Maria Tatar —
The Great Cauldron of Story: Why Fairy Tales Are for Adults Again

Fairy tales don't only belong to the domain of childhood. Their overt themes are threaded throughout hit TV series like Game of Thrones and True Blood, Grimm and Once Upon a Time. These stories survive, says Maria Tatar, by adapting across cultures and history. They are carriers of the plots we endlessly re-work in the narratives of our lives — helping us work through things like fear and hope.

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is the John L. Loeb Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University, where she also chairs the Program in Folklore and Mythology. Her books include Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood and The Annotated Brothers Grimm.

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Synchronicity never ceases to amaze me: I listened to the broadcast this afternoon, then went home to continue reading the newest novel checked out of the library, Jodi Picoult's THE STORYTELLER. The following excerpt appears . . . (pages 128-129):

" 'I was a writer,' she says. 'A child who believed in fairy tales. Not the silly Disney ones your mother used to read to you, but the ones with blood and thorns, with girls who knew that love could kill you just as often as it could set you free. I believed in the curses of witches and the madness of werewolves. But I also mistakenly believed the scariest stories came from imagination, not real life. . . . I started writing when I was thirteen. It is what I did when other girls were fixing their hair and trying to flirt with boys. Instead, I would dream up characters and dialogue. I would write a chapter and give it to my best friend, Darija, to read and see what she thought. . . . This is what I was doing when the war came. And I did not stop. . . . It is not the original, of course. I don't have that anymore. But as soon as I could, I rewrote from memory. I HAD to. . . . This is my story. . . . It's not the one your are looking for, about what happened during the war. That's not nearly as important. Because this story,
it's the one that kept me alive.'
"Her story is supernatural, about an UPIOR--the Polish version of a vampire. But what makes it so terrifying is not the monster, who's a known quantity, but the ordinary men who turn out to be monsters, too. It is as if she knew, even at that young age, that you cannot separate good and evil cleanly, that they are conjoined twins sharing a single heart. If words had flavors, hers would be bitter almonds and coffee grounds."
This excerpt deals with an elderly Jewish woman who survived the Holocaust and the memories of what had happened to her father before the concentration camp experience even arrived. I could not help but parallel this narrative with those you ladies referenced on air today.

I am so happy each time that you post a new program. I love your programs but I have problem with my hearing and I use the transcripts in order to enjoy the programs. Are you going to post the transcript for this program? I really hope so.
Thank you very much and Blessings to all of you.

Trent Gilliss's picture

Ricardo, we most certainly will. With the sound-rich nature of this week's show, we were producing right up until the eleventh hour — which means the transcriptionist got the audio a bit later than usual. We will post the transcript today. Thanks for asking!

I don't know if I just noticed the sound more than usual for this show or it just seemed richer than usual. Great job. I really loved the clips you chose from the different media references, especially that last one from Game of Thrones. I am going to look to see if I can get that sound clip.

I whole heartily agree with your statement above. I love you, Krista and have for the last eleven years. You have been a great inspiration and a resource of profound wisdom for me and, I am sure, for countless others like me who seek truth and meaning in life. Thank you, Krista Tippet.

Thank you for today's podcast. I love all of the On Being episodes very much, but decided to add a quick comment

I'm very interested in the traditional tales, and also the modern interpretations. It has been interesting to watch these stories and characters evolve. I guess since I am a comic-book geek (somewhat) I felt like I should mention some of the most inspired reinterpretations I've come across...

There is Bill Willingham's Fables, which tells the stories of various "Fables" who are forced to flee from their various homeland and have gathered to form a small community in the modern world. Sounds a little cliche, but it's very well done. I'd Also recommend the work of Neil Gaiman, his comics and literature. Sandman is an amazing work, and his novel Neverwhere is also a great introduction. Mike Mignola's Hellboy and BPRD also do a fantastic job re-imagining characters and stories.

I know there are many great ways traditional stories are being retold. Movies, TV, literature... it is nice to see. I guess over time I've come to believe that some of the best (and worst too probably :) modern fairy tales are being created in comic books.

I recently read "The Virginian" and found much food for thought from a Harvard graduate and exponent of the American Way in a truer sense than today. Some say that the book is too simple, but I propose that it is about starting over- a rebirth of America in a pure sense with respect to foundational truths of right and wrong. America is grasping for foundational truth without the Holy Bible and Fairy Tales are a vehicle in this direction.

Thank you for the opportunity to listen to Maria Tatar (and you, too!) on the fascinating worlds that our minds-hearts-emotions seek in the tales and stories that creative human power use for (paraphrasing Ms. Tatar in the interview) "making sense out of our lives". We are indeed story beings! How may I contact Maria Tatar? My dream-to-materialize is here, in this simple webpage: and I do hope that both of you would have a look at it. I have been investing much work and most of my financial resources in building this service for young children and their mindful educators! Both your feedbacks will be highly appreciated - feel free to email me and I will respond immediately, with my heartfelt thanks! Kindly, Rubens Turkienicz ( )

When I was in the Peace Corps in Ukraine, I conducted 4 different English speaking goups at the local library. The groups were held in the Windows on America department. The most loved of these groups was the English listening comprehension group, actually a storytelling group where i would tell and read fairy tales. Often the room would overflow with participants ranging from ages 16 to 60. We would draw comparisons between the cultures from the stories. It was a beautiful way to see connections between cultures and we were able to have many wonderful indepth conversations "on being" a part of the human family. Not only did they improve their listening comprehension but their English speaking improved as well as their understanding of cross-cultural diversity. I believe it was the fairytales that allowed everyone to actively engage and not fear to ask questions about what they didn't understand. I loved telling the tales and they loved listening.

I wonder if one reason why the fairy tale themes are now so evident is that many (most?) of those who are now adults, other than maybe in Disney versions, did not hear the canon of stories as children, or at least if they did hear them, it was not regularly? Those who are now adults may have not been read to as children (for reasons of poverty for example). Or perhaps their parents may have felt these stories were "too violent" and that children should be shielded from them. Or the other extreme, the stories may have been used selectively to teach specific moral lessons, which is not their intent. We missed something as children that we need now.

Other people who have explored the purpose of these tale with children are Vign Guroian, and of course Clarissa Pinkola Estes (another woman with Hungarian roots) writes about fables and myths and the unconscious.

Thanks for this reflection - from another 1/2 Hungarian adult!

Maria Tatar remarked that she didn't care for church because of the sermons. And later referred to that, saying she doesn't like to be judgmental ... to sermonize, I suppose. But then you, Krista, referred to being thoughtful ... becoming intentional ... shaping. My take: "internalizing your responsibilities". So by avoiding the sermons, do we forestal internalizing our responsibilities? Extend our childhood? Is that part of the explanation of declining church attendance and our secularized society? Gives me something to think about. Thanks. :o)

I appreciated this so much. I was in need of this kind of explanation of the value of stories - see The Great Cauldron of Story and the Landscape of Change -
Thank you for explaining.

I’ve come across two retellings of traditional stories. One is movie that came out in 2011 called “Red Riding Hood” which centers on a young woman whose town had been terrorized by werewolves for generations. It has many of the elements of the commonly told story in a dark, adult setting. What I liked most was that at the end, “Red Riding Hood” decided to move into her grandmother’s house in the woods rather than live in the fear filled village.
The other story is a book called Ash by Milinda Lo, which is a retelling of Cinderella. At the end of the story the protagonist leave her step-mother’s house without fanfare, but says goodbye to her younger stepsister who was actually a nice girl. I especially liked how they parted on good terms, even sharing a hug and wishing each other good luck.

I tuned-in to your amazing fairy tale and folklore story this past Sunday and became so immersed in the interview I drove past my neighborhood and through a drive-thru to have an excuse to keep listening. When I got home I dashed into the house, dumped the last minute ice cream treats on my family and raced to turn on the radio in my bedroom. I flopped on my bed with dessert in hand and thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the delightful and thoughtful interview. It has been a long time since a radio program has captivated my attention and fired-up my imagination in one magical swoop. Thank you and Bravo!

I was a fairy tale fan well before my brother was born when I was five. Suddenly, all the formerly adoring grown-ups in my life just couldn't wait for me to learn to tie my own shoes, though they had always patiently done so. Then, a few months later, I was sent off to school to learn how to read, even though adults seemed to enjoy reading to me in the past.

Then I remembered the many fairy tales in which it was decided that it was time for a child "to make her own way in the world." I was greatly relieved not to be completely evicted.

Dear Ms. Tippett, I listened to the extended interview with Maria Tartar with some disappointment. I was waiting the entire time for you both to talk about Jung and von Franz's view of fairy tales as stories that contain a tremendous amount of compensatory material that usually contradict or compensate the collective conscious ideas. You also did not discuss archetypes and how they appear in fairy tales. I recommend anyone interested in the feminine motifs to read Marie Louis von Franz "The Feminine in Fairy Tales". Sometimes your interviews feel superficial to me, and this was one of them. RE: Tarter's refusal to judge, I think this is a major problem today and part of our consumer mentality. Everything is allowed (ie. if you have money, you can own it), so there is a lack of discernment and moral imperative. If everything is okay, then we lose the boundaries and containers we need to be fully free. Thank you for your great efforts to bring consciousness into the world.

Excellent...I couldn't agree more with your comments. Thank you!

Thanks, this was a great episode, got me watching 'Once Upon A Time'. Regarding your conversation about the Kindle reader, here is an explanation on how the product was named, Good to see that even marketing can be deeply inspired.

Totally enjoy your show.

Trent Gilliss's picture

Thanks for the link, Juan Carlos! Much appreciated, and I'll share with our Twitter audience too.

I am such a fan of this entire program. I have spent countless hours listening to it while cooking, sitting and working at my desk, driving in the car, or just sitting at home listening with a glass of wine in hand. Just wanted to say a huge thank you for such enlightening, interesting, evolved programming.
I love, love the artwork that accompanies this program (girl running through an icy snowy field). Beautiful. And how did I not know until now that you have playlists for each program??

I listen to On Being all the time, thanks for the great show. My 3 daughters and I love Once Upon a Time, the fairy tales give everyone a reference point to the show. You don't have to follow every single episode to enjoy it. Those are two things that are missing in television today: family friendliness and the ability to enjoy a show with only occasional viewing.

As for Maria and Krista's assertion that we don't protect children as much anymore. They said that in the context of allowing children to see scary movies like The Hunger Games. This is true, kids see a lot of scary shows these days. But I think this is because children are MORE protected than ever before. Gone are the days of riding your bike all over town (with no helmet), swimming in the local mud hole, and close friends ending up in an iron lung. Children are protected more than ever, which perhaps makes the scary movie more tolerable.

I was surprised and confused by Tatar's initial reaction and resistance to the plot of Hunger Games--children being forced or driven to kill each other--because it's not remotely new. Lord of the Flies has been on shelves for 60 years, and has been made into successful film versions. The novel Battle Royale has been around for nearly 20 years, and in 2000 it too was adapted into a much-discussed movie. It would have been--and still could be--helpful to hear what, if anything, sets Hunger Games apart.

Struck me in listening to this (and maybe you got to it in the unedited version) that of the big themes in fables and the way that children perceive them, trickery and the cleverness of characters is so important.

Trickery is such a motif in everything from the Bros Grimm to Kipling's Just So stories (think of Rumpelstiltskin or Jack the Giant Slayer). Makes me wonder if this is non-threatening lesson for children about trust (i.e. you can trust your parents but there are those outside the home who will not tell you truth and who will try and manipulate situations) and also in the way these stories privilege cleverness generally.

I was reading the comments and I decided to copy one of these comments that truly describe how I feel about Krista and On Being:
I love you, Krista and have for the last eleven years. You have been a great inspiration and a resource of profound wisdom for me and, I am sure, for countless others like me who seek truth and meaning in life. Thank you, Krista Tippet from the bottom of my heart!

I started listening to this show as an assignment from my college instructor, but I have found it to be very interesting, enlightening, and facinating. I found this show to be really interesting in that the use of modern tech to tell our kids the stories we grew up listening to. I never made the connection with the Kindle Fire with a fireside storytelling, but that is a great connection!

This was spot on with what I feel the modern telling of stories has become. I grew up listening to little red riding hood, the three pigs, and countless others. Disney then let me enjoy those stories by bring them to the movie theater. The first one I watched was Bambi, and it scared the hell out of me. It added a realism that I hadn't been used to before.

Great topic, and I look forward to listening in the future!

Enjoyed this program a lot. Great stories will never go out of fashion, including so called fairy tales [the ones with depth] because they reflect the deep mythic fabric of the human psyche and the various ways these deep themes play themselves out in various cultures and times. They touch something universal and mysterious.

Following up on the interview with Maria Tatar and thinking about how current television is re-using these themes - I don't watch much network or cable tv but do watch a lot of PBS. I heard the clip from -forget which current show- where Red Riding Hood is afraid of becoming the wolf so builds a cage for herself. It made me think of a British cop show (Scott & Bailey). This week's episode had one of the detectives, a woman who had been terrorized by an ex-boyfriend, accused of beating him half to death. The night this happened, she had been drinking (again) and forgot what happened. She worried about what she was capable of when she drank, and whether she might in fact have done the beating. Turned out not, but definitely a theme I heard in this week's show.

Thanks so much for these great programs. You are my "church" on Sunday mornings, for several years now.

I am always amazed that a key mantra of the Atheist movement is that religion is only 'Fables and Fairy-tales'. And then, that that same group then picks up from their blogging to go spend hundreds per capita on what? Fable and Fairy-tale movies, cable, books, video games and on. Something obvious is missed it would seem.
I note that Krista's selection of clip from "Grimm" was very clever indeed. Solid show that will get a second listen.

I listen to Krista's interviews whether I have an interest in the subject or not because I am always 'enlightened' in one way or another. Reading all the comments I feel like I am the only one who was terrified of all those 'Fairy Tales' as a child and still do NOT like those tales or short stories ( too much happens too quickly for me to absorb it in an orderly manner! ) Despite all that I did enjoy the interview. Thank you.

I think ending with “Happily ever after” is just as important as beginning with “Once upon a time”. It makes a boundary around the story and places it apart from the immediacy that’s around us. They are bookends. The "Once upon a time” takes us to the not-here, not-now, and the “Happily ever after” lets us leave it and come back, by freeing us from wondering how all the loose ends worked out. It’s from the oral tradition apart from books, an equivalent of ceremonially opening the storybook as we start, and closing the book at the end. In theater, we have the house-lights to stage-lights transition, and back again at the end (or the curtain, in the days before such effective dramatic lighting). If you would take people on a journey to a scary place, you must needs bring them back.

Thanks for this ability to send a comment. I had not examined a Kindle Fire until Ms Katar's description of her 1st generation media; comparing the name to fireside storytelling! Please have her add this type of description to Wikipedia - it will connect Katar's point to a larger audience. To expand apps, I suggest having connections to a selection of books, types of groups, etc that have been discussed.

I am still enchanted by the levels present in most of the Disney versions of old fairy tales. The recent 'Tangled', with Rapunzel and her looooong hair was a major hit in my group. There is no age for enjoying a good fairy tale.