‘We have this golden network of stories that tells us … we are not all that different’

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Maria Tatar *71, the John L. Loeb Research Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures and of Folklore and Mythology at Harvard University, recently published Fairest of the Them All: Snow White and 21 Tales of Mothers and Daughters, which explores Disney’s Snow White and all of the Snow White-esque folklore found in cultures across the globe. Tatar shifted the focus of her scholarship to folklore in the 1980s and was one of the first American scholars to seriously study fairy tales and folklore. Maria discusses why the theme of mother-daughter jealousy has proved to be so universal, and why fairy tales are retold in new ways with each generation. 



CARRIE COMPTON: Hi, and welcome to the PAWcast, I’m Carrie Compton. Our guest this month is Maria Tatar, the John L. Loeb Research Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures and of Folklore and Mythology at Harvard University. Maria, who received her Ph.D. from Princeton in 1971, has recently published a book, Fairest of the Them All: Snow White and 21 Tales of Mothers and Daughters, which explores Disney’s Snow White and all of the Snow White-esque folklore found in cultures across the globe. Tatar shifted the focus of her scholarship to folklore in the 1980s and was one of the first American scholars to seriously study fairy tales and folklore. Maria discusses why the theme of mother-daughter jealousy has proved to be so universal, and why fairy tales are retold in new ways with each generation. Maria, welcome and thank you for joining us. 

MARIA TATAR: Thanks for inviting me.

CC: So, I’d like to start with a little bit of your personal story. Your parents immigrated from Hungary to Illinois after the second World War. Tell me about your childhood and what the circumstances were that brought them there.

MT: Well, I grew up in Highland Park, Illinois, and that was the town that we landed in after we received a travel visa from the United States. My parents were living in Germany, in post-war Germany for a while. My father was working as a doctor at an American medical base, and he finally got a visa in the early ’50s. And there we were, in the suburbs of Chicago, a place that was completely unfamiliar, strange, a new language — for me — and one of the things that I found in the attic of the house in which we were living was a volume of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales

MT: It was in German, and that was a language — when I found it — that was a language that was gradually slipping away from me as I assimilated, as I integrated, went to kindergarten, learned English, still spoke Hungarian at home. And there was this extraordinary volume in Gothic print. And my sister, who was two years older than I was, started reading me stories from this book. She read the stories in English, though, and she sort of made them up based on the illustrations. So, that was really my first encounter with the Grimms’ Fairy Tales. And then, you know, it was the ’50s. We were all growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust, and the book that really was transformative for me, that changed my life, was The Diary of a Young Girl, the story of Anne Frank. And how she became a writer and her tragic death in a concentration camp. And there’s something about that that moved me, and my entire generation deeply. And the question that came to me later in high school and in college was, “How can this country that, you know, had beautiful music, had fostered arts, literature — at an extraordinary level — have descended into such depths of madness and cruelty?”  Cruelty, I think that was what really struck me about the diary. It seemed to be unimaginable that someone would march Anne Frank and her family off to a concentration camp. So, I think that really directed me toward the study of the German language, which I relearned. And also German literature and German culture in general.

CC: As you said you studied German at Denison College and then again at Princeton, where you received your Ph.D. And so, you were out in the workforce for a few years there before you discovered the study of folklore. Those Grimm Brothers sort of came back for a reprisal for you. Talk about what sparked that. 

MT: Well, it’s interesting because in graduate school my attention turned towards high literature — the elite culture — and I was fascinated by Kafka, by Thomas Mann. And by Hermann Hesse, who was really influential back in those days in the ’60s in particular. And it was only in the ’80s when I started reading fairy tales to my children, that my interest in the Grimms was revived. Because graduate programs weren’t really interested in, say, a dissertation on the Brothers Grimm. That seemed to be children’s literature, fairy tales — they were dismissed as stories that really weren’t worth paying much attention to. The revival of my interest in fairy tales coincided, of course, also with the publication of Bruno Bettelheim’s extraordinary Uses of Enchantment, which basically sent a message to parents saying, yes these fairy tales are cruel, they’re violent and scary, but children need these fairy tales because they need to work through some of their anxieties, their fears, their conflicted emotions and all of that. So, these are stories that can be used to process all kinds of fears. And, Bettelheim had this wonderfully optimistic view about fairy tales, and it’s you read them, you’re disturbed, you’re anxious, and you come out at the other end — and not only do the figures in the fairy tale live happily after, but so do you, because you’re no longer plagued by any kind of neurosis at all. And I think these days we see the stories as more complicated, that is, they are the simple expression of complex thought — of incredibly complicated thought. And to me, the marvel, the magic of the fairy tale, is that it gets us talking. It takes up all of these primal issues, family conflicts, the worst sorts of toxic feelings, and it tells us these are a part of “once upon a time.” They’re exaggerated and enlarged, so you don’t have to be scared to read these stories because this is a safe space to work through some of these conflicts and emotions. And you may not come out of the other end of things feeling, you know, healthy and renewed, and purged of all of these toxic emotions. But you will be able to talk, you’ll be able to break the silence. You will be able to communicate what is bothering you. And as we know that is a supremely important sea change that is moving from silence to the ability to talk.

CC: And so, what was your professional switch like then, when you decided to start to dig deeper into that. And how did academia take that shift?

MT: Well, there was a kind of compulsion on my part to figure out these stories. They are kind of a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. They are weird. They’re wired for weirdness. They have magic in them, they have high coefficients of weirdness. And so, I was driven — I fortunately had tenure, thus I could not be fired — but to me it didn’t really matter what my colleagues thought. And I remember giving one colleague a copy of The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales, and they gave me this sort of quizzical look, and then said nothing — said nothing at all. And it was at that moment that I realized, you know, you don’t need validation from your colleagues. You just need to do what you think is right, what you think is important. And to me, going out and talking to other people about these stories — was again — transformative, because I realized, you know, people were so eager to talk about how these stories have changed — maybe not changed their lives necessarily, but had had an impact, a powerful impact on them. So, I was just so startled by the fact that people sat up and paid attention to these — again these very simple stories that were seen as part of childhood that were dismissed as childhood readings, as confabulations — and suddenly they were being taken seriously. 

CC: How has the discipline come along from then until now? I believe you shifted focus in the 80’s, correct?

MT: That’s right, yes. I think that disciplines have changed so dramatically. When I was in graduate school not only were the Brothers Grimm taboo, but studying the Holocaust was considered taboo. 

CC: Really?

MT: That if you only — isn’t that extraordinary? There were no courses on the Holocaust, and there was a sense that you wanted to focus on the good, the true, and the beautiful. High art. Günter, Scheuer, Thomas Mann, Kafka — who was disturbing, but still true in many ways and, you know, he sort of fit in with existential crises and that kind of thing. So, there had been this shift toward — I think part of it had to do with the fact that so many German refugees that had come to the United States became professors at colleges and didn’t want to revisit the terrible war years and all of the destructive things that had happened in the ’30s and ’40s. So, I was over-determined in many ways. Over the course of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s things began to open up. Not only did disciplines change, but disciplinary boundaries. They didn’t melt away to be sure, but they certainly became more fluid. And suddenly it was possible to reinvent yourself and to go from, say, German Studies to German Folklore. And the new shift I think has come with the move toward going global — that is, being able to look at folklore not just in Germany or in the United States, or in European countries, but to think about the stories in a broader context. And for folklore, this has been game-changing because suddenly we discovered that a story like Snow White is told not just in Germany, it was not just a film made in the United States by Disney, but it’s a tale that is found all over the world. Not as Snow White, to be sure, but as the beautiful girl. So, this shift toward the global — of course, there are losses there too, because once you go global, you give up the idea that you can master the language of the culture. There are only so many languages, as I quickly found out in the last 10 years. Your capacity to learn new languages diminishes over time, so my childhood ambitions of learning every language possible have now been shattered. But this shift to the global, I think, is really important in terms of showing also how we are all connected. That there is something at our core, something fundamental there that links us to every other person on the planet. And so, I love the fact that we have this golden network of stories that tells us, you know, we can really communicate to each other, we can talk to each other. We are not all that different. 

CC: Mm-hmm, yeah. In your book, I thought that one of the interesting discussions that you get into was the recent proliferation of recycled or rebooted fairy tales such as ABC’s Once Upon a Time series, or spinoff movies like Maleficent. Why do you think there’s such a deep collective thirst for these familiar tales to be told and re-told again. 

MT: It’s fascinating to me, because I think part of the renewed interest in fairy tales has to do with a need for comfort reading. A need to go back to basics in a way. Even in some cases to return to our own childhoods and see how we process these stories. But I think it also has to do with a kind of sea change. Bettelheim started it with his book on The Uses of Enchantment when he said, “These stories are worth taking seriously. They’re not trivial. And you as parents need to read them and think about their importance and think about how they mattered to you.” So, what happened after Bettelheim was that Hollywood sat up and paid attention. And fairy tales had always been recycled in cinema — that is, I once wrote a book about Bluebeard, and it was astonishing to me how many movies had been made in the ’40s and ’50s that took up the Bluebeard story. The husband, a serial murderer, the threatened wife, the imperiled wife. Film noir has it, all the secrets beyond the door, Rebecca — all of these films. Hitchcock loved the Bluebeard theme and took it up in Spellbound and Suspicion.

So, Hollywood began taking an interest — as I said — as it’d always been invested in these stories. But suddenly they name the stories. It became Snow White and not just a “Snow White-type story,” it became Cinderella and not just a rags-to-riches, rise to fame and fortune. There were all of these Cinderella stories, Pretty WomanWorking Girl, which gave us this trajectory of the young ingenue, the naive woman who then finds her prince and lives happily ever after. But as you began to get films like Snow White and the Huntsman, and oddly Disney, who had been very faithful to the fairy tales, started changing them, mixing them up and so, Disney’s Rapunzel story is not Rapunzel, but Tangled. And a slightly different take. I love the fact that Disney has also begun to understand the importance of going global, of looking at these stories and realizing you don’t have to be faithful to the so-called original — there never really was an original — but Disney thought of the Grimms as having the original of Snow White, of Perrault as having the original of Cinderella. And now we don’t have to stay faithful to the letter of the story, we can change it, we can make it our own. We can reinvent it. So, think of something like Frozen. There’s no resemblance to Andersen’s The Snow Queen, it is so different. It’s not about a boy and a girl and the girl’s rescue of the boy, but it’s about two sisters and the way that their love for each other is renewed, and it’s about friendship, it’s about — Frozen 2 is about all kinds of environmental issues, which are of course pressing matters for us. So, Disney now seems to be the expert in reanimating the stories by changing them. 

CC: Yeah. Perfect segue for my next question. You have prolonged discussion in the book about Disney’s 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Talk about the ways in which Grimms’ version was slightly and very meaningfully tweaked by Disney in that particular rendering. 

MT: So, Disney spent many years working through the Snow White story. He came upon it, and at first you know, he thought of it as a film really about the Wicked Witch, rather than Snow White — so how did he change it? There are a number of subtle changes, and one of them is that we have a Snow White who is not as “white as snow” but has skin white as snow. So suddenly he introduced this element to which we, being racially sensitive, as we are, see as a kind of red flag. You know, what about this white as snow — why is fairness and beauty connected to white skin? So, I think today when we look at Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, we see it very differently from the audiences that watched it in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s. 

CC: Yeah, you even said that the movie was celebrated among Nazis at the time as well, that it was sort of a dog whistle for what they were trying to propagate in the country as well.

MT: Dog whistle is exactly right. I mean, imagine Goebbels being completely enamored of this film — with an Aryan figure really, a Nordic princess — a woman who becomes a Nordic princess. So, Goebbels loved the film, and he introduced Hitler to it, who was also a huge fan of it. And Goebbels just wished that he could inspire German directors to make films that were as powerful and as lively and as entertaining and as attractive as a Disney film. 

CC: Do you know whether or not that anecdote ever made its way back to Walt Disney, and if it did, what his reaction was? 

MT: That is a fascinating question and — he had to have been aware of it. As for his reaction, I doubt that he would’ve been stupid enough to put anything into print, but yes, that would be something for the historians — the archival historians to dig into.

CC: Yes. So, the main thrust of your book is to examine the ways that cultures across the globe have played upon the “beautiful girl” story as you mentioned. It’s always a beautiful girl’s undoing by a mother figure’s uncontrollable jealousy. So, talk about the mother-daughter theme, and why you think that this theme proved to be as universal as it has been. 

MT: One of the reasons many people object to fairy tales today is that women are demonized in them — and in particular, stepmothers. So, Snow White, there’s a story. What is at its core? The hatred of a mother for her daughter, rivalry with her, she hates her, and why? Because she’s beautiful. And so, that kind of toxic jealousy — again, as I mentioned earlier, you know, these fairy tales, what fairy tales do is enlarge, they magnify. They exaggerate. So, while there may be a certain amount of mother-daughter rivalry in all families, you know, unconscious. You know, I always ask myself, “Am I really ever jealous of my daughter?” and you know, I say to myself, “No, I’m not. I’m happy. She’s beautiful — when she’s attractive, I’m thrilled.” But probably deep down somewhere, there might be a little bit of anxiety about aging. I am no longer like that, and now it’s her turn. And the story is about generational renewal, about change and all of those things. So, the fairy tale takes this jealousy, which can range tremendously in real life, and makes it so powerful that it overwhelms the stepmother, and she is determined to get this girl out of her life. So, the story begins with family matters, but it’s bigger than that really, because it’s also about death and resurrection, and animation. Not just seasonal, generational renewal, but is it possible that love can be stronger than death? And, what about the power of love? We have the power of hatred anchoring the story on one end, and the power of love anchoring it on the other. Is love strong enough to overcome death? Probably not, but — I mean we know it does not, but love is transformative. And it animates. We all know, when you fall in love the world changes. It becomes brighter, more beautiful, more bold, and you think differently, you feel differently, so, I think the story connects also with that particular affect in powerful ways. 

CC: I also found it really curious — maybe naively so — that beauty had such a staying, organizing principle within all of the stories. I think you said one version of Snow White in Greek was recorded around the first century of the Common Era. This is much more before we have a standard notion of beauty, and yet beauty is catapulting characters to act in all of these very strange ways.

MT: Well, I think that that’s precisely it. That beauty in the fairy tale is abstract. We rarely get a description of what a beautiful girl looks like. We do, it’s true, in the Grimms’ Fairy tale, there’s a black, red, and white, but those are the primal colors of fairy tales. You can find them in so many different stories, they’re mixed up and rejiggered. And then, if you take the story of Snow White, you find many cultures — skin color is irrelevant, hair color is irrelevant, we just know that she’s beautiful. And that’s what I love about fairy tales is, you have to fill in the details. You create, you construct the beauty. Now a second matter has to do with the fact that fairy tales are all surfaces. You never get inside the minds of characters. You don’t know what they’re thinking. If they sit down and cry, you know that they’re sad. And so, beauty is fetishized because that is the way to represent goodness and virtue. And so, when a character is beautiful — now this is not true 100 percent of the time, but is often true that young, innocent, and beautiful translates into good, virtuous, and triumphing in the end. It was interesting that you mentioned the Greek story about Marula and — remember the Apple of Discord. That was what started the Trojan War — a beauty contest. In the beginning, there was the Apple of Discord, which the goddesses are fighting over, and we have the judgement of Paris. So, it’s interesting how, you know, this story that we think of as a simple fairy tale, if we start to take it apart, if we start to unpack it, we see that what it’s done is miraculously take bits and pieces from other epics, myths, sacred stories, fairy tales — from the cauldron of story — and mix it up in that brew that is simmering, that has been simmering over a period of time and then created a new story. 

CC: So, in your book, you compile 21 tales of Snow White from across the globe. I’m curious if you came upon any revelations just sitting down and reading them one by one.

MT: Well, I think the sense of wonder, astonishment, excitement, joy, because I was hoping that it would not be the same story over and over again — and in fact, you know, there’s a huge range, so that in Switzerland you get a story about seven men living in a cottage. Snow White comes knocking at the door, they let her in, let her spend the night and then an old woman comes knocking at the door. Snow White refuses her hospitality, and the woman then goes and hires a hitman in the village, I think a couple of hitmen. This is a very short story, so I don’t think I need to give a spoiler alert. They come and they kill the dwarves, and they bury them in the yard, and Snow White — who knows what happened to her, but she was never heard from again. So, you know, suddenly it becomes a lesson about hospitality, about the importance of being kind to strangers and offering them a bed for the night. And then I was also surprised by the number of ways in which Snow White is rescued. Sometimes a bone is pulled from her body. Sometimes slippers are taken off her feet. Sometimes a pin is taken from under her skin. So, all of these different ways of reviving her — and you know that set me thinking, you know, maybe it’s not just that this story travelled from one country to another, but that there is something so fundamental about the mother-daughter rivalry. And these were, after all, stories too that were told by women to other women — and again a way of working out conflicts, of talking about things that were bothering you. So maybe this is just a story that has no fixed origin in one place or another, but it just was something that people had to work through in a symbolic manner. Not in a — this happened, this is not gossip, this is not a true story, this is “once upon a time,” it happened a long time ago. It has nothing to do with the here and now. So, we can make up these crazy, sensational, terrible things and still, you know, find a happily ever after. 

CC: I think that’s a great place to wrap up. Thank you so much for joining me today, Maria.

MT: Thanks for inviting me, great to talk to you.