Off With Their Heads!

off with their headsI found out about Maria Tatar’s book, Off With Their Heads! Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood over on Eva’s blog. I love fairy tales, folk tales, and ballads, and the various retellings of them that crop up in literature, so this book — a lively and readable scholarly examination of cultural and didactic agendas in fairy tales as they are told and re-told in various cultural contexts — was right up my alley.

Tatar’s main contention is one that should seem obvious on the face of it, but deserves interpretation and examination: fairy tales are invented, told, collected, written and re-written, sold, and bought by adults, not by children. They may be aimed at children, usually for didactic purposes, but the main point of view is seldom a child’s. Those didactic purposes, however, vary tremendously from one cultural context to another. The lessons adults wanted children to learn in the 18th century were not those being learned in the late 19th century, and they are certainly not the lessons most parents want their children to learn now, in the 21st century. So why are we still reading our children fairy tales that were created with the same cultural agenda that existed two hundred years ago or more?

Tatar begins with a preface that coolly takes apart Bruno Bettelheim’s 1976 The Uses of Enchantment, a popular Freudian interpretation of fairy tales that became one of the foundational texts of the discipline. She points out that because of his Freudian interpretations, Bettelheim consistently makes children the villains of fairy tales, even when this goes directly against textual evidence: Hansel and Gretel, for instance, are accused of voracious oral greed that puts their parents in danger. After they are satisfied, they can live at peace with their parents. This, of course, does not correspond with a story in which the children live in hunger and want, nearly starve to death in a forest, and finally rejoin their father alone — the evil stepmother having died. Throughout the book, Tatar points out the many (and extremely gruesome) ways in which children and women are not villains but victims, and what cultural conclusions we may draw from this fact.

There are many fascinating chapters in this book, including “‘Teaching them a Lesson’: The Pedagogy of Fear in Fairy Tales.” Here, Tatar went into great detail about cautionary tales of the 19th century, some of which were so frightening they made my blood run cold.

The result could be gratuitous cruelty, as in the case of Mrs. W.K. Clifford’s Anyhow Stories (1882), in which a “wild woman” tempts two small children to engage in ever more naughty deeds until finally their mother can bear it no longer and turns over her children and her home to a woman with glass eyes and a wooden tail. The children flee into the woods. “They are there still, my children,” Mrs. Clifford solemnly concludes. “Now and then… [they] creep up near to the home in which they were once so happy, and with beating hearts they watch and listen; sometimes a blinding flash comes through the window, and they know it is the light from the new mother’s glass eyes, or they hear a strange muffled noise, and they know it is the sound of the wooden tail as she drags it along the floor.”

 

The new mother. Gah!

One of the most interesting themes Tatar explores is the imbalance between the punishment for a bad father and a bad mother (or mother-figure.) Take the German fairy tale, “Allerleirauh,” one variant of a tale type in which the father insists on marrying his daughter. The daughter, horrified and heartbroken, escapes into the woods, dresses in a thousand furs, is captured, and serves unknown in the kitchen, doing the most disagreeable work. When she finally marries the prince, she and her new husband live happily ever after — with her father. Something very similar happens to the father in “Beauty and the Beast,” who despite all his protestations does actually allow his daughter to marry an animal. On the other hand, when Cinderella’s stepmother, or Snow White’s, drive them out of their rightful place, those mothers or mother-figures are cruelly punished: made to dance in red-hot shoes, rolled in nail-spiked barrels, dismembered. Bad fathers may sometimes be forgiven; bad mothers never.

This book was marvelous. It does real analysis, but is consistently readable, and relevant both to the text and to its origins, its collectors, and its proponents. Her conclusion — that as we retell fairy tales, we must also reinvent them in our own cultural context, as people have been doing for centuries — is entirely convincing. Much of my own scholarly work has to do with the reproduction and reappropriation of national myth in times of crisis, such as Arthurian retellings popping up in time of war; I think fairy tales are a fascinating addition to this project, and much more charming besides.

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11 Responses to Off With Their Heads!

  1. vicki (skiourophile / bibliolathas) says:

    Oh, must read! I work on fable (and other sort of ancient ‘popular’ literature), which is also extremely adaptable to cultural contextual shifts. This sounds excellent.

    • Jenny says:

      I’d love to hear more about your work! That sounds absolutely fascinating. I think this was really good and would be quite relevant.

  2. gaskella says:

    Maria Tatar is a modern champion in the world of writing about fairy tales isn’t she? I own a couple of her books, but have only dipped into them so far.

    • Jenny says:

      I’ll definitely be getting The Enchanted Hunters next. I thought this one was terrific. I hope there’s still room for more fairy tale writing out there, though! It definitely sparked some thoughts for me.

  3. Alex says:

    I definitely need a copy of this. Many of the students I taught worked in this area and additional view points are always welcome.

  4. I adore this book. It was a text in one of my graduate school classes, and I’ll never get rid of it!

  5. I love Maria Tatar! I read a different one of her books — I too was put onto her by Eva! — and thought it was just marvelous.

    • Wait, no, I am the worst, I have her mixed up with Marina Warner. Who is also great! And Maria Tatar I have not read yet but I will and I’m confident I will love her. And now I feel sheepish for posting that comment so hastily while thinking about completely the wrong writer.

      • Jenny says:

        I just looked up Marina Warner and she looks fantastic. What did you read by her? She’s written about a million books and I’m not sure where to start.

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