Fairy tale expert Maria Tater '67 on how some of the world's oldest stories help us navigate modern life.
It’s a few days before Christmas and Maria Tatar ’67 is trekking though the remnants of New England’s latest snowstorm and into the Harvard Book Store to show me “the network”.
The bookstore looks exactly like what you’d expect Harvard Book Store to look like, with its tall wooden ladders and hushed patrons in wool coats. Tatar, a professor of German literature at Harvard and an expert in fairy tales, stands in front of a table full of new releases that could broadly fit into the young adult category. She starts to peruse, and picks up a few, each either some version of a fairy tale or a modern permutation of a classic. In front of us is the latest book by Rick Riordan, author of the Percy Jackson series, whose Greek mythology-meets-children’s-adventure tales ascended The New York Times bestseller list and, in their eventual film forms, earned more than $400 million at the box office. A shelf over is a book called Rapunzel’s Revenge, a modernized graphic novel takeoff on the Grimms’ classic, whose cover shows the heroine in an Indiana Jones-like pose, brandishing her long braided red hair as a whip. Right next to it, another graphic novel, this one based on a classic Hungarian folk tale. On the shelves behind the table, there’s a book based on Peter Pan characters.
This is the network—a web of stories that have survived the journey from ancient fireside tales to today’s colorful stacks and digital pixels. And the network is growing. Even if Tatar weren’t personally leading me through it, book by book, evidence of the fairy tale revival is impossible to miss. The week we meet, Disney’s Frozen—based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen—tops the box office. In the past two years, there have been several major motion picture remakes of fairy tales, notably Jack the Giant Slayer (based on “Jack and the Beanstalk”), Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (from “Hansel and Gretel”), and Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror, Mirror (both based on “Snow White”). On the small screen, the ABC series Once Upon a Time, in which doubles of famous fairy tale characters roam the real world, is now in its third season. Scarlet, a sci-fi take on “Little Red Riding Hood,” spent several weeks on The New York Times young adult bestseller list.
“I try to keep my finger on the fairy tale pulse,” Tatar says, looking at the shelves with a sigh. But the volume and velocity of the revival has simply become too much to track. Something very strong is pulling us back to the fire.
“When Maria Tatar was very young, her older sister read her a book with many beautiful pictures.”
When Maria Tatar was very young, her older sister read her a book with many beautiful pictures. Maria could not understand any of the words because they were written in a language spoken in a faraway land. But the drawings cast a spell over her.
Tatar’s family left Hungary and settled in Highland Park, just outside Chicago, when she was five years old. “It was a rather dull suburb,” says Tatar. “Oddly, for me, the library was where the action was.” There were the books, with their new exciting ideas, and even the transgressive option of tiptoeing out of the children’s section to hide in a corner and read books in the adult section.
The German-language book her sister had read to her was a collection of fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, and, in addition to introducing her to the power of books and literature in general, it also foretold her career in German studies. “I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust,” she says. But to Tatar, its horrors collided with the beauty of all the creative works produced in the country, notably by the likes of Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, George Grosz, and Otto Dix. “The mix of the political pathology of the culture and what it produced in aesthetic terms seemed such a paradox to me.” She studied German at Denison and later earned a Ph.D. at Princeton in 1971, joining the faculty at Harvard shortly thereafter.
After many years, Maria forgot about the book with the beautiful pictures. But one day, when Maria had children of her own, she decided to read it to them, and again she fell under its spell.
It wasn’t until the early 1980s that she rediscovered the Grimm fairy tales, pulling it out one night as one of her kids’ bedtime story selections. “I remember reading them ‘The Juniper Tree’—and heavily editing it as I went along.” (The story contains, among other things, an evil stepmother who beheads her stepson and cooks him in a stew served to his father.) “And I started wondering, ‘Why is it that I had a 15-page, single-spaced reading list in graduate school and the Grimms weren’t on it?’” She released her first book on the subject, The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales—a scholarly reconsideration of the tales in their original, unedited state—in 1987.
“Maria told everyone she could about the book’s powers.”
Maria told everyone she could about the book’s powers. But some of the village elders did not think the stories were very magical at all. They thought they were silly pursuits, fit only for children. Nevertheless, the stories’ spell over Maria only grew stronger.
When she started writing about fairy tales, her academic colleagues were perplexed. “No one talked about the Grimms as collectors. Fairy tales were told by Disney. They were cartoons. They were for children. It was fun to go watch them with your kids, but you’d never dream of trying to analyze them,” she says. “Folklore wasn’t even marginalized; it wasn’t on the periphery. It just wasn’t done.” But she pushed on, hooked by the universal appeal of the work. Now, instead of spending six months writing a paper on an arcane topic of interest to a half dozen other colleagues, Tatar’s new line of inquiry seemed to be an instant conversation-starter. “Part of the incentive was satisfying my curiosity about these stories, but a large part of the thrill came from the fact that everyone connected with this material. They knew ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ and they had questions about it.”
But fairy tales, Tatar says, had to labor through the same quest for academic acceptance as pursuits like film studies. “It’s hard to imagine now that at one time, film studies was a field that was considered not quite academically legit,” she says. “Now, you’d be hard pressed to find a liberal arts curriculum without it.” Children’s literature, she says, is on the same trajectory.
And the field does not lack academic rigor. Tatar has had to reinvent herself as a folklorist, studying not only the stories but also the cultures that gave birth to them. Her research and teaching also tap into a number of different disciplines to give the stories full context. “You may need the tools of the folklorist, but you need help from the historians, the anthropologists, the philosophers,” says Tatar. “It just takes down all of these disciplinary barriers.”
Still, when she began to teach the subject after 10 years of research and writing, her courses often were presumed— because of the subject matter—to be relatively easy. The Harvard administration even advised her that classes like “Fairy Tales, Children’s Literature, and the Construction of Childhood” needed to go heavy on workload to keep away “the bottom feeders.”
“Legitimacy,” Tatar says, “came gradually and imperceptibly.”
“The return to fairy tales is a natural response to our collective cultural anxieties about the future.”
After many years, the book with beautiful pictures began to appear in many new places, read by many new people. Its spell, it seemed, had been cast afar.
The revelation that fairy tales were undergoing a modern revival came to Tatar via a New York City bus. Tatar was crossing a street in Manhattan, when a giant ad for the NBC drama Grimm, which debuted in 2011, rolled in front of her. (The series, though, a kind of mythological cop drama, has only a loose connection with the original Grimm tales.) “It was one of those moments when you realized that fairy tales had made a breakthrough,” says Tatar. And this breakthrough has made it impossible to keep up with the number of new permutations in popular culture, appearing everywhere from soda ads to Shrek. “You could get a fix on it back in the 1980s.” Now, whenever she gives a talk, audience members offer many new examples of recycled fairy tales to add to her growing list.
Why now? What is it about modern life that has sent us back to these tales? On a practical level, says Tatar, our attention spans are shorter and there is a bias in favor of more compact and melodramatic narratives, a trend visible everywhere from Buzzfeed to Twitter. “People are still reading War and Peace,” says Tatar, “but we like our entertainments in smaller doses these days, doses that pack a punch. I used to teach long novels. I don’t anymore.”
But there is something larger about our culture that Tatar thinks is driving this return to the classic: the technological revolution.
“The Industrial Revolution produced dislocation and change, but it took decades and was nothing like what we face now. Things that were once rock-solid have just imploded almost overnight. Look what’s happened to travel agencies, bookstores, or journalism.” As if anyone needed evidence of its decreased market value, the local paper, The Boston Globe, was sold (along with the nearby Worcester Telegram & Gazette) for $70 million in 2013, two decades after being purchased for $1.1 billion. Plus, Tatar says, the Internet and cable news now offer a fuller picture of the world’s dangers. It’s the kind of thing, Tatar says, that has put our collective nerves on edge.
The return to fairy tales is a natural response to our collective cultural anxieties about the future, she says, because they allow us to employ their villains as proxies for all kinds of reallife horrors and menaces. “We use stories not just for comfort and consolation, but to explore darkness and to give body to those anxieties,” she says. “Those monsters are our own dark doubles—all the scary things that we need to talk about.”
But more than anything else, she says, the stories fight the tech revolution’s velocity. “Storytelling slows us down,” says Tatar. “It is a counterforce to the speed.” Culture has become disposable; everything seems ephemeral and without traction.
But the classic fairy tales? Those stories honed for hundreds of years among fireside crowds that are likely to offer an audience the best possible plots and shout down weak narratives? These are no ordinary tales—they are what Tatar’s Harvard colleague and superstar biologist E.O. Wilson argues is a fundamental human element. As a species, we had the advantage of building fires, and we sat around those fires telling stories and building a kind of social intelligence that came to define humanity. And in an era of self-driving cars and bionic implants, we want to return to these formative human stories to remind ourselves of what makes us human.
It’s an experience no longer limited by geography, says Tatar. Fairy tales belong to a global storytelling culture. They form an almost universal canon, with each culture adding its own special ingredients and flavors to the cauldron of story. The trickster Anansi reinvents himself in the United States; Cinderella is at home in nearly every culture; and Little Red Riding Hood roams woods, plains, and deserts.
So those stories? They stick.
You’ll Know Them When You See Them
Maria Tatar has become so familiar with fairy tale characters through her work that it’s easy to imagine them walking among us in modern times. Here, according to Tatar, are the six fairy tale characters you’re likely to meet in everyday life.
by Maria Tatar ’67
Shy and introverted, but when push comes to shove, she gets the job done. Has a sweet tooth that is out of control, but she still looks like she needs a sandwich. Hates cooking. Very loyal with strong family ties. Has read The Hunger Games and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at least 10 times and is a big fan of Jennifer Lawrence and Rooney Mara.
Sweet guy who is always ready to lend a helping hand. Tends to overshare and can become clingy at times. Willing to change for the right woman. Big supporter of sustainability movements and ecofriendly solutions.
You know her. Ben Bernanke has a big crush on her, as does almost every economist. She may be high-maintenance, but she’s the gal who knows exactly what she wants and, for her, size does matter. Runs several marathons a year and is training for a triathlon.
Prankster who is full of himself. Close to setting Guinness world records on pizza consumption, burgers, and shakes. Hard to tell when he is serious, when he is joking—has a poker face. Women seem to love him, but he can be toxic dating material.
Never gives out his real name on a first date. Very secretive, especially about why he always looks exhausted—claims to be working nights at some kind of dull job. Don’t make any bets with this guy—he always has an angle.
Still living in his mother’s basement, even though he’s loaded. Distinctly metrosexual but talks constantly about returning to the land—growing things, raising chickens, milking cows. Hobbies include rock climbing and selling stuff on eBay.
As we continue to scan the bookstore, Tatar finds a copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll. “Alice is the world’s greatest book. It’s one of the deepest books. It’s a great example of how something that is seen as a children’s book is really for everybody. Multigenerational.”
Which is not the way fairy tales started, at least not the Grimm tales. The stories that brothers Wilhelm and Jacob collected were bawdy, violent, and distinctly adult. But as the stories “left the fireside and migrated to the nursery,” they’ve been sanitized along the way. Tatar appreciates the Disney movies for keeping the stories alive, and even applauds Disney’s Snow White. “It’s really scary. The allegory of aging? There’s a lot of adult stuff in there. But the danger of Disney is that it gives us a corporate, top-down fairy tale. And people grew up thinking Disney created it, and we shouldn’t tamper with it.”
While Tatar doesn’t think we should be reading to 5-year olds the kind of stories Germans used to entertain around the fire, she maintains that stories that challenge children can be really useful. Like adults, children can use the symbolic stories to navigate real life. And the stories naturally spawn curiosity. She uses The Invention of Hugo Cabret—a book about French film pioneer Georges Méliès, which later became the Scorsese film Hugo—as an example. “When you get to the end of that book, you find that there are all of these websites about Méliès, and it really tries to help you understand beyond the adventure. I think it is wonderful to pull children into strange new worlds, and not so much give them the tools to navigate them, but get them to the point where they want to learn more.”
At a shelf near the front of the store, we come upon one of Tatar’s own books, The Annotated Peter Pan, one of four similarly footnoted fairy tale volumes she’s published in recent years. The book is prominently displayed, sitting right next to the latest release by Harvard professor and famed black history scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. It is a notable bit of coincidence: Tatar’s latest research project is on African-American folk tales, and she hopes to partner with Gates for a book on the subject. For her, it means tapping into a new part of the network. (And, in the near term, even using Rosetta Stone to learn Swahili.) “Why are we only reading the Grimms and recycling Hans Christian Andersen?” she says. “What about this folklore have we developed in our own country?”
Near the end of our visit, she picks up a book by Soman Chainani called The School for Good and Evil. “He took freshman seminar with me 15 years ago,” says Tatar, smiling. Her praise for the book is quoted on the back cover: Chainani takes the racing energy of Roald Dahl’s language and combines it with the existential intensity of J.K. Rowling’s plots to create his own universe. “It’s going to be made into a film. It’s a brilliant book!” She remembers Chainani as a dedicated student, astounded that Tatar’s course even existed, and even more surprised that he could write a paper deconstructing the female villains in Disney films. Now, here he is, a decade and a half later, with a fantasy book that spent several weeks on the Times bestseller list, two more books under contract, and a seven-figure movie deal from Universal pictures.
And just like that, the network spawns a new branch.
Dan Morrell is a freelance writer living in Boston. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Fast Company, Slate, and The Boston Globe Magazine.