Interview with Maria Tatar from Kim Hill, Saturday Morning, RNZ, 2011

Maria Tatar chairs the Program in Folklore and Mythology at Harvard University, where she teaches courses in German Studies, Folklore, and Children’s Literature.

 

Maria Tatar is the author of Enchanted Hunters: The power of stories in childhood. ‘Enchanted Hunters’ is the name of the hotel in Lolita where Humbert Humbert does the bad thing. An edgy title was chosen to reapprpriate that title for children because it describes so well what happens to them when they read. Children fall under a spell when they’re reading but they are also active seekers of meaning, looking for knowledge, trying to make sense of a world in which there is pain and violence and death.

Most of the old stories did have happy endings. The Hans Christian Andersen tales are sadistic, and those were inspired by stories told in spinning rooms where he had been eavesdropping. The Little Match Girl does have a happy ending in that the little girl goes to heaven and meets her grandmother, but the beauty of the fairytale in the oral storytelling tradition is that the child survives. The child is put into the worst scenario possible, with villains, treachery, danger out in the world, and yet like Little Red Riding Hood, if you use your wits and are courageous, you can survive.

In the Grimms’ version of Little Red Riding Hood you may say the girl needs the hunter, but in the early versions recorded in 19th C France, LRRH outwits the wolf, managing to escape on her own.

Classic tales are so elastic, shapeshifting into new versions of themselves. They are symptomatic of a culture, and take up issues that are profoundly important to us: Innocence and seduction in LRRH, Monstrosity and Compassion in Beauty And The Beast. They help us work through issues, tapping right into our cultural anxieties.

When did we start the tradition and practice of the bedtime story? This isn’t easy to document. Little Women seems to have the first scene of reading where parents argue about what to do at bedtime — force the child to go to sleep or coddle the child by reading to them.

Peter Pan is another foundational story and happens at night-time. This can be terrifying for children. The Lost Boys who have fallen out of their prams are a terrifying concept for a child. Where’s the comfort in all that? The Darling children return home. Maybe this is more comforting for adult readers, because we learn that children always have this place for magic and enchantment. Children are sensation seekers so they do need to be scared at times to find out what will happen to me if I am taken away, if I go to another scary place. Above all, how do I get back home? Is there a way to get back home?

Now I lay me down to sleep… This bedtime prayer is really quite dark. (If I should die before I wake…) That’s the time that a child’s thoughts turn.

Charlotte’s Web begins with Where’s Papa going with that axe?.

Even the benign Goodnight Moon, ‘Goodnight noises everywhere’. There is a certain reassurance in this book because everything will be there in the morning, but the last sentence does pack a bit of a punch. Children like to go back to this book over and over again because they are reassured that indeed, everything is still in place.

The conundrum for parents putting children to sleep is that a good, exciting story can keep kids awake. Now we have One Minute Bedtime Stories. There are at least dozens of these kinds of books that are ‘guaranteed’ to put your child to sleep. There are lots of ‘countdown to sleep’ type of plots. This is a change, because there used to be a lot of excitement, with chapters ending in cliffhangers, so of course then children wanted to keep reading, much to the distress of some parents who are hoping the story would put the child to sleep.

We’re desperate now to have our children read more, but it’s not long since having a child with its head in a book was a bad thing, and big readers were encouraged to go out and enjoy themselves in the sunshine. Many children today are still described as being ‘bookworms’ or voracious in a negative way. There are still negative connotations — it’s an antisocial activity. Books can be read in isolation. But what the book offers that real life cannot is the opportunity to see inside somebody’s mind, to really know what they’re thinking. Book characters can be like friends for a child. In real life we can’t mind read — people are always misrepresenting what they’re really thinking.

The champions of electronic media say reading leaves little room for improvisation, social interaction and creativity. Maria Tatar is astonished that fairytales seem to thrive in a culture of electronic entertainments. Fairytales migrate well into many media, and they can still provide a visceral entertainment and they get us talking about the characters, about the right thing to do, and how to manage in a world full of perils and of opportunities. It’s not the ‘reading’ — it’s the ‘story’. It’s the messages the story is communicating, which we reshape and make our own.

Two Foundational Texts — both of these were created with children.

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

Alice In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

The authors were simply trying to entertain the child rather than teach. These stories both include scary moments — both pretty anarchic. Neither of these men had children — they had ‘dream children’ and both of them used that phrase. Lewis Carroll was a photographer — J.M. Barrie played pirates with a friend’s boys. He played with them then took notes on the side so he could construct the tale of Peter Pan. These days we’re queasy about both of these men. (Dr Seuss didn’t have children either.) Books are children of sorts — there’s a period of gestation, then you give birth to them and create them.