An International Conference
October 8-10, 1999
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Childhood and Adolescence in a Mediated Culture

Fairy Tales Across Media
Speaker: Maria Tatar


It has been argued that the original context of traditional folk and fairy stories involved little or no differentiation between adults and children and that these tales served predominantly adult agendas. Do you agree with this claim? If so, what factors led to the emergence of a specialized form of storytelling aimed at children? Do we have any evidence of how children responded to those stories? Are there ways to reconstruct the role of children as participants in traditional forms of storytelling?

The issue of media violence surfaces in many contemporary discussions of children's relationship to media. How violent were traditional folk tales? What can looking at children's culture in earlier periods contribute to our understanding of this debate?

Some readers and scholars have understood folk tales as mythic forms, preserving and rehearsing communal values, beliefs and prejudices. Is it useful or plausible to see contemporary children's stories in the same way? Are there formal structures or themes that survive across cultures and historical eras to appear in folk tales and in later so-called children's literature?

[The following is an edited summary, not a complete transcript.]

Maria Tatar: The questions address exactly what is at stake in our understanding of these cultural stories that we know as fairy tales. I spend a lot of time thinking about fairy tales and their cultural dissemination across a variety of media, such as in advertising or the world of music -- opera, ballet, whether it is Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, or Bluebeard's Castle. In literature we can look at Anne Sexton's Transformations of Grimm's Fairy Tales, or Angela Carter's collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber. Fairy tales permeate film culture as well. Think of Ever After with Drew Barrymore as a latter-day Cinderella. What I like to stress is the cultural elasticity and extraordinary resilience of fairy tales. They can be adapted, re-scripted, reshaped, parodied or treated with reverence, and they thrive in the old forms as well as in new incarnations.

Let's begin with the issue of origins. Everyone wants to know where fairy tales came from in the first place. It is important to keep in mind that there really are no originals, ideal types, sacred texts or global master narrative, so all we have are copies, variants, deviant forms, and local narratives. We can never reconstruct an ideal version of "Little Red Riding Hood." Folklorists have abandoned the search for origins, but there is still an effort to construct a "scene of origin" -- a primal scene of narration -- to explain how fairy tales came into being. It is usually constructed as peasants sitting around the fireside telling tales while they are repairing tools, patching clothes or spinning yarn.

Such a "scene of origin" takes us into an adult culture where we have raconteurs telling racy, ribald and violent stories to an adult audience. They are stories about the quest for power, wealth, romance -- not necessarily in that order. They are also stories that speak to the anxieties and desires of adults who are negotiating the path to marriage, sorting out family conflicts and to quote from the questions, "rehearsing, preserving and transmitting communal value, beliefs, and prejudices." In this scene of origins, a narrator is taking cues from the audience and shaping the story according to their responses, so the story is not only constructed by the narrator, but by the audience as well. We don't have a lot of visual or printed evidence about this scene of origins, but what we have suggests that children were there, and there was enough melodrama and "zing" to these stories to capture their attention. We'll never know how children responded, because all we have are adult memoirs, autobiographies and re collections. We have etchings of storytelling scenes, but have lost the voice of the child, so we will never be able to reconstruct the child's reaction.

The question about this primal story telling scene is of course, "What came before that?" No one has really asked that question. We could go back to ask how Homer's story telling connects with fairy tales. That would bring up the issue of myth. Robert Darnton told us how fairy tales offer windows into the mental world of earlier centuries, showing the social, economic and personal stakes of everyday life in specific cultures. He sees fairy tales as historical documents, as part of a discourse on the human condition in the early modern period in a world of step-mothers and orphans, a world of unending toil and brutal emotions, both raw and repressed. It seems to me that fairy tales give us that cultural history, but they also give us myth -- so we get myth and cultural history in a single compact package.

Fairy tales migrated into the nursery in the 19th century and were appropriated by children. Once the Brothers Grimm started to collect the tales, they were transformed from entertainment for adults to diversion for children, and in some ways, also an educational manual for children. Then the stories suddenly developed an incredible moral backbone. The Grimms took out most of the sex, but they intensified the violence in the stories -- when it was placed in the service of a lesson or moral. We can only speculate about how violent the original stories were because we don't have the original incarnations.

Violence seems to be in fairy tales from all cultures and in all the various re-scriptings. If we look at the textual evidence, we see violence everywhere. It is in such great national collections as the Grimms', Havonsev's Russian collection or Joseph Jacobs' British collection. It is also in the oral tales that were transcribed by folklorists, in versions for adults, in versions for children, and in the Disney film versions -- which are often more violent than the Grimms' version. Think of the scene of Snow White in the woods. It is quite tame in the Grimms' version -- she is just abandoned and it is narrated in a very dry manner. In Disney, that scene becomes quite nightmarish: we have a terrified Snow White making her way through trees that have become animated. Why the violence is there? It seems to me that we could think about the melodramatic aspect of fairy tales and the way in which they externalize inner conflicts, are so plot driven, and always give us a manichean world of villains and helpless v ictims, violent emotions and brute force, which explains their appeal to children.



Audience Member: As far as children's responses to the tales, have you considered children's drawings?

Tatar: There are a number of psychologists who have looked at children's drawings of fairy tales. There are also studies of children's rewritings of fairy tales and creation of their own fairy tales. What is remarkable about the essays that I've looked at is that they all suggest that children don't want to write violent fairy tales. They love happy endings and resolutions in which the villain is converted and integrated into the family. In my own experience watching children react to the violence in fairy tales, children seem to love moments of grotesque and surreal violence. Granted it could be a therapeutic laughter, but there is an interesting contrast there which I am not sure I understand.

Martin Marks: When you discussed the folklorists' vision of peasants sitting around the fire telling stories to one another, that seemed like a rather localized sense of the origins of fairy tales -- in particular, the kinds of tales that go into the Grimm collection. Isn't there a much more general way that one can think about the creation of such stories in every culture, going back beyond the concept of peasants? There are stories in the Bible that are not very different from what we are calling fairy tales. David and Goliath is one example. So I just wondered if you think that the raising of these questions needs to focus on what Grimm or others have collected or whether we need to look in a different way at this material?

Tatar: I think it's just that folklorists and literary scholars are so indebted to Robert Darnton's analysis of fairy tales that we all immediately appropriated this idea of peasants telling tales and forgot that his analysis is culturally specific. Clearly there are different scenes that one could describe on various continents in various regions. I think one of the challenges for folklorists is to try to identify more of those scenes and not describe them as scenes of origins, but look at them as different pockets of culture and ask how those cultures dealt with fairy tales and how the tales circulated in the culture.

Henry Jenkins: If we look at contemporary debates about violence in entertainment, violence is often represented as a force of modernity. We talk about the exploitation of children in the marketing of violent entertainment as destroying some traditional conservative lifestyle. Some ideal from the 1950s gets pitted against the present moment in which suddenly our entertainment is brutally violent. It is important for people like you to be part of this exchange so that you can remind us that violence is an ongoing issue that cuts across the history of children's literature and forces us to ask a different set of questions like: "what is it doing there and what does it mean?" or "why are both kids and adults invested in violent entertainment?" It is interesting that we think of violence as a force of modernity when it is the most traditional element in the stories that we've always told to children.

Tatar: You could hardly have a plot without some sort of violent, destabilizing event taking place. The 19th century children's literature makes what we have in the 20th century look tame and benign. The violence is also really directed at the child. I think that might be an important distinction to make -- violence directed at the child versus violence directed against the persecutors of the child. Your question really raises the fundamental problem of whether this violence has that therapeutic effect that Bruno Bettelheim talks about in The Uses of Enchantment -- children need those stories in order to purge all the feelings of hostility that Bettelheim believes that they have.

Audience Member: As I looked at the difference between the violence of the traditional fairy tale and the violence of the video game, it struck me that on one hand there's the psychologically motivated scenario of people who should be caring for you trying to destroy you (as in Hansel and Gretel in which the stepmother wants to kill the children and their father goes along with the plan). On the other hand, there's the video game where you have a gun and you are killing aliens with no implicit psychological reference to family dynamics. What do you think about this?

Tatar: I think that the preposterous violence of video games -- with just random shooting and no real plot -- is more frightening to me than something which is cast in a story and worked through while being read or told with an adult who is paying attention to the responses of the child. That would seem to be another important distinction, a scene of storytelling versus the kid alone at the computer. I don't mean to sound old-fashioned, but there is something appealing about the child reading along with the adult versus the child in front of the computer screen.

Arthur Chandler: You talked a lot about the theories of how children and adults make up stories, but if you read the news group "REC:HUMOR," the fecundity of the adolescent imagination coming up with fairy tales is amazing. You might call them dirty jokes, but they do have a plot line which is missing in the video games. Has anyone paid attention to adolescents coming up with fantasy tales?

Tatar: One could see the Internet as site for generating folklore or jokelore, which is a form of folklore. I think James Twitchell's book, Preposterous Violence, looks at what kind of stories engage adolescents and why. I cannot recapitulate the complexities of his argument, so I refer you to his book.

Robert Darnton: My question concerns folklore studies. I gather that what you are trying to do, among other things, is to associate folk tales with myths and to find a mythical dimension in them, which I think could be a very fruitful approach. The objection from folklorists might be that their science is built on distinctions between three genres: myth, tale, and legend. They keep coming back to this fundamental distinction, and I gather you want to erase it. So what is your strategy for erasing it and how would you justify flying in the face of that wisdom among the folklorists?

Tatar: That is a tough question. It has only been recently that I've come to the view that there must be a relationship between myths and fairy tales. I don't think I want to erase the line, but I do want to make it a little more fluid because there is clearly traffic across that line, just as there is also a great deal of traffic between oral tales and literary tales. If one thinks about the origins of fairy tales, one could go back to literary versions of the tales that existed in the Middle Ages.

I think it is important to imagine the system being a little less stable than it was constructed a few decades ago. What intrigues me is the notion that we have Sleeping Beauty, and we have Brun Hilde and those stories are so close to each other. The fundamental issues are the same. We have David and Goliath, Tom Thumb, as well as Ulysses and the Cyclops. Why do these specific plots emerge in myth, folklore and legends as well? I see this as a challenge. I don't have any strategies because this is something new that has emerged in my thinking. Maybe some of you have ideas about those connections.

Compiled by Mary Hopper

  Childhood and Adolescence in a Mediated Culture
  • Mitch Resnick, Children, Toys, Media
  • Sherry Turkle, New Media and Children's Identity
  • Henry Jenkins, Historical Views: Children, Technology, Play
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