Remembering a Childhood



Yes, guilty as charged.  I admit that the idea of a novel in free verse stood as a barrier between me and Brown Girl Dreaming.  I had ordered the volume after reading about the flap with Daniel Handler at the National Book Awards, but let it languish until a transcontinental plane ride inspired me to pack up a few of the unread books I’d ordered over the past months–nothing like a plane ride for reading novels.

This is the kind of book that makes you want to go back.  I found myself moving back and forth between reading as an adult and reading as a former child, and at times wishing that the book had been there when I was growing up.  “Memory is strange,” Woodson writes.  “When I first began to write Brown Girl Dreaming, my childhood memories of Greenville came flooding back to me–small moments and bigger ones, too.  Things I hadn’t thought about in years and other stuff I’ve never forgotten.”  What I love about this book is how the reader’s encounter with Woodson’s childhood memories mirrors the author’s experience in writing the book.  Reading the book and writing it trigger repeated madeleine-like experiences.

I’m reminded of how odd it is that we have this category called YA fiction–Christina Phillips Mattson has written a dissertation on the topic (Harvard 2015 Ph.D.)! This is a novel about a childhood, and it captures that childhood as powerfully as Proust or Rilke did in their time.  Today more than ever, writers of so-called YA fiction are challenging a category that was most likely coined by someone in the publishing industry.  I have not yet tracked down the origins of the term, but I suspect it emerged in the 1950s and 1960s by someone who decided that the coming-of-age novel was not “adult” reading.  Could the phenomenal commercial success of Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Golding’s Lord of the Flies have had something to do with it?

On another note (I could go on and on about Woodson’s book), here’s what I posted on Facebook:

I read Brown Girl Dreaming this afternoon and what should be in it but the Selfish Giant! Woodson describes hearing her teacher read the story and going to the library to borrow a copy of it. “I read the story again and again.” She memorizes the story and recites it to her classmates, who are deeply impressed. “But I just shrug, not knowing what to say. How can I explain to anyone that stories are like air to me, I breathe them in and let them out over and over again.” WOW
Remember Scout’s words in To Kill a Mockingbird: “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”


The Child As Philosophy in Motion



Anthony Lane reviews Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland.  Neither Douglas-Fairhurst nor Lane unearth any secrets about Wonderland, but Lane offers a wonderfully concise tutorial on Lewis Carroll and the Alice books.

Conversations about what is real, what is possible, and how rubbery the rules that govern such distinctions turn out to be abound in the tales of Alice. Yet they are sold as children’s books, and rightly so. A philosopher will ask how the identity of the self can be preserved amid the ceaseless flux of experience, but a child—especially a child who is growing so fast that she suddenly fills an entire room—will ask more urgently, as Alice does, “Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different.” Children, viewed from one angle, are philosophy in motion.

And my latest favorite passage from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

`I see nobody on the road,’ said Alice.

`I only wish I had such eyes,’ the King remarked in a fretful tone. `To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance, too! Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!’…

Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Tales at UCLA on May 29


 Here are some excerpts from my talk about the aesthetics of empathy in Wilde’s fairy tales:

I will focus today on two aspects of Wilde’s fairy tales.  First, I want to take up the cult of beauty promoted in them—the auratic objects that participate in a decorative regime of fin-de-siecle aesthetics.  Then I will turn to the grotesque aesthetic that competes with and in some cases annihilates the floral and metallic beauty on display. Wilde’s fairy tales remind us that aesthetics , even in fin-de-siecle art, is deeply implicated with ethical questions. The cult of beauty begins to crumble in Wilde’s work under the pressure of economic realities in which abject misery becomes a moving picture with its own aesthetic power.

 Barnett Newman once told us that “the impulse of modern art is to destroy beauty,” and Wilde’s fairy tales, while not destroying beauty, insist on hollowing out its power by investing its opposite with a powerful emotional and empathetic charge. 

Empathy and compassion have their own pleasures,  and it was to Wilde’s credit that he recognized their short-lived value and understood that we need not only to “think more” (and his fairy tales made that possible) but also do more in order to effect lasting social change.

There were many great talks at the conference, and Joseph Bristow, who organized the event, hopes to publish the papers soon.



Editor’s Tough Love


John Green still vividly recalls the opening line of a stinging critique that his editor, Julie Strauss-Gabel, delivered after reading an early draft of his novel “The Fault in Our Stars.”

“The first sentence was, ‘I really enjoyed reading the first draft of this promising and ambitious novel,’ and the rest was 20 pages of her tearing it apart,” Mr. Green said. “Her editorial letters are famous for their ability to make you cry and feel anxious. They’re very long, very detailed and very intimidating.”

One of her more memorable barbs described an overwrought climactic scene as reading “like bad John Green fan fiction,” Mr. Green recalled. He changed the ending.

Mr. Green didn’t suffer an ego bashing in vain, at least. In its revised and polished final form, “The Fault in Our Stars,” a novel about two teenagers with cancer who fall in love, became a monster hit.

Zalka Csenge Virág Blogs about The Turnip Princess


The Turnip Princess is here and it’s great

So, remember that one Guardian article from 2012 that some people still post on your Facebook wall every other week? It’s titled “Five hundred new fairy tales discovered in Germany!” Well, good news: the much-awaited English translation is finally here!

Well, actually, a bilingual German-English volumehas been out since last year, but the new book, titled The Turnip Princess, adds another batch of sixty-something tales now available in English. Yay!
I have probably waited the publication of this book with more excitement than most people wait for the new Star Wars movie. My boyfriend ordered it for me as a late birthday present (because for some reason not all folktale collections are published on my birthday, which is a crying shame). I devoured the entire volume in two days, and my copy now looks like this:

In which green slips stand for stories I want to tell (14), orange slips stand for stories that are also included in the other volume (7), and pink slips stand for notable moments. I have been busy.
The edition itself is very well done. Stellar intro from Maria Tatar (Hungarian pride!), extensive and thought-provoking notes on each tale, and an appendix with archive numbers, folktale types, and places of collection. Everything a storyteller can wish for.

And now, for some of the highlights!

1. Even though Tatar claims it’s “not part of the European canon,” the story of King Goldenlocks is actually a version of The Golden-haired gardener, a Hungarian folktale I just told two months ago at the Tenerife storytelling festival. I have never known another version of it, so I was delighted to find one in here!
2. Similarly, The Flying Trunk proved to be another variation of a Hungarian folktale that I included in my own book (The Winged Prince), and never found another version of. It is also a Cinderfella story where a prince loses a boot…
3. I was most excited about the Dung Beetle Prince tale that was teased in some of the articles, and it turned out to be the most adorable little story. I won’t spoil it, but it’s great.
4. There is a great number of tales in the volume that feature wood sprites, wood nymphs, gnomes, mermaids, and other mythical creatures, and most of them seem to be on amicable terms with humans. The darker steak is reserved for the mermaids who destroy mortals by loving them; but the woodland creatures are generally helpful and friendly, and revel a less known side of German folklore.
5. There is a version of the Pied Piper in this book (The Mousecatcher, or the Boy and the Beetle) that picks up where the children disappear inside the mountain. Think about that for a moment.
6. This volume (and the other one as well) features a tale that is a full-blown prequel to the popular “Tall, Wide and Sharpsight” folktale type, explaining how the magical helpers in these stories originally received their abilities. Yup. It’s a superhero origin story, and it’s titled Sir Wind and His Wife.
7. There is a tale of mortal girls marrying ice giants and living happily ever after.
8. At the end of a “Valiant Little Tailor” type story the princess refuses to be given as a prize and makes plans to murder the hero she is forced to marry.
9. There is a magical procedure described for turning a dragon back into a princess. (People get turned into some weird things in this book – among others weasels, tortoises, beetles, and little fish.)
10. There are several recognizable elements of pagan mythology, such as a folktale version of Freya’s necklace.
11. More than one story deals with why people should not torture animals or vandalize trees. The tree one (The Singing Tree) gets especially creative in driving the point home.

Definitely a recommended read for storytellers.

From Maria Tatar:  Thank you for those wonderful comments about the individual tales!  I can’t wait to hear your versions.

Interview with Mary Sue, and a link in case you are unfamiliar with the term


A contemporary of The Grimm Brothers (Jacob Grimm once said of him, “Nowhere in the whole of Germany is anyone collecting [folklore] so accurately, thoroughly and with such a sensitive ear”), Franz Xaver von Schönwerth was a Bavarian historian who dedicated his life to researching and collecting fairy tales from the oral tradition.

Now, after over 150 years of being “lost” in an archive,  Schönwerth’s fairy tales have been translated and curated by folklore expert Maria Tatar into The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales. Via email, Tatar took the time to talk to us about the enduring appeal of stories like Cinderella, modern oral traditions, and why “the house of fairy tales” has more room for change than we might expect.

A contemporary of The Grimm Brothers (Jacob Grimm once said of him, “Nowhere in the whole of Germany is anyone collecting [folklore] so accurately, thoroughly and with such a sensitive ear”), Franz Xaver von Schönwerth was a Bavarian historian who dedicated his life to researching and collecting fairy tales from the oral tradition.

Now, after over 150 years of being “lost” in an archive,  Schönwerth’s fairy tales have been translated and curated by folklore expert Maria Tatarinto The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy TalesVia email, Tatar took the time to talk to us about the enduring appeal of stories like Cinderella, modern oral traditions, and why “the house of fairy tales” has more room for change than we might expect.

Carolyn Cox (TMS): What inspired you to start working with folklore and fairy tales?

Maria Tatar: I’ve always had a deep attachment to stories that are wired for weirdness. I remember clutching Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland tightly to my chest as my 4th-grade teacher scolded me for reading a book that was really meant for adults. When I began reading fairy tales to my children, I was shocked and startled by the grotesque twists and turns in the plots. A stepmother decapitates her stepson and cooks him up in a stew; stepsisters cut off their toes and heels to try to make their feet fit a shoe; a woman wishes desperately for a child and gives birth to a hedgehog. I discovered that these stories were once adult entertainments—what John Updike called the television and pornography of an earlier age. They are melodramatic, operatic, and have a racing energy that helped pass time when told to the rhythms of repetitive labors on long evenings. Today we watch Breaking Badand read Fifty Shades of Grey—the demands were not all that different in an era before books and electronic entertainments.

TMS: What about the rediscovery of a “lost” fairy tale anthology do you think inspired such excitement, even in people who might not have had a vested interest in mythology or storytelling?

Tatar: Our fairy-tale repertoire is not as expansive as it could be. At times it feels as if we ferociously repeat the same stories: “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Even though we are constantly hitting the refresh button and reinventing the characters and their stories, the appeal of the new is always there. And so we welcome “something completely different”—new stories that might offer other archetypes and tropes. In The Turnip Princess, it’s a delight to discover a boy named Lousehead who slaves away in the kitchen, along with a fellow who is so thrilled to have a pair of red boots that he wears them everywhere—until one gets lost!

TMS: Do you foresee any of Schönwerth’s tales becoming as huge a part of the North American cultural landscape as stories like “Cinderella” or “Snow White,” and if so, which ones?

Tatar: My hope is that Schönwerth’s stories will renew our interest in exploring the many collections found the world over. I imagine that “Prince Goldenlocks” or the “Turnip Princess” will inspire some adventurous spirits to take up their stories and create new versions of them. That’s already happening on the Internet. It’s something of a challenge to unseat the Grimms, who mastered the art of writing down stories taken from an oral tradition. They standardized the stories in ways that made them reader-friendly, without any of the bumps and rough edges you find when you take the story straight from the source. And the Grimms of course also had the advantage of the perfect last name. Schönwerth’s stories have gaps, inconsistencies, and surreal moments that get us thinking more and talking about what the characters could, should, or might do. That’s what I love about them. They are diamonds in the rough, unpolished and at times unfinished, telling us what the stories were like in their oral versions, raw rather than cooked.


TMS: What qualities do you think give certain fairy tales (again, I’m thinking of the immense popularity stories like “Snow White” have in the U.S.) an enduring appeal?

Tatar: Fairy tales are all about the hyper-dysfunctional family: wicked stepmothers, fathers who are bent on marrying their daughters, siblings who viciously gang up on the youngest and weakest, and so on. They are full of excess, exaggeration, and unforgiving violence, enacting worst-case possible scenarios. We have a cultural repetition compulsion about fairy tales precisely because they are so outlandish. As we process what goes on in them, we begin to manage our own anxieties and desires, and we also begin to figure out how to navigate the real world. Fairy
tales, like all great stories, take up cultural conflicts: the predator/prey relationship in “Little Red Riding Hood” (a story that has also come to be about innocence and seduction). In “Beauty and the Beast,” the conflict turns on monstrosity and alterity—how do we react to the other, with revulsion or with kindness and compassion? “Hansel and Gretel”—there’s a coming-of-age story about leaving home, entering the woods, defeating monsters, and finding a way back home.

TMS: I can’t imagine the amount of work that goes into a project like this. Can you talk a little bit about the process of bringing The Turnip Princess together?

Tatar: I initially imagined that I could translate Schönwerth’s stories on the side, but I quickly realized that these tales were completely absorbing and demanded my full attention. First off, they were so different from what the Grimms collected in the 19th century, what Charles Perrault gathered in 17th century-France, and what Giambattista Basile wrote down in 17th-century Italy. There was a rough-hewn quality to them that I wanted to preserve, despite the impulse to imitate the Grimms’ wonderful fairy-tale style. I had different routines, but generally I would read the entire story a couple of times, then take the story one sentence at a time, trying to “English it,” as the philosopher Hannah Arendt put it. Even then each story went through several iterations. I was somewhat daunted by the fact that you can keep making improvements but at a certain point you have to declare victory.

TMS: What’s your favorite story from the collection?

Tatar: Nothing beats “The Enchanted Quill,” with its heroine who claims that she has cooking and cleaning skills so that she can work where the prince lives. She burns all the dishes and fails miserably at keeping house. But she does know how to write, and she uses an enchanted quill to conjure dishes that appear in sparkling bowls and to ward off pesky suitors. She writes her way to a happily ever after.

TMS: Do you think we have any oral traditions today that are comparable to the storytelling seen in Schönwerth’s time?

Tatar: In an earlier age, storytellers were constantly improvising, taking the tropes of fairy tales (princess on a glass mountain, seven-league boots, table that sets itself) and putting them together in new ways. Today fairy tales remain in old media but—short, sweet, and bit-y—they have also migrated into new media, where they are remixed and mashed up to produce new stories, told for us, in the here and now. They operate in kaleidoscopic fashion, constantly adapted to make them culturally relevant. What makes the Schönwerth collection so important is that it reminds us of the vast repertoire out there. Instead of working with a fixed, stable canon of fairy tales, we suddenly discover that animal suitors can come in all shapes, sizes, and species and that the storied Cinderella/Snow White figure—the innocent victim of persecution at home–can also be a boy. The house of fairy tales turns out to be far more capacious than we once imagined.

Link to the interview:



10 Lesser-Known Fairy Tales That Should Get More Love


Uncle Wolf

The “little glutton” who travels through the woods in Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales carries a basket filled with pancakes, bread, and wine for Uncle Wolf. The path is long, and the girl can’t resist the goodies. She replaces the pancakes with donkey manure, the loaf of bread with lime from a stonemason, and the wine with dirty water. Uncle Wolf is outraged by the deception, and the girl races back home, hiding in a corner of her bed. No fool, Uncle Wolf chases her down and declares, “Ahem, here I go!” After all, he has a reputation to defend. An expert at doing away with “greedy little girls,” he swallows the child whole. Calvino admires the primal quality of the story, a favorite all over Italy, and praises “rudimentary elements” such as “gluttony, excrement, and a steady intensification of terror.”

There are several versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” in Italian Folktales, and in the notes Calvino appears to be compulsively fiddling with a story that none of his sources seem to get just right. The tale about a girl and a wolf stages an encounter between innocent prey and fanged predator, and today the girl almost always emerges triumphantly from the belly of the wolf. But in many versions — most famously in Charles Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood” — she is never disgorged. The wolf snaps his jaws, swallows the girl whole — end of story (save for an occasional moral about the perils of talking to strangers and straying from the path). The consuming idea in most variants is innocence versus seduction, but “Uncle Wolf” turns Red Riding Hood from a pretty child, adored by everyone (as the Grimms tell us), into a girl who is both greedy and lazy. While the other girls at her school are knitting, she has the audacity to go to the privy and fall asleep–a truly deserving victim, especially in light of her other transgressions, which include a love of pancakes.

Italo Calvino, “Uncle Wolf,” in Italian Folktales, trans. George Martin (New York: Pantheon Books, 1956), pp. 152-54.


Remember Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach? Or the Japanese folktale about Momotaro, the Peach Boy who battles monstrous creatures on a distant island? Who knew that Sendak and Dahl may have plundered Japanese folklore to construct their stories about boys who set sail in search of adventure? We will never know why Dahl changed his title from James and the Giant Cherry and gave James Trotter a “great big beautiful peach” to navigate the waters, and there are no doubt multiple sources for Sendak’s Wild Things (the “Jewish relatives” disguised as horses until an editor pointed out that the artist was not very good at drawing them). Both authors might have fallen under the spell of the celebrated Japanese story about a boy who floats down the river in a peach and is adopted by a childless couple. Momotaro (his name derives from momo, or peach, and taro, or eldest son) grows up and sails to an island, where he meets a talking dog, monkey, and pheasant, all of whom become his sidekicks and allies. Collectively they slay demons known as Oni, and return home triumphantly, laden with treasures.

Momotaro has always been a popular figure in Japan, and during World War II he became an intrepid warrior, fighting military demons. In a 1944 feature-length animated film called Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors, the boy grows up to be a general and teams up with a bear, monkey, dog, and pheasant, all of whom have become high-ranking officials. Together they invade an island and liberate it from British rule. The film ends with children playing at parachuting onto a map of the continental United States.

Read more here.

Sun, Moon, and Talia (Sleeping Beauty)

Some years ago, feminists did their best to make the story of Sleeping Beauty go away. In books with titles such as Kiss Sleeping Beauty Good-Bye and Wake Up, Sleeping Beauty, they fretted that fairy-tale women are doomed to passivity, silence, sleep, always playing the waiting game. Unlike Bruno Bettelheim, who saw in the story a parable of puberty and recommended the tale as therapeutic bedtime reading for girls, they condemned the cult of the beautiful, dead woman promoted by the tale.

Imagine the outrage had these critics discovered “Sun, Moon, and Talia,” a version of “Sleeping Beauty” in Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone, a Neapolitan collection of tales published in 1634. Basile’s Talia falls into a deep sleep when a piece of flax slides under her nail. One day, a king discovers a comatose princess sleeping on a velvet throne in a secluded mansion. One look at the young woman, and his blood begins to “course hotly through his veins.” He takes her to the bedroom and picks “the fruits of love.” After returning home — to his wife — he becomes so immersed in the business of running his kingdom that he forgets all about Talia who, in the meantime, has given birth to twins. When the king is finally ready for a repeat visit, he reveals that he is the father of the twins. How does Talia react? The two “make friends” and establish “a strong bond.” Enter the queen, who is less forgiving and so consumed by envy that she orders Talia’s children slaughtered and served up to her husband for dinner (a compassionate cook substitutes lambs for the boy and girl). Her plan to burn Talia at the stake backfires, and she herself becomes the victim of the flames. Basile adds a disconcerting moral: “For those who are lucky, good rains down even when they are sleeping.”

Is it any surprise that the Brothers Grimm changed the rape to a chaste kiss and replaced the married king with a bachelor prince in their more child-friendly collection of fairy tales? Today, Sleeping Beauty continues to haunt our cultural imagination — it will not go away — with philosophers meditating on the Sleeping Beauty Problem, filmmakers probing motivation in productions like Catherine Breillat’s Sleeping Beauty and Robert Stromberg’s Maleficent, and celebrities like Lady Gaga reenacting a 24-version of Beauty’s sleep in a bid to sell perfume. Sleeping Beauty may wake up to the perils of mortality, but her story retains a perverse vitality.

“Sun, Moon, and Talia,” in Giambattista Basile, The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones, trans. Nancy L. Canepa (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2007), pp. 413-17.

The Singing Tortoise

There are many variants of this African tale about a hunter (known as Ama in some versions) who learns harsh lessons about beauty, art, and sustainability at a time when environmental concerns were not of less burning cultural relevance. “Humans violate nature; nature does not impose itself on them” is the constant refrain in a story about a tortoise with a voice so enchanting that the man who hears it takes the creature home with him. Removing the tortoise from its natural surroundings was already a violation; revealing its secret becomes a profound betrayal. Unable to resist the impulse to broadcast the wonders of the tortoise’s song (and what else is that but the storytelling instinct?), the hunter’s report is received with deep skepticism. And the tortoise, in an act of controlled passive-aggressive behavior, refuses to sing on command. Branded a liar who misrepresents, talks nonsense, and tells “fantastic tales,” Ama is publicly shamed by the chief.

Central to “The Singing Tortoise” is the cult of beauty, with a tortoise that sings with a human voice and plays a small piano-like instrument known as a sansa but also feels freed of the obligation to court an audience. Humans have an obligation to protect that self-contained, natural beauty. Advertising its allure is condemned in a story that can be seen as an exercise in the very same activity of telling in which Ama engaged. The story captures paradoxes about concealment and revelation in the image of the tortoise, which can open up to the world but also withdraw into its shell. Many African tales have an emphatically self-reflexive quality, one that often challenges us to think about the power of story in general as well as to decode narrative mysteries.

“The Singing Tortoise,” in The Cow-Tail Switch and Other West African Stories, ed. Harold Courlander and George Herzog (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1947), pp. 65-71.

Vasilisa the Fair

The Russian answer to the Brothers Grimm, Alexander Afanasev collected hundreds of folktales, among them a hybrid of “Cinderella” and “Hansel and Gretel.” An orphaned eight-year-old girl is persecuted at home by her stepmother and stepsisters; in the woods, she is exposed to the threats of an ogress eager to turn her into her next meal. On the orders of her stepmother to secure fire from Baba Yaga, Vasilisa makes the trek out to her hut in the woods. What does she see there? “The fence around it was made of human bones. Skulls with empty eye sockets stared down from the posts. The gate was made from the bones of human legs; the bolts were made from human hands, and the lock was a jaw with sharp teeth.” With the help of a doll bequeathed to her by her mother, Vasilisa carries out household chores — sweeping, cleaning, cooking, washing, and sorting grains. She becomes a consummate spinner and seamstress, who wins the heart of the tsar with her beautiful fabrics and handicraft.

Vasilisa’s story traces an odyssey from rags to riches, but it also turns the girl into a cultural heroine who brings light, in the form of fire, back home. Three magnificent steeds also gallop through the story, sending an apocalyptic shudder through the woods and frightening Vasilisa out of her wits, with each horse and rider a different color (white, red, and black) to match the times of day at which Vasilisa sees them (dawn, high noon, and night). Fairy tales like “Vasilisa the Fair” are syncretic, constructed by borrowing tropes and motifs, along with bits and pieces of plot, not only from the cultural surround in which the tale is told but also from other tales, legends, and myths.

“Vasilisa the Fair,” in Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, ed. Maria Tatar (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 172-85.

The Juniper Tree

The raw energy of “The Juniper Tree” has fascinated writers ranging from P.L. Travers of Mary Poppins fame to J.R.R. Tolkien. Both fell under the spell of the tale, rhapsodized about the story’s “exquisite and tragic beginning” and its combination of “beauty and horror.” How does it begin? A mother dies in childbirth. Her husband remarries, and the new wife is determined to do away with her stepson. She lures him to his death by offering him an apple from a chest, and then, bam! She slams the lid down “so hard that the boy’s head flew off and fell into the chest with the apples.” To get rid of the evidence, she chops the boy up into little pieces and cooks him up in a stew, served to the boy’s father, who can’t get enough of the “tasty” dish.

Is there a way to engineer a “happily ever after” after the uncompromising brutality of these opening scenes of carnage? Folklorists know the tale as “My Mother Slew Me; My Father Ate Me,” and a recent anthology of reimagined fairy tales uses that identifying label as its title. Can there by redemption after the slaughter of an innocent and a meal with all the mythical horrors of the one prepared by Atreus? The boy, buried under a juniper tree, comes back to life as a bird, with red and green feathers, eyes that sparkle like stars, and a band of pure gold around its neck. Its rainbow beauty and alluring song fill the world with sparkling sunshine and aromatic wonders. But this bird is also out for revenge, and it exchanges a song for a millstone, using it to crush the stepmother, then returning to human form and sitting down for dinner with father and sister.

“The Juniper Tree,” in The Annotated Brothers Grimm, ed. Maria Tatar (New York: W.W. Norton, 2012), pp. 214-29.

The Enchanted Quill

“Pull one of my feathers out, and if you use it to write down a wish, the wish will come true, ” a crow tells the youngest of three sisters in Franz Xaver von Schönwerth’s “The Enchanted Quill.” The girl reluctantly plucks the feather, uses it as a pen, and what does she do first but write down the names of the very finest dishes. The food promptly appears in bowls that sparkle and glow. This microdrama packs wisdom about fairy tales into a small golden nugget. Wish fulfillment often takes the form of enough food to eat, and in this case it means that the heroine, who lacks culinary skills and burns all the dishes she tries to prepare, will no longer be the target of ridicule. In fairy tales, the highest good, whatever it may be, is always bathed in an aura of golden light, luminous and radiant, yet also contained or framed with metallic substantiality. And finally, in a self-reflexive gesture, the crow’s magical writing instrument reveals the power of words to build fairy-tale worlds, sites that move us out from reality and enable us to feel the power of what-if in ways that are palpably real. You can almost see and smell the dishes, even if you can’t necessarily touch and taste them. With the magic quill, an instrument that signals the power of the pen, the youngest of the three sisters in the tale succeeds in duping a trio of would-be suitors and inflicting bodily punishments on them and the monarchs in the tale.

Closely related to “Cupid and Psyche,” as well as to “East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon,” in addition to Beauty and the Beast tales, this story gives us a beast less ferocious and slimy than the frogs, goats, dragons, dogs, and chimeras found in many tales.

Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, The Turnip Princess, ed. Erika Eichenseer, trans. Maria Tatar (New York: Penguin, 2015), pp. TK.


Lulu Young, a 25-old African-American woman living in North Carolina, sat down with the folklorist Elsie Clews Parsons about a century ago and told her the story of Bluebeard. A few decades later, Richard Wright would report the transformative childhood experience of having “Bluebeard and His Seven Wives” read to him by a boarder on the front porch: “Enchanted and enthralled, I stopped her constantly to ask for details. My imagination blazed.” Wright felt alive, inventive, inquisitive, and inspired in ways that he had never felt in real life. Never mind the content of the story, with its portrait of a marriage haunted by the threat of murder. It is astonishing that a story we are accustomed to think of as European (the Frenchman Charles Perrault was the first to write it down in 1697) circulated orally in the deep South.

Lulu Young’s Bluebeard tale takes up all the key tropes of the story in its many cultural variations: a forbidden chamber, a curious wife, and a husband who tests his wife’s “obedience” by giving her the key to the locked room. Presto! the forbidden chamber turns into a blood-spattered chamber, filled with the corpses of Bluebeard’s previous wives, in this case all sisters. Wife number seven summons her seven brothers, “jus’ as he went to kill her.” In most versions Bluebeard is slain by the heroine’s brothers, but Lulu Young’s version ends like this: “An’ he ran away into the woods, an’ never been seen since.”

Elsie Clews Parsons, “Tales from Guilford County, North Carolina,” Journal of American Folklore, 30 (1917): 183.

The Nightingale

Hans Christian Andersen’s story begins with the description of a palace, “the most magnificent in the world,” that belongs to the Emperor of China. The Emperor, an erudite man with exquisite aesthetic sensibilities, reads about nightingales and secures one for himself. The bird has a voice so “lovely” that its music goes straight to his heart. One day a large package arrives with the word “Nightingale” written on it. Inside it is a mechanical bird, covered with diamonds, rubies, and sapphires. The bird’s song is “very close to the real thing,” but it fails the emperor when he is ill, for he is unable to wind it up. Enter Death, and the dreadful silence in the emperor’s chambers is broken by a nightingale — the living one — who sings the ruler back to health.

A tale that reveals Andersen’s deep commitment to natural beauty over the artful and artificial and that takes up the nature/culture divide, “The Nightingale” also challenges us to consider what separates us from machines. The modesty, generosity, and passion of true art produced by those devoted to their craft contrasts sharply with the empty pleasures of technological wonders that can do little but engage in vacuous mimicry. Andersen may also have been writing about his own literary voice. His friends called him the “nightingale from Fyn,” and he once referred to himself as a male Jenny Lind (“her voice stays with me forever,” he wrote about the woman known throughout Europe as the “Swedish nightingale”). And what genre is less artificial and lacking in artifice than the fairy tale, a spontaneous expression of human desires and fears?

Hans Christian Andersen, “The Nightingale,” in The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008), pp. 78-98.

Yeh-hsien, the Chinese Cinderella

Cinderella lives happily ever after in nearly every version of her story, but her stepsisters rarely fare well. Who can forget the final scenes of the Grimms’ “Cinderella,” with the stepsisters cutting off toes, then heels, to make the dainty shoe fit. Doves peck out the eyes of those same young women as they enter and exit the church where Cinderella weds. An Indonesian Cinderella forces her stepsister into a cauldron of boiling water, then has the body cut up, pickled, and sent to the girl’s mother as “salt meat” for her next meal. A Japanese stepsister is dragged around in a basket, hits a deep ditch, and tumbles to her death. In “Yeh-hsien,” recorded by a scribe in the 9th century, the stepmother and her daughter are stoned to death. Their burial site, called “The Tomb of the Distressed Women,” becomes a shrine for courtship rituals.

Yeh-hsien, who is described as both “intelligent” and “clever,” is befriended by a magical golden fish. The stepmother kills it, but the girl recovers the bones, and they provide her with everything from food and drink to a cloak of feathers and tiny golden slippers that make her look like a “heavenly being.” Rushing home from the ball, Yeh-hsien loses a slipper, which is sold to a warlord who tracks her down and makes her his “chief wife.”

Yeh-hsien is only one of many Chinese Cinderellas. As in every culture, there are thousands of variants of this rag-to-riches stories, some less obvious than others. The sociologist Wolfram Eberhard published a book of Chinese fairy tales in the 1960s. In that collection was “Beauty and Pock Face,” a Cinderella story in which Beauty loses her mother, who returns to life as a yellow cow slaughtered by Beauty’s stepmother. Beauty keeps the bones in a jar, and when she shatters the jar in a fit of rage, a horse, a dress, and a lovely pair of shoes materialize. She loses one of the shoes at a local festival, and marries the man who retrieves it — a man of erudition. This class-conscious Cinderella earlier refused the advances of a fishmonger, a merchant, and an oil trader. Pock Face tries to usurp her stepsister’s role, but in the end, Beauty triumphs after a contest in which both young women have to walk on eggs, climb a ladder of knives, and jump into boiling oil. The stepsister perishes in the last of the contests; Beauty triumphs and sends Pock Face’s body back to the stepmother.

“Yeh-hsien,” in The Classic Fairy Tales, ed. Maria Tatar (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999), pp. 107-8.

Fifty Shades of Grey as a Fairy Tale?











From the New York Times:   

Indeed, when Ms. Taylor-Johnson read “Fifty Shades” for the first time, she did not see it as “mommy porn,” as some have called it, nor as an unlikely story full of clunky prose bogged down by a strangely chirpy narrator prone to referring to her “inner goddess,” as some reviewers have complained. Instead, she read it as “a deep, dark, romantic adult fairy tale,” she said. “I thought, I haven’t seen anything cinematically like what I was reading for a long time, if at all,” Ms. Taylor-Johnson continued. “It felt like a very deep romance and a love story the likes of which felt quite unique.”

Marina Warner links Fifty Shades of Grey to the Bluebeard story, but a version of the story in which revenge “eludes the protagonist . . . and the female author chooses to let Bluebeard have his way.”

In Secrets beyond the Doora book I wrote many years ago about the story of Bluebeard and his wives, I focused on the charismatic appeal of the Bluebeard figure, a man who is wealthy, mysterious, sexually seductive . . . controlling and violent.   The Bluebeard story “begins on the outside–in the realm of the familiar, common, and quotidian–and moves to the inside–the exotic, dangerous, passionate, and barbaric.”  What I discovered in the course of my research is that Bluebeard is one of those stories that will not go away, it ferociously repeats itself, as if it were entirely new.  Fifty Shades of Grey is the latest cultural inflection, and now I have my work cut out for me: reading the trilogy and watching the movie, then making a contribution to a shelter for victims of domestic abuse.

Underestimating Laura Ingalls Wilder

Laura Ingalls Wilder age twenty-seven.In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s On the Banks of Plum Creek, Pa heads to town promising to return by nightfall, but a terrible storm blows through, and hefinds himself trapped in a snow bank for three days. To survive, he eats the candy he brought for the girls’ Christmas stockings. 

It’s a tale of pluck and miscalculation not lost on the publishers of Pioneer Girl, Wilder’s new annotated autobiography. Last November, they found themselves trapped in a snowbank of preorders for the book, which they won’t dig their way out of until March. They didn’t have to eat the Christmas peppermints, but they did leave Wilder fans crying in their homespun handkerchiefs when the book didn’t arrive in time for the holidays.

The size of the initial print run might seem ridiculously small, considering that Wilder’s Little House books have sold more than 60 million copies. “But you have to understand—this is an academic book,” says Koupal. Pre-Pioneer Girl, the press’s best-seller was the children’s book Tatanka and the Lakota People: A Creation Story, which sold around 15,000 copies.*

 “We felt we were taking a huge risk even to do [15,000].”…