The Great Cauldron of Story: Why Fairy Tales Are for Adults Again
Maria Tatar is the John L. Loeb Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University, where she also chairs the Program in Folklore and Mythology. Her books include Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhoodand The Annotated Brothers Grimm.
May 8, 2014
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: There’s something in the present that is finding new sustenance in the old, old storylines of fairy tales. Once upon a time in my childhood, for example, there was Disney’s frothy Snow White.
[Audio Clip from Snow White]
SNOW WHITE (VOICE-OVER BY ADRIANA CASELOTTI): What do you do when things go wrong?
SNOW WHITE: Oh, you sing a song!
MS. TIPPETT: But now, we have a darker, adult, self-realized Snow White and the Huntsman.
[Audio Clip from Snow White and the Huntsman]
SNOW WHITE (PLAYED BY KRISTEN STEWART): All these years, all I’ve known is darkness. But I have never seen a brighter light than when my eyes just opened. And I know that light burns in all of you.
MS. TIPPETT: The last few years have seen multiple renditions of “Snow White” and “Hansel and Gretel,” as well as as well as “Frozen”, Disney’s updated take on “The Snow Queen.” There are overt fairy tale themes in hit TV series like True Blood, Grimm, and Once Upon a Time. To uncover what all of this might be saying about our time, we turn to Maria Tatar. She’s an expert on classic fairy tales and legends and on how they help us work with things like fear and hope. These stories, she says, have survived by adapting across cultures and history. They are carriers of the plots we endlessly rework as we weave the narratives of our lives.
[Music: “The Cave” by Jorane]
DR. MARIA TATAR: There’s the great “once upon a time,” which is a marker. It says this is not the here and now. You can let your imagination run wild. You can go in places that you’d be scared to go otherwise. You can say things that you’re afraid to talk about. You know, and in just mysterious ways you come to an understanding or a resolution. Not a resolution, I should say, because you have to keep working through things.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being.
Maria Tatar is a professor of Germanic languages and literature at Harvard University, where she also chairs the program in Folklore and Mythology. I interviewed her in 2013. When she was doing her graduate studies, such stories were not deemed serious enough for scholarly attention. But she inched towards them with a doctoral thesis on a 19th-century German philosopher who delved into the “dark side” of nature.
A daughter of Hungarian immigrants who fled Holocaust-era Central Europe, these themes were the stuff of reality, not fantasy, for Maria Tatar.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, whoever I’m talking with, whatever subject —I actually always start with this question about whether there was a religious or spiritual background to your childhood.
DR. TATAR: Oh gosh, I did, I was going to say, I had a secular childhood. But I was sort of obliged to go to Sunday services, you know, with my family. And I remember that as utter torture, sitting through a sermon. And maybe that explains why I was attracted to fairy tales. Because of the excitement and the thrill and, you know, they never —they never turned you into the bored child. But there was something spiritual about it, in that my sister and I read the stories in a book called Die schönsten Kindermärchen der Brüder Grimm, The Most Beautiful Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. I didn’t know German. She didn’t know German either. But this book had these gorgeous illustrations, which just drew us into the stories. And so I just remember looking at those illustrations and falling in love with them. And the artist wasn’t particularly distinguished. It wasn’t Arthur Rackham who gave us those gorgeous gnarly trees and whimsical trolls and beautiful princesses. But nonetheless, I can still see those images in my mind’s eye.
MS. TIPPETT: And it also sounds to me from your, who your family was and where they came from that the fairy tales were part of your childhood. And also you had this personal connection to the kind of dramatic and menacing tone that’s in some of those fairy tales. I read you wrote somewhere that Europe was a place for you that signified deep horror. And that mingling of kind of operatic beauty —I think that’s a phrase I’ve used —and kind of monstrous terror, that combination, that juxtaposition is such an endearing quality of these stories.
DR. TATAR: That collision always makes a direct visceral hit. And you get both in the story and yet also the promise of a happily ever after.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. TATAR: That is, no matter how horrible that monster is, how frightening, the hero survives. The hero will battle that monster —figure out a way to outwit it —to get behind it and push it into the oven, rather than being devoured. So the fact that there is a way out I think is, you know, one of the great strengths of these fairy tales and a reason why we can also read them to children or tell them to children, without having deep anxieties about how it will damage them in one way or another.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, one of the things though that I feel you’ve been very important in bringing out for people is telling the story of the Brothers Grimm. And I mean you, you initially became a scholar of these kinds of stories. And they were scholars, you know, and there’s an anecdote in one of your books where you talk about William Grimm remembering his father, whose one of the brothers and saying, silence was there real element, and describing that all the only sound he associated with was the scratching of their pens and Jacob’s little coughs. So tell a little bit of that story of what they felt they were doing, and what they were working with originally, which is a little bit of different from what has come down to us.
DR. TATAR: Oh, well you’ve flagged an extraordinary point, because, you know, they’re growing up in silence and yet they’re connecting with an oral story, you know.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes, yes.
DR. TATAR: With these vibrant scenes around the fireside where people are, you know, gossiping, exchanging stories.
MS. TIPPETT: Scaring each other.
DR. TATAR: And scaring each other. No, there’s no television, no electronic entertainment. So what are you going to do but, you know, create stories that are as melodramatic as possible, that have the highs and lows and everything in between. So there are these brothers, and they —in their 20s, they decided to undertake this great scholarly project of collecting folklore —the voice of the people, Volkspoesie. But you know the Grimms themselves were quite cosmopolitan. And I think what they wanted to do was collect these stories before they disappeared. Yes, there was sort of an effort to consolidate national identity and all of that. But they recognized that these stories went way back. They were mythical, they were powerful, they were changing over time. And they wanted to capture how these stories were being told in their own day and age.
So, what did they do? They wrote to others scholars, writers, and then they listened. They listened to the stories in their own milieu, getting the stories, grabbing them from wherever they found them, putting them into this volume, and discovering that they were actually selling copies of this book. That parents were reading the stories to children.
MS. TIPPETT: And that wasn’t necessarily something they had foreseen what happened, is it?
DR. TATAR: It was not part of their plan.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, right.
DR. TATAR: And I think they were quite thrilled by it. And they also were responding, as they went through successive editions editing the tales —responding to reviewers, some of whom worried about the sexual allusions in the tales.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. TATAR: These were, after all, they were adult entertainment. And the vulgar coarse language, the scatological humor in the tales as well. So they started editing out, making the tales a little bit more child-friendly, taking out the story of Hans Dumm, who makes girls pregnant by just looking at them.
MS. TIPPETT: Although I would imagine that might be one a lot of parents would like to tell their teenagers and have them believe. I mean, you know, the one, the example that in the original “Rapunzel” and a lot of those stories, the prince climbs up her hair everyday and then she gets pregnant. Right. I mean that’s not really how that comes down to us.
DR. TATAR: Yes, and then in later versions, the birth of the two children is never connected with the prince. She’s just magically pregnant, and yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, I know that some people across history have spoken of this canon of fairy tales of stories as being akin to sacred cultural treasure or sacred canon. And I sense that you —for you there’s a really clear distinction between these two kinds of canons that both have important places in Western culture.
DR. TATAR: Oh yeah, I’m deeply interested in the idea of looking at the evolution of the tales. How have they migrated into other cultures? What happens to a Grimm tale when it ends up in the U.S. or in China? How is it reimagined?
MS. TIPPETT: NBC’s series Grimm reimagines the Grimm Brothers and their descendants as part of the stories they captured. The generations of the Grimm family inherit powers when they reach adulthood to subdue the fairy tale creatures they wrote about. These creatures, it turns out, actually live in the world in human disguise.
In this scene, the latest in the line of Grimms —a police officer —is just coming into his inheritance.
[Audio Clip from Grimm]
NICK BURKHARDT (PLAYED BY DAVID GIUNTOLI): Who are you?
MONROE (PLAYED BY SILAS WEIR MITCHELL): Wow, you are new at this. Look, I don’t want any more trouble. OK. I’m not that kind of Blutbad. I don’t kill anymore. I haven’t in years.
DET. BURKHARDT: Wait, what did you say you were?
MONROE: Blutbad, vulgarized by your ancestors as the Big Bad Wolf. What, did you just get the books tonight?
DET. BURKHARDT: You know about the books?
MONROE: Of course I know about the books. We all know about the books. You people started profiling us over 200 years ago. But as you can see I am not that big, and I am done with the bad thing.
DET. BURKHARDT: Well, how do you…
MONROE: How do I stay good? Through a strict regimen of diet, drugs, and Pilates. I’m a reformed Blutbad, a weider Blutbad —it’s a different church altogether.
DET. BURKHARDT: But you guys go to church?
MONROE: Sure. Don’t you?
DR. TATAR: You know, there is no original “Little Red Riding Hood.”
MS. TIPPETT: And that’s the difference you’re saying between a sacred story?
DR. TATAR: Well, that’s right. You know, these are not stories that are mythological. You know, I really see them as part of the great caldron of story, where you’ve got myths and legends and folktales. So I think, you know, we always have this tendency. I find myself sometimes saying, oh in the original. But of course, you know, they’re just different versions. They sprang up. You can find a “Little Red Riding Hood” in 17th-century China, there’s a version. The girl doesn’t have a red riding hood, but she behaves very much like the girl in the woods.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. TATAR: And so I just —I am deeply committed to the idea of our creating our own versions of these stories. That is, if you’re not comfortable with Gretel getting behind the witch and pushing her into the oven, tell it in a different way, or rewrite it. Or you know, look at another cultural production that takes the story in a different direction.
MS. TIPPETT: But see, here’s something that intrigues me about that. It’s not there aren’t violent stories in religious canons, in the Bible for example. I mean there certainly are. But there is an intentionality of moral reasoning and a role modeling, and the fairy tales are very different. And so even, as you say, you know, the hero —so there’s very little pure morality. And in fact there’s a lot of brutality. And even when there’s a happy ending for the good guys and good girls, often, I mean terrible things happened to the villains. And I guess one thing I’m curious about is as you’ve kind of spent your life steeped in this —what’s your sense of why as human beings we need and use both of these kinds of stories to understand ourselves and make our way through the world?
DR. TATAR: That’s a great question. And let me just start with the violence in fairy tales, which you’re absolutely right. It’s often surreal —it’s burlesque —it’s carnivalesque. It makes no sense. And I do think, but it gets us talking. It gets us trying to figure out, you know, how do we make sense of the story? How do we put the pieces together? And I sort of take these stories back to the fireside when human beings —for better or for worse —got together and cooperated and collaborated. We, you know, reached the top of the food chain because we were able to exchange information, pass along wisdom of stories about predators in the woods and how to get away from them. And so there is a certain kind of wisdom encapsulated in the tale. But for centuries I think we’ve made the mistake of trying to pin a single message or moral on the story.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. It simplifies it, doesn’t it?
DR. TATAR: Yeah, Charles Perrault did this in France. He ended each story with a moral. William Bennett did this in The Book of Virtues…
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. TATAR:… published in the —I think he actually put the moral up front and center. And the beauty of these stories is that, you know, they don’t have a single message or moral. And how do we draw the wisdom out of the story? It gives us an opportunity to talk about scary things. About cultural contradictions, you know, innocence and seduction, monstrosity, and compassion, alterity —the other, who is that? You know, now we’re taming the monsters. We’re making friends with them instead of, you know, defeating them and chopping off their heads and that kind of thing.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. TATAR: So these stories change in wonderfully productive ways. And they do get us talking about our values. You know, they help us develop a kind of moral compass.
[Music: “Things Are Changing in Storybrooke” by Mark Isham]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with folklorist and Grimm Brothers scholar Maria Tatar — we’re exploring what fairy tales work in us, and how we work with them.
MS. TIPPETT: One of the interesting —one of the details that I’ve learned from you is so all the twists and turns, as you said in different cultures with the stories we know. So for example, a story that many of us know so well would be “Cinderella.” What I remember growing up in the ’60s, ’70s was the Lesley Ann Warren movie, Cinderella movie, which was just all sweet and light. And you also then fast-forward to today, look at the Kardashians or reality TV makeovers as other ways that we work with some of these images of women that are so primordial. It’s really interesting.
DR. TATAR: Oh yes, absolutely. Yeah, the makeover movie or a reality show. We’re fascinated by that, you know. And there’s Hans Christian Andersen’s “Ugly Duckling,” which is…
MS. TIPPETT: Right, right.
DR. TATAR:… such a wonderful childhood story. Because, you know, you may be the ugly duckling but you’ll turn into a swan one day. And that’s the ultimate story of hope and redemption and happily ever after.
MS. TIPPETT: And the Kardashians, you pointed out, is the tension between the mother and the daughters, that there’s that classic dynamic.
DR. TATAR: Oh, absolutely.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s almost like Cinderella’s stepmother competing with her.
DR. TATAR: First of all, the hyper-dysfunctional family, which is, you know, every fairy tale family is like that. They’re all…
MS. TIPPETT: We didn’t invent this, did we in entirety?
DR. TATAR: No, and then I do watch the Kardashians. I mean I will confess. I’ve stopped, but I used to watch it on my exercise bike. And there’s this one moment where Kris sees her daughters I think in bikinis. They’re on the beach, and she’s got, you know, some sort of robe —she’s completely covered up. And then they show images. You know, her mind is at work of her when she was younger and able to wear bikinis. And this, you know, you feel that she really deeply resents her daughters.
MS. TIPPETT: Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all.
DR. TATAR: And then suddenly, yeah, you see it. I mean these fairy tales do —they are part of our reality.
MS. TIPPETT: Are you watching, I am, this resurgence of really overt fairy tale in TV, in quite good TV now, this show Once Upon A Time?
DR. TATAR: Yes, I follow it. Once Upon A Time and Grimm.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes, and Grimm.
DR. TATAR: The crime series.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, and I even think True Blood. I don’t know if you’ve watched that.
DR. TATAR: Full of fairy tale moments.
MS. TIPPETT: Full of it, yes. And the longer it goes on, the more it is about, it picks up so many more of those themes. It’s not just about vampires anymore.
DR. TATAR: Right. And once you start looking —I mean even, I think that started almost with Sex and the City, when you had so many, you know, it was just littered with fairy tale illusions.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, tell me that. What’s the fairy tale in Sex and the City?
DR. TATAR: That Carrie loses her shoe at one point. And there’s so much of that…
MS. TIPPETT: Her Manolo Blahnik.
DR. TATAR: Yes, exactly. The shoe theme. And then they’re always referring to happily ever after, and fairy tales and all of that. So I think that these tales are constantly recycled in explicit ways. But almost every narrative kind of alludes to, or a fairy tale, or a fairy tale motif will flash out at you. There is something just primal about these tales.
MS. TIPPETT: But I just —it seems to me that television is becoming this newly really robust and sophisticated place where we are storytelling.
DR. TATAR: For sure.
MS. TIPPETT: Right? And some of these shows we’ve mentioned, you know, in some ways this represents a reversal of the move that the Grimms made. That somehow in the 21st century, really great writers and thinkers are finding ways to bring these stories back, to make them adult stories again. Do you have a sense of what it might be in our culture right now that makes these old motifs seem more relevant again, more worth pondering and playing with?
DR. TATAR: Oh yeah, that’s an interesting question. Because you could say, you know, everyone always believes that they are living in an era of transition, of crisis and all of that. But, you know, I think that we are —there is —I don’t know whether to describe it as a crisis, but an inflection point that is quite extraordinary. You know, with the Internet, with all of the challenges, that is. The great upside to that with, you know, offering more access, but the downside, which is that, you know, no one knows how to monetize this. And you know, all these publishing industries in crisis and the music industry, the film industry.
MS. TIPPETT: All of our industries and our institutions are being turned inside out by it.
DR. TATAR: Exactly. Yeah, so I think that there is a kind of move to, you know, go back to sort of try to reinvent ourselves using the old in a way. But you know, a way that is more self-conscious than usual. So I’m still trying to figure it all out. I think we’re all just navigating new territory. And there is a sort of comfort in the old and bringing back the familiar. In a new way to be sure, but relying on it to help us navigate the future. And these stories after all were used to help us make sense of the world. And for that reason, I think we need them more than ever.
MS. TIPPETT: There’s a, you have a great sentence somewhere; you wrote: “There is transformative power in terror as life has lately taught us, and we count on stories to keep us from forgetting that.” That to me feels like it speaks very directly to these early years of our century.
DR. TATAR: Oh yeah, for sure. And we have to face down those demons and figure out what they are, both the demons within and without. And I think the stories provide a platform for doing that.
MS. TIPPETT: In the ABC series “Once Upon A Time,” there’s a psychological twist on the Red Riding Hood character. She is a lovely maiden, but she is also the wolf —she carries a potential to transform into the wolf inside her at full moon.
[Audio Clip: Once Upon A Time]
RUBY (PLAYED BY MEGHAN ORY): Almost done. Let’s finish clearing out those perishables.
DAVID NOLAN (PLAYED BY JOSH DALLAS): What the here is this?
RUBY: We’re making a cage.
DAVID: Why are you building a cage?
RUBY: Tonight’s the first full moon since the curse broke. It’s the first night of wolf’s time.
DAVID: I thought you figured out how to control the wolf in you ages ago.
RUBY: Yeah, but thanks to the curse, I haven’t turned in 28 years. I might be rusty. I can’t let what
happened last time —what happened to Peter —happen to anyone else.
DAVID: What about your red hood? That could keep you from turning.
RUBY: If I had it. I’ve looked everywhere. I even went to Gold. It’s not in town. I don’t think it came over with the curse.
DAVID: Ruby, I know you. I trust you. Snow trusted you. Wolf’s time or not, you won’t hurt anyone tonight.
RUBY: Maybe. But I can’t afford to take any chances.
[Music: “Things Are Changing in Storybrooke” by Mark Isham]
MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again, download and share this show with Maria Tatar through our website, onbeing.org. Coming up, how violent stories actually help us face our fears.
I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[Music: “Once Upon A Time” by Mark Isham]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today we’re wondering what it means that so many contemporary television shows and movies are revisiting fairy tales.
My guest, Maria Tatar, is a renowned Germanicist and an expert on classic children’s literature and folklore. But she understands fairy tales not as belonging to the domain of childhood, but belonging to the childhood of our culture. And she traces how they evolve across time and many cultures.
[Audio Clip: Grimm]
NICK BURKHARDT (PLAYED BY DAVID GIUNTOLI): What do we know?
HANK GRIFFIN (PLAYED BY RUSSELL HORNSBY): A little girl on the way to her grandfather’s house never showed up. That’s him, the guy with the beard.
DET. BURKHARDT: Do we know he’s clean?
DET. GRIFFIN: No, we’re looking into that.
MS. TIPPETT: Grimm is a crime drama. And its often criminal, mythical characters hide within innocuous lives in the neighborhoods of contemporary Portland, Oregon.
[Audio Clip: Grimm]
DET. BURKHARDT: Anything else?
DET. GRIFFIN: No, thanks for you time. We’ll see ourselves out.
DET. BURKHARDT: Hank, I’m sorry. I really thought this time…
DET. GRIFFIN: Wait, the saw.
DET. BURKHARDT: What saw?
DET. GRIFFIN: He was hugging the same saw and the one on the dead girl’s eyeball.
MS. TIPPETT: I think on the surface maybe, the brutality that runs throughout these stories might be kind of puzzling. A couple of things you point out I find very helpful. I mean one is that fantasy removed from reality, whereas you said it’s sometimes burlesque. I mean it’s so extreme that it’s unbelievable. But that that creates a place to work on fear. In a way, a safe place to work on fear. And also, that in fact children, as well as adults, actually know what to do with violence. And tend not to be overwhelmed by the violence in the stories.
DR. TATAR: Right. Well, there’s the great “once upon a time,” which is a marker. It says this is not the here and now.
MS. TIPPETT: Huh. Oh, interesting.
DR. TATAR: You can let your imagination run wild. You go in places that you’d be scared to go otherwise. You can say things that you’re afraid to, you know, to talk about. And another thing, Majorcan storytellers begin their tales with, “It was and it was not.” That sort of split reference.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. TATAR: That is, this isn’t real, but there’s something about it that —I always think of Harry Potter in this context. Harry Potter and Dumbledore talking. And Dumbledore says, “Just because it’s in your head doesn’t mean it’s not real.” So, there’s something about, you know, you’re moving back and forth. But it’s a safe space. Once upon a time is a safe space for all of us. And especially for children who might not have the words to talk about, abstract words or words that, you know, capture feelings. But who understand a story and will be drawn into a story. And again, you know, as I said, they get us, I hate to sound like a broken record, but they get us to talk about things. And, you know, and in just mysterious ways you come to an understanding or a resolution. Not a resolution, I should say, because you have to keep working through things.
MS. TIPPETT: You can kind of inhabit that, those questions or those that fear.
DR. TATAR: Exactly, exactly.
MS. TIPPETT: And, you know, I wonder also how much of a connection you see between this dynamic and another phenomenon of our time. Maybe this has always been true, but just the wild popularity of murder mysteries and suspense. And again, a lot of that is being written very well these days. They are really brilliant people. I mostly read British mystery authors. And, you know, it’s great literature some of it. But it is about people killing each other and being pathological. I don’t know, what’s the connection for you with that phenomenon and this? And why is pathology riveting and how can it possibly not be bad for us to consume so much of this?
DR. TATAR: I think what it is —what makes it so riveting is there’s so many mysterious things happening. And that’s what all great literature does. It just presents these puzzles and riddles and what is this, you know. It confronts us with things that, you know, we can’t explain. But the words will help us to figure things out. So I always use this word in class of hermeneutic puzzles. That is, we become hermeneuts trying to make sense of the world.
MS. TIPPETT: Interpreters, is that what you’d say?
DR. TATAR: Yeah, interpreters, yeah. And it makes us wiser. And this is why Harry Potter is so great. Because kids are always having to solve the puzzles and figure things out. You’ve got that…
MS. TIPPETT: Right. There’s an intellectual challenge in this stuff.
DR. TATAR: Yeah. Voldemort is called Tom Riddle. And, you know, this is why we get lost in books and absorbed. And Tim Wynne-Jones has this great line about the immersive reading experience, where you are in this world. You breathe differently, you’re kind of underwater. And not only do you learn a lot about that new world, but you discover how your own mind works. And so ultimately you learn about yourself. This is the great lesson of the anthropologist Lévi-Strauss too, that ultimately these stories help us figure out how our brains are wired.
MS. TIPPETT: Hmm, interesting. That’s very interesting. Yeah, because what is that line you said, that you know, what is it, that it trips pathology and violence trips things in our brain. And you know, you may have written that even 10 years ago, before we knew now how absolutely true that is. That things light up in our brains and that that being riveted is real, it’s physiologically real.
DR. TATAR: Right. And it’s great that you use that term lights up, something lights up in our brain. Because, you know, I mean just going back to the beauty and horror that we started with. There may be that darkness and terror, but there’s always in stories. There, you know, I guess in Kafka there may not be. But you know, there is this light and hope and this beauty and sparkle and glitter and dazzle. The hope of redemption.
MS. TIPPETT: And there’s something a little bit interesting to me too, in that we are riveted by all the drama, including the murder, the pathology, the darkness. I notice in myself —and I think this is a pretty common experience —that at some remove from these stories, and Harry Potter is another example of this and certainly these fairy tales —what you remember, I mean your primary sense of those stories is something quite lovely and magical in a good way. I remember taking my kids to see the Star Wars movies when they were really little. And I mean wars is in the title. But I didn’t remember.
DR. TATAR: Yeah, conflict. Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean but it’s incredibly, it’s war. I mean it starts out with all these really scary soldiers and it’s incredibly menacing and violent. And I had completely forgotten that. What I remembered was Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia and Obi-Wan Kenobi.
DR. TATAR: Yeah, you’re, I’m so fascinated by the question of what do we take from a childhood stories and bring into our adult lives? And at one point, I asked many of my students, what books from childhood they had brought with them to Harvard. And why? And what I was struck by was that often the students didn’t really remember much about the story, but there was something in the story —some little talisman. Some moment, a sentence, something a character does, a detail in a picture sometimes that they bonded with. It was almost like a little souvenir of the tale that they then carried with them into adult life. And you know, when they would think of that —everything with light.
We talked about brain sliding up that there was, and some deep connection with your childhood. And trying to figure that out was always such an interesting exercise. Because inevitably a story grew out of that souvenir. Not necessarily the story from childhood, but a new tale —their own story. And so, you know, again it became a kind of platform for figuring things out in their own lives —in their own daily lives.
[Music: “Kite Flying Society” by Mark Mothersbaugh]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett with On Being. Today with folklorist and Grimm Brothers scholar Maria Tatar —exploring what fairy tales work in us, and how we work with them.
[Music: “Kite Flying Society” by Mark Mothersbaugh]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m just following on some of the things we’ve been talking about also in terms of popular culture. I also do see some very gritty ways right now specific to our time I think. You know, television like The Walking Dead or Breaking Bad or The Hunger Games, you’ve talked about. There’s also this genre where there’s a really intense existential fear. And one of the themes in a lot of these is everything that we think has civilized us is taken away. Right. And that we are brutalized.
DR. TATAR: Right, right, yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: And, but I’ve read you feeling concerned also about some of that going to new extremes that might not be good for us.
DR. TATAR: You know, it’s hard, I don’t like to be the one preaching a sermon. Because I told you about my childhood experience. So I’m always reluctant to sort of be judgmental. But I must admit that Breaking Bad was my breaking point. That is, that there’s some —I remember just seeing —I won’t even describe it. But I thought, OK, that’s just too much for me.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, I feel that way too.
DR. TATAR: I have to turn that off, yeah. And Hunger Games I was startled by, because to me, the idea of a book about children killing children was just going to an extreme. It was violating a cultural taboo in a way that was difficult for me. But then there, I read the book and I watched the movie and I thought they were sensational and really fascinating. You know, and I didn’t —even though it had crossed a line, Suzanne Collins somehow seemed to have done it in a way that made sense for me. That you know, there seemed to be a real point to that. And you know, I’m not the one who is looking for a lesson. But you know, we do have a new culture.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. TATAR: You know, where there’s a lot more is permitted. We don’t protect our children as much as we once did. And I guess, you know, I do worry that children today they can see anything.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, and they know they’re not protected. Right. That’s…
DR. TATAR: Right, right, right. And…
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, here’s something you wrote: “This savagery we offer children today is more unforgiving than it once was. And the shadows are rarely banished by comic relief. Instead of stories about children who struggle to grow up, we have stories about children to struggle to survive.” But I think that’s a reality people, even children, are aware of.
DR. TATAR: It is. And I have to say that the minute you go into the protectionist mode and you say, you know, we need to draw a line and it shouldn’t be anything goes, you just get a lot blowback from people who say, oh you know, you don’t give children enough credit. They’re able to navigate this. And also we live in a violent world and therefore children should be, should know that, and all of that. But some of that —I think we haven’t been very thoughtful about figuring out, you know, where is that line? Where do we draw it? What responsibilities do we have as adults? But as I say, I always feel uncomfortable and maybe that’s why we’re not talking about it, because it makes us uncomfortable to be the censors or the editors or the ones who are saying, oh no, oh no, that’s too much.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, I remember when my son who’s now 14 —I think he was probably 12 or 13 when he was reading Hunger Games and really just inhaling it. And I asked him what it was about? I mean I heard other people tell me what it was about. And the first word that came out of his mouth is, it’s about poverty. You know, that’s not the word other people —I mean it wasn’t about children struggling.
DR. TATAR: Oh, that’s fascinating.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean it was about children struggling, but if this book has him thinking about poverty, well OK.
DR. TATAR: Oh yeah, because Katniss is —remember when the book starts out she’s skin and bones.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
DR. TATAR: And she’s, you know, she’s living in Panem, the country of bread, where there is no food. And she, you know, she becomes this extraordinary trickster figure, who has to survive in a time of famine and use her wits.
MS. TIPPETT: So just as we kind of draw to a close —I mean let’s talk about, you know, as you just mentioned, what would that look like to become more intentional, more curious in the first instance? And more intentional about understanding how these things shape us. And one thing I think you’ve written about very interestingly is, you know, you were already a scholar of these things. And then you had your own children. And you wrote about this realization that “the contact zone formed by bedtime reading was more complex and vexed than I had imagined.” What did that add, what does that add to your understanding of all this?
DR. TATAR: Oh, well I think first there was the shock of discovering that these stories were not so culturally innocent. But then the realization that, you know, there’s this wonderful opportunity. We were just talking about, you know, our responsibilities as adults. There’s this wonderful opportunity at nighttime, you know, when things have settled down, when it’s quiet, to tell these stories. And you know, to go back to our own childhoods in a way. I was always finding myself, you know, just remembering. Oh, it was as if these, you know, connections were being made in my brain. Remembering these stories and the impact they had had on me. So there’s this nostalgic element to it, along with the educational and psychological bonding and all of that. But then children use these stories to move forward, to learn more about the world, to become adult. They’re being educated.
So there you are, you know, together. And having the opportunity sometimes just to read the words on the page and, you know, have this experience together of the beauty of the language.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. TATAR: But then sometimes, you know, just to stop and explain things, improvise. It’s almost like it becomes a hypertext where, you know, you click on a word and you click and the two of you talk about this. Or, and then you know, to move along with these story —to improvise at times and to create your own story —to laugh about it, to worry about it, to provide comfort. And it’s just, you know, I look back on it and I think it was, you know, a formative experience for my children. And then just a, you know, intoxicating, not always though. I mean I admit that there were times when I wanted the one-minute bedtime story.
MS. TIPPETT: You know what, it’s like, “Again, again, again!” “No, I’m exhausted.”
DR. TATAR: And then the fact that, yeah, that the story it’s at bedtime. It doesn’t put the children to sleep. It often wakes them up.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. TATAR: And they get a second wind. So, but that’s great too, I think.
[Music: “Hydra – BREAK MUSIC” by Michael Brook]
MS. TIPPETT: I think at this point in my life, the thing that I’m most suspicious about, maybe what’s most comforting, the happily ever after. It seems in some ways to me like such a strange way to end stories which are often just full of how dark and hard and complex and bizarre life can be and even magnified. And it’s not even necessarily —maybe this is me being part of the Hunger Games culture. And I want to teach my children that everything ends happily ever after. And am I being too serious about this?
DR. TATAR: Well, no, and C.S. Lewis told us about what is it, the beating of the heart when he hears the happily ever after. And I suppose, you know, not all of our stories need to end that way. There, you know, there can be a mix of things. For the very young I think it’s just a great way to end a story.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. TATAR: Because it, you know, as human beings we just need hope. We need to know, yes, things can take a better turn. And I don’t think, you know, that utopian moment in the story —I don’t think it’s wrong, because there’re so many terrible things in the world. And so there’s so much misfortune that you have to in order to keep going —in order to combat that you have to know that there is —that things will turn out all right, even though we know, of course, that you know, as Lily Tomlin tells us, we’re all in this together. And none of us is getting out of it alive.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. TATAR: Which is precisely why I think we need to know, yes, it is worth going on, because there are people who will come after you. And so we need to know that if we’re courageous, if we use our wits, if we try to do the right thing —it will turn out all right. Even if it’s just the short run.
MS. TIPPETT: Exactly. It’ll turn out all right and then will start all over again.
DR. TATAR: And then it will get bad again.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. I mean something that you’ve written that’s helpful to me in this context is, you also have suggested that when we’re reading to children we don’t —we can have a conversational reading experience. And we don’t have to let it end at happily ever after. That you can muse in that kind of conversational storytelling in a way, in a sense there’s a version of being back around the fire where all of these fairy tales started with people batting these stories around.
DR. TATAR: Yeah. And also you’d never know how the story is going to land. When you had those fireside scenes —my bet is somebody told a story and then there was protest. You know, that’s not how it should end.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. TATAR: Or agreement or somebody said, I’m going to end this a little bit differently. So you know, we bring our own sensibilities to these stories. And that’s where the great conversation. It’s just sort of —it’s like going to see a great movie. You know, what happens? You know, the movie ends, the lights go on. Everybody’s silent for a few minutes as they exit. And then suddenly you hear the conversations. Everyone starts talking. And you know, you have to digest that story.
MS. TIPPETT: And in those conversations, the story keeps rolling, or it starts rolling around in the world.
DR. TATAR: It keeps it, yeah. Exactly.
MS. TIPPETT: I had not made the connection in between storytelling by the fire and Kindle as a name for our new reading device —one of our new reading devices. This is new.
DR. TATAR: Isn’t it wonderful.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, I hadn’t thought about it. Is that what they meant in naming it Kindle?
DR. TATAR: I think it —I don’t know whether they did this deliberately or whether it was just the subconscious at work. But the fact that when they called it Kindle, I was already astonished, but then when the new version is Kindle Fire. And my Kindle came in a box with the words “Once upon a time” on the side. I’m told that the new ones don’t come in that box. But there was even some fairy dust. Granted, it was a cardboard box and it wasn’t glitter. But there was, you know, there was some little sparkly elements there on the “Once upon a time.” So new media is always recycling old media in that fascinating way. And I think it’s just a testament to the fact that, you know, we may have new delivery systems, as the media gurus tell us, but the stories are still there. And they’re not going to go away.
We may lose the codex. I hope we never lose that. The book is such a wonderful invention that it’s great in so many ways. But the stories will not disappear.
[Audio Clip: Game of Thrones]
OLD NAN (PLAYED BY MARGARET JOHN): Don’t listen to it. Crows are all liars. I know a story about a crow.
BRAN STARK (PLAYED BY ISAAC HEMPSTEAD-WRIGHT): I hate your stories.
OLD NAN: I know a story about a boy who hated stories. I could tell you about Ser Duncan the Tall. Those were always your favorites.
BRAN STARK: Those weren’t my favorites. My favorites were the scary ones.
OLD NAN: Oh, my sweet summer child, what do you know about fear? Fear is for the winter when the snows fall a hundred feet deep. Fear is for the long night, when the sun hides for years and children are born and live and die all in darkness. That is the time for fear my little lord, when the White Walkers moved through the woods. Thousands of years ago there came a night that lasted a generation. Kings froze to death in their castles, same as the shepherds in their huts. And women smothered their babies rather than see them starve, and wept, and felt the tears freeze on their cheeks. So is this the sort of story that you like?
THEON GREYJOY (PLAYED BY ALFIE ALLEN): What are you telling him now?
OLD NAN: Only what the little lord wants to hear.
[Music: “Main Title” by Ramin Djawadi]
MS. TIPPETT: That’s from the modern-day adult fairy tale and HBO series Game of Thrones. Maria Tatar is John L. Loeb Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University, where she also chairs the Program in Folklore and Mythology. Her books include Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood and The Annotated Brothers Grimm.
[Music: “Main Title” by Ramin Djawadi]
MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again and share this show with Maria Tatar at onbeing.org. There is also now an On Being App — find it in the iTunes store, download it for free, and get every week’s episode as soon as it’s live. We’re going to refine and expand the App this coming year, and we will welcome your suggestions. And you can always follow everything we do through our weekly email newsletter. Just click the newsletter link on any page at onbeing.org.
[Music: “Triangles” by Rhian Sheehan]
On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Chris Jones, and Joshua Rae.