Maria Tatar: Professor and fairy-tale expert
Once upon a time fairy tales got no scholarly respect. Maria Tatar, a Harvard University German literature professor who chairs the school’s program in folklore and mythology, helped change all that. Along the way she’s produced annotated versions of classics, such as her most recent, the just-released bicentennial edition of “The Annotated Brothers Grimm.”
BOOKS: When you aren’t reading fairy tales, what do you read?
TATAR: I would say my interests are eclectic. Ever since I discovered the world of children’s literature as a scholar I’ve developed tastes that surprise me all the time.
BOOKS: What are some examples of that?
TATAR: Working in this field I came across the usual suspects, Anne Sexton’s “Transformations,” Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber,” and Margaret Atwood, who is always alluding to these stories. The tale I’ve been focusing on recently is “Sleeping Beauty.’’ There’s Anne Rice’s soft porn version, the “Sleeping Beauty’’ trilogy, Robert Coover’s “Briar Rose,” Jane Yolen’s refashioning of the story for adolescents, which is about the Holocaust.
BOOKS: When did you start reading fairy tales as an adult?
TATAR: In my early 40s. I had children rather late and started reading fairy tales to them. Since my field was German literature, it seemed a nice way to combine personal and professional interests. I read “The Juniper Tree” from Grimms’ to them and stopped myself on the fifth sentence and began improvising. It’s a tale of exquisite beauty, but it’s also full of horrors that can be a little much for a small child.
BOOKS: What was your favorite fairy tale as a child?
TATAR: My favorite by far was “Hansel and Gretel.’’ I loved the story because in so many fairy tales about siblings there are quarrels, anger, and resentment. Here the sibling bond gets them through this crisis.
BOOKS: What is your favorite fairy tale as an adult?
TATAR: I gravitate toward the darker tales. I’m fascinated by “Blue Beard” by Charles Perrault. It’s so connected with our other cultural stories about curious, disobedient women, starting with Adam and Eve.
BOOKS: What was your reading like as an adult before fairy tales?
TATAR: My great love and passion was Weimar Germany, that era between the wars. I’ve always been a fan of Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain.”
BOOKS: Do you read contemporary fiction?
TATAR: Less so than 20th and 19th-century novels. With children’s literature I do try to keep up. I’m a big fan of Brian Selznick’s “Wonderstruck” and “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.” Children’s literature is so great because it doesn’t take a long time. You can tear through Suzanne Collins’s “The Hunger Games” in no time.
BOOKS: What are your favorite 19th-century books?
TATAR: “Jane Eyre” by Emily Brontë, which is very fairy-tale like. I was a huge fan of Charles Dickens as a child. I loved “David Copperfield.” I wept just at the idea of finishing the book. And Alexander Dumas’s “The Count of Monte Cristo” was an important book and Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables.” They just took you into that world of mystery and imagination. There are adults who tell me that you can get lost in a book in the same way, but I still feel there is something about childhood reading where you are absorbing in ways that are really powerful.
BOOKS: Were these books in the house?
TATAR: My family emigrated from Hungary in the 1950s. When we arrived, the job my father had been offered fell through. My parents had $200 in their pockets. We didn’t have money for books. Luckily we lived one block from the most beautiful library. You couldn’t enter the adult section until you were 12, but I snuck in. I was discovered. When the librarian scolded me she said, “I bet you can’t even read the title.’’ “Yes, I can,’’ I said. “It’s Dan-Ish fairy tales.’’