Can Fairytales Survive in the age of Kindle and Twitter and Facebook?

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 reappropriate that title for children because it describes so well what happens to children 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. (Literacy specialists call this ‘ludic reading‘.)

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. Modern audiences often have a different response to fairytales. As a child, one of the most heart-rending books on my shelf was The Little Match Girl. But The Little Match Girl does have an intended happy ending. The little girl goes to heaven and meets her grandmother.

The beauty of the fairytale in the oral storytelling tradition is that the child survives. The storyteller puts the child 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, Little Red Riding Hood outwits the wolf, managing to escape on her own, without patriarchal help.

Classic tales are elastic, shapeshifting into new versions of themselves. They are symptomatic of a culture, and deal with the issues that are profoundly important to us: Innocence and seduction in “Little Red Riding Hood”, Monstrosity and Compassion in “Beauty And The Beast“. These tales tap right into our cultural anxieties.

The Bedtime Story

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 and Wendy 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 do return home. Maybe this is more comforting for adult readers, because we learn that children always have this place for magic and enchantment. Many children are sensation seekers so they do need to be scared to explore imaginatively what will happen to them if they are taken away, if they go to a different and scary place. Above all, how do we 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’ suggests creepy things lurking in every nook. But the story ultimately reassures. Everything will be there in the morning. (The last sentence does pack a bit of a punch.) Children like to read this book over and over because the story reassures.

The Countdown To Sleep Story

The conundrum for parents putting children to sleep is that a good, exciting story can keep kids awake. Modern publishing offers titles such as One Minute Bedtime Stories. There are dozens of these books, ‘guaranteed’ to put your child to sleep. There are many ‘countdown to sleep’ type of plots.

This is a modern change. Children’s stories used to contain plenty of excitement, with chapters ending on cliffhangers, so of course children wanted to keep reading, much to the distress of some parents who were hoping the story would lull 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. Negative connotations remain — reading as an antisocial activity. (The word ‘antisocial’ is most often used incorrectly. These people often mean ‘asocial’ activity, and in that they are still wrong.)

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.

Some 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 can still provide a visceral entertainment. Fairytale get us talking about the characters, about the right thing to do in any given situation, and about how to manage in a world full of perils and opportunities.

It’s not the ‘reading’ — it’s the ‘story’. We reshape the messages and make them our own.

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