Sunday, February 5, 2012

Fourteen in One Blow

Yesterday I heard FOURTEEN different talks in the Grimm Legacy Fairy Tale Symposium at Harvard. I sat on a comfy couch in the back of the ornate room at the Barker Humanities Center, choosing coziness over a clearer sight line to the podium. Sitting on the couch with me were a children's librarian from Rhode Island and a professor of Portuguese at Harvard who remembers all the fairy tales told her by her grandmother as she was growing up in the Azores Islands.

A few highlights from the long, extremely full day:

Maria Tatar, brilliant scholar who chairs the Program in Folklore and Mythology at Harvard, gave exquisite opening remarks. I tried to write down all her best sentences, such as this one: "Stories make the human world, and they also make the world human." She talked about Gretel as a trickster heroine who spawned a legacy of surprisingly strong girls, such as Pippi Longstocking. She quoted James Baldwin: stories are "the only light we've got in the darkness."

David Rice, recent Harvard graduate who is just back from a year in Berlin working on his novel (now I want to have a year in Berlin working on MY novel!), spoke eloquently of the distinction between the "forest" - a literal, real place that can be mapped - and the "woods" - the landscape of imagination, a subjective state of feelings. He distinguished fairy tales, where readers sign an implicit contract to enter a world of magic, and literature of the fantastic, where magic breaks in unbidden.

Ariane Mandell, completing a degree at Harvard Divinity School as she also completes her first novel, talked about the role of tears in the Grimm stories, first invoking ancient Jewish wisdom that tears have the power to get God's attention when nothing else will. The miller's daughter's tears bring the aid of Rumplestiltskin; then her tears get him to grant her a reprieve on her promise to give him her firstborn child. Cinderella waters the tree over her mother's grave with her tears, thus bringing her the magical assistance she needs to go to the ball. To weep is to hope, Ariane said; people with serious enough clinical depression no longer bother to weep.

Perri Klass, pediatrician and author of numerous essays on literature, distilled a century of childrearing advice from leading physicians on whether or not parents should read fairy tales to children. Dr. Spock said no: the world has enough cruelty in it without gratuitously introducing more. But he is in the minority. Bruno Bettelheim said that when children request the same story over and over again it is because there is some message that they want the PARENT to get!

Animator Ruth Lingford showed her hauntingly beautiful film of the lesser-known Grimm tale, "Death and the Mother." Jerry Griswold brought the house down with hilarious musings about the different endings of "Beauty and the Beast," focusing on Beauty's bewilderment when her beast is suddenly replaced by some handsome stranger: "Who the heck is THAT?" John Cech looked at Sendak's illustrations of Grimm; Michael Patrick Hearn looked at the Cruikshank illustrations from the first English-language edition of the tales. Claudia Schabe showed clips from socialist retellings of the tales in East German films of the Cold War era. And more!

I was too tired to go out to explore Cambridge in the evening. I waltzed back to my bed-and-breakfast and got in bed and read. I now have a couple of hours before I have to head to Logan for my flight home. Should I walk around Cambridge in this sunny but very cold morning? Or stay curled up at this sweet Irving Street b&b? Or maybe a little bit of both?


  1. Sounds like a great conference!

  2. Sounds like a great conference, but we were so close to each other! I was in NH at Sarah's from the 1-7th!