Tatar Discusses Development of Fairy Tales

Professor Maria Tatar, the chair of the Committee on Degrees in Folklore and Mythology, noted the historical evolution of fairy tales—from legends adults told around the hearth, to bedtime stories for children, and finally to multimedia projects aimed at people of all ages—in a lecture Thursday at the Dudley branch of the Boston Public Library in Roxbury.

Tatar’s address is part of the John Harvard Book Celebration, a series of events at 34 Boston and Cambridge libraries to celebrate the University’s 375th anniversary.

In her lecture, Tatar contextualized the contemporary development of stories that have survived across the ages.

“Fairy tales migrate into book and go from a multi-generational audience to children over time,” she said, “These are stories that have moved across the generations.”

She described the prominence of fairy tales in media today, comparing “The Hunger Games” to “Hansel and Gretel” and naming various recent and upcoming films such as “Snow White and the Huntsman,” “Tangled,” and “Beastly.”

“The studio becomes our main portal for fairy tales,” she said. “We use these stories to work out cultural anxieties.”

Tatar said that fairy tales remain relevant today because of our need to express societal concerns, such as innocence and sexuality in women.

“They take up matters that are primal and pertinent,” she said. “There’s an odd way that good stories will teach lessons in subtle ways.”

She also observed how today’s new media explicitly reference the origins of fairy tales. Tatar noted that the name of the e-book reader “Kindle” suggests the hearth or fireplace where fairy tales had their beginnings in oral tradition.

In responding to one audience member’s question on whether modern-day spins are unfair to these classic fairy tales, Tatar said that these revisions should in fact be seen as positive developments.

“They are tales that should be refashioned,” she said. “They complicate the stories, the history of fairy tales, in a wonderful way.”

“You’ve got magic in all their kaleidoscopic variations,” she added.

The lecture drew about 25 audience members, mainly from around the Boston area.

“I love stories. I think that they’re a really great way to share a culture,” said Sophia Kuo, a clinical fellow in psychiatry at Harvard who attended the event.

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