Children learn lessons from the stories they read, said Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but "when they are in a position to apply them, they almost always do so in a way opposite to the author's intention." With tales from the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Andersen, Joseph Jacobs and others, Maria Tatar's "Annotated Classic Fairy Tales" serves as a rich elaboration of that idea.
Tatar's choice of stories is indeed "classic": nothing that would not have been part of the basic nursery library of any educated Western home at mid-century. But by entwining those almost-too-familiar stories with historical notes, multiple interpretations and illustrations by a variety of artists, she shows not only how individuals but also societies, classes, eras and bickering gaggles of scholars have drawn endlessly various meanings from the same narratives. In the process she leads us to see that the very search for "meaning" is a diminution of the mysterious and contradictory powers of storytelling.
Tatar is a folklorist and professor of Germanic languages at Harvard, and most of her notes concern historical backgrounds or parallels among folk traditions, but here and there she allows us a Freudian, Jungian, Marxist or lit-critical interpretation. So, as we explore even as simple a narrative as "Jack and the Beanstalk," we can read it as a symbol of the end of the oral phase of early childhood or of the British exploitation of the colonies, connect it to the stories of Aladdin and the Buddha, and consider why Jacobs chose to reject an earlier, more moralistic version and tell the story as he did.
The accompanying illustrations help us experience the story simultaneously as dreamy idyll (Maxfield Parrish), rustic humor (Arthur Rackham) and frightening adventure (an anonymous Victorian who took his giants quite seriously). And we can engage with our children, as Tatar suggests, in questioning whether Jack was a hero whose slaying of the giant and liberation of his property was justified or if he was really just a very bad boy.
Tatar demonstrates that efforts to reduce such narratives to ethical how-to manuals for the preschool set are nothing new. The Grimms' first collection was assailed by 19th century audiences as "tasteless" and full of material "unsuitable for children," and so in their second edition the brothers added moral messages and rewrote everything that could be seen as troubling to parents. At the time that meant mainly sexual references: their first version of "Rapunzel" outed the long-tressed heroine when she asked the enchanted warden of her tower why her clothes no longer fit after her lover knocked her up; the slip of the lip that has betrayed her in every telling of the story for the last 180 years ("Why are you so much heavier than the king's son?") was a Grimm invention. (The shift in parental jitters over the last two centuries can be measured by the fact that, while cleaning up the sex, the Grimms exaggerated the violence and gore, apparently feeling that horror would drive the moral points home more vividly for children.)
More recently, cultural conservatives such as William J. Bennett have tried to hijack the stories for the promotion of their simple ethical templates, an effort that Tatar dismisses as "mindless." The author of "The Book of Virtues," she says, "fails to recognize the complexities of reading, the degree to which children ... become passionate about vices as well as virtues." What fascinates in these tales are not the acts and consequences that proceed to happy endings but the transformations, killings, abandonments, agonies and sudden boons on the twisting forest paths along the way.
Tatar thus allies herself more with Bruno Bettelheim, who argued in "The Uses of Enchantment" that the violence and horror of fairy tales can be therapeutic for children. But even he fell prey to the reductionism that seduces anyone who tries to make the stories serve a "use." "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," he fretted, failed to provide the "promise of future happiness awaiting those who have mastered their oedipal situation as a child."
Tatar's comment is a bit decorous: "Bettelheim's reading is perhaps too invested in instrumentalizing fairy tales," but simply by placing the quote against the suspense and delight of that naughty little girl's narrow escape from the consequences of poking around where she shouldn't, she exposes even that psychoanalyst as a prig who couldn't quite bear to let a child pursue the lure of fantasy off the predetermined path.