists; his 1976 book The Uses of Enchantmentis a classic in the field. (Bettelheim analyzed Hansel and Gretel’s attempt to take a bite from the witch’s house as “oral greed.”) It would take a long while to exhaust the interpretations of Turkish delight, the real-world name C.S. Lewis used for a fictional confection so pleasurable that it completely enslaves Edmund Pevensie in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
But Tatar is trying to escape the adult perspective on children’s literature. (“The psychosexual readings have become predictable,” she says.) “I’m trying to capture what happens in the child,” she explains. That’s an ambitious goal, because children themselves are not particularly articulate on such matters, and adult recollections brim with distortions and idealizations. So Tatar also goes directly to the literary texts, mining her insights from words on the page, an admittedly speculative enterprise.
This approach has led her to consider magical thinking and how stories teach children that you don’t need wands—just words—to do things. The so-called classics are classics for a reason: they have powerful language, and use not just sparkle and shine but also gothic gloom to get children hooked on a story and on reading. The marvels that tumble thick and fast through these narratives lead readers to wonder not just about the world of fiction but also about the world they inhabit.
“The radical view is that it doesn’t matter what story a kid reads,” she continues. “In some ways, children’s literature is pulp fiction: it’s melodramatic. John Updike called fairy tales ‘the television and pornography of their day, the life-lightening trash of preliterate peoples.’ Children who read escape not just from reality but into opportunity: they learn how to navigate in the larger world; they become more connected and curious, energized by the propulsive wonders of Narnia, Oz, or Never Land.”
And to wrestle with the darker aspects of life as well. Tatar’s attraction to what Germans call the “night side” dates to the beginnings of her scholarly work. She recalls, with some amusement, giving a paper on the sexual-murder material that developed into Lustmord and hearing a question from a German academic: “Why always the pathological?” She has a ready answer. “It seems so much more interesting than the good, the true, and the beautiful. Trying to understand why things go wrong seems to me more productive than just focusing on what is right.” Even so, she is not immune to the charms of Turkish delight, and remains as eager as the rest of us, child and adult alike, to be seduced by the beauty of a well-told story.
Craig A. Lambert ’69, Ph.D. ’78, is deputy editor of this magazine.