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Off With Their Heads! by Maria Tatar (thoughts)

June 19, 2013

Off With Their Heads
Back in 2011, I read Maria Tatar’s most recent book Enchanted Hunters, which is about children’s lit. While I loved it, there was a part of me that wished it had even more general analysis. Little did I know that her earlier book, Off With Their Heads! would completely fulfill my wish. It is entirely devoted to a scholarly (but with loads of popular audience appeal) look at fairy tales, from Tatar’s feminist, sympathetic-to-children stance, and it is simply magnificent.

This magnificence begins in the introduction, which among other things includes Tatar’s cool, detached skewering of the Freudian, chauvinistic perspective Bruno Bettelheim put forth his book The Uses of Enchantment, a book I abandoned about halfway through in disgust. It’s petty I know, but I adore watching smart academics decimate half-baked theories put forth by others in their field. But this is not a defensive book, instead it’s a wonderfully constructive and proactive exploration of European fairy tales, their themes, and their cultural evolution. The latter is particularly interesting, as Tatar traces the change from earthy, for-adult folk tales told primarily for entertainment to bowlderised, for-children fairy tales with a strong moralistic agenda.

I also loved Tatar’s descriptive approach, as she catalogues various types of heroes and heroines and plots, looking for patterns and exceptions and links to historical and cultural context. It’s all wonderfully enlightening, and while Tatar doesn’t excuse the gender and race issues, her love and respect for fairy tales comes through quite strongly throughout the book.

Off With Their Heads! is a treat for nerdy fairy tale lovers everywhere, as well as those who enjoy pro-woman literary analysis, which I think describes a significant percentage of book bloggers! ;) And judging by the way fairy tales are suddenly popping up on TV and in the movies, I suspect there’s a larger cultural interest in them as well. I’ll certainly be picking up more from her back list soon: I’m particularly intrigued by her first book entitled Spell Bound: Studies on Mesmerism and Literature, although I’ll have to ILL it. Fortunately my library does have her The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales in its stacks.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. June 20, 2013 12:40 am

    Oh, this is my kind of book. Why haven’t I already read it?? (Plus, I love that Bilibin illustration on the front. So. automatic love.)

  2. June 20, 2013 10:35 am

    LOVE THIS BOOK! It was one of the first books I read in a class with my mentor in graduate school. I can truly say that this book helped shape my whole Masters degree experience. Love it!

  3. June 21, 2013 10:20 pm

    I read Enchanted Hunters due to your influence; now I have all of Tatar’s books on my list. This one sounds to me like the perfect choice, I would also enjoy a takedown of Bettleheim ;) Thanks for pointing out the highlights of this title.

  4. June 22, 2013 3:38 pm

    I really need to read this! I have had it out from the library a couple times… Must stop slacking!!

  5. June 23, 2013 6:31 pm

    Holy crumbs, this sounds good. I love analysis like this – I am hoping and praying my library has a copy!

  6. June 25, 2013 3:31 pm

    My only experience with her work has been The Grimm Reader so thanks for turning me to these. Ordering now…

  7. July 2, 2013 5:33 pm

    Oh, this looks good!

    And I have to agree about academics disagreeing – especially when the theory you don’t like is being ripped to shreds! It makes me think about Christopher Browning’s “Ordinary Men” which basically refuted the idea in Daniel Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” (which argued that there was something special about Germans that let the Holocaust happen).

    I believe Browning’s book came out first, then Goldhagen wrote his, then Browning wrote a withering new epilogue/response in a later edition. Quite a different topic than fairy tales, unfortunately.

  8. July 10, 2013 8:19 pm

    This is my first time visiting your blog and I’ve really enjoyed it! I am also a book nerd so I love reading about what other people are enjoying :)

  9. July 13, 2013 7:59 am

    Your astute analysis of ‘Off With Their Heads’ has gotten me nostalgic for the Enid Blyton and Hans Christian Anderson fairytalesI grew up on.

  10. Jenny permalink
    July 17, 2013 7:41 pm

    This sounds like exactly my sort of thing! On the TBR it goes, and thanks, Eva!

  11. July 27, 2013 12:51 pm

    Why have i not picked this up before? It sounds amazing. Must get it asap!!! I have one of her other books, The Annotated Brother’s Grimm, which I’ve slowly been reading. I love the idea of looking at how fairy tales evolved. Thanks for a fabulous review, Eva.

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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