STOCKBRIDGE -- "If only I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the window frame," the queen sighs at the beginning of the tale of "Snow White."
People look back on the fairy tales of their childhoods with nostalgia. They associate them with dreams, wishes, and beauty. But people less frequently remember that the evil queen sends her huntsman to cut out Snow White’s liver and lungs, or that the evil queen is punished for her misdeeds by dancing to her death in a pair of red-hot iron shoes.
"When my children were young, I started reading the Grimm Brothers’ ‘The Juniper Tree,’ " said Maria Tatar, professor of Germanic languages and literatures at Harvard University. "I realized that the beautiful book of fairy tales that I had read as a child was full of violence, horror, mayhem and cannibalism. That was the moment when I wondered -- why are these stories still around, and why do we keep repeating them? And not just repeating them, but re-enacting them, adapting them, and making them our own?"
Tatar has made it her life’s work to provide answers to these questions. These answers will be the topic of her talk today at the Norman Rockwell Museum, "The Horror and the Beauty: Folklore, Culture and Children’s Literature."
"Maria will be talking about how fairy tales and folk tales have been rejuvenated in our culture through television and movies, and more generally about fairy tales and their importance to our culture," said Tom Daly, curator of education at the Norman Rockwell Museum. "We thought with the ‘Snow White’ exhibition, she would be the perfect person to have speak about that subject."
Fairy tales have had somewhat of a resurgence in recent years, with the popularity of books like the "A Song of Ice and Fire" series and TV shows like "True Blood," "Once Upon a Time," and "Supernatural."
But where does our fascination with fairy tales come from? Why do we revisit and revise these tales?
"They’re stories that you need to digest and come to terms with," Tatar said. "To me, they’re wonderful vehicles for trying to figure out our own values.
"For a child, fantasy is this wonderfully safe space to explore and to discover things, to be a witness to this unbelievably exciting world. But you also learn about all the things that adults keep quiet about. Fairy tales engage with existential mysteries, like mortality. What if a child gets lost in the woods? How do you deal with the monsters and find your way back home?"
The modern fairy tale, Tatar said, is somewhat different from the fairy tales that were recorded by the Grimm Brothers in 19th century Germany. Fairy tales began as primarily an oral tradition, with the tales being passed from generation to generation. When the Brothers Grimm recorded them, fairy tales entered the print world, and also initiated the tradition of illustration. And now, fairy tales are told in films and television shows.
And the bad guys of today’s fairy tales aren’t quite so villainous, according to Tatar.
"We now have the view that we are the monsters," Tatar said. "We now try to understand them, rather than kill them. There are many authors who are acutely aware that these are complex stories, and you can operate them like a kaleidoscope. You give it a little twist, and suddenly the pieces fall into place differently. You see the story in a new way."
Versions of the same tale have evolved not only over time, but in many different cultures. The famous German version of Snow White, for example, has Italian, Scottish, Albanian, Indian, Armenian and Russian equivalents. And no one really knows how this cross-cultural germination came to be.
"It’s a huge enigma, a great puzzle, that folklorists are constantly wrestling with," Tatar said. "It’s possible that these stories have an origin point in one place. Folklorists used to think that it was India, and then the stories spread over the world, moving along trade routes. I tend to think, and a psychologist will tell you, that the human brain is the same everywhere. Our brains constantly have to work out these questions of romance and courtship, fidelity and betrayal. There are emotional knots that we have to constantly untie, and these stories work through those sorts of issues."
Tatar will also address the differences between the Grimms’ version of the "Snow White" tale and the 1937 Disney movie.
The Brothers Grimm described the seven dwarves as neat and tidy, for example, but in the Disney movie, they are utter slobs.
"They did that so they could add that great housekeeping scene," Tatar said. "Of course, they have come under a lot of fire for portraying Snow White as a housekeeper, where housekeeping is easy and magical and fun. But I have to give Disney a lot of credit, because they took a very short fairy tale and turned it into a feature film that’s a little over an hour. They had to be inventive."
If you go ...
What: ‘The Horror and the Beauty: Folklore, Culture, and Children’s Literature with Maria Tatar’
When: Today at 5:30 p.m.
Where: The Norman Rockwell Museum, Route 183, Stockbridge
or (413) 298-4100