Off With Their Heads! by Maria Tatar (thoughts)
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.