Arts & Culture

Tools for ‘navigating childhood’

4 min read

Maria Tatar examines the power, charm, and utility of fairy tales

The fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen have enchanted children the world over for more than two centuries with their verbal sorcery and expressive intensity. Now their iconic power has drawn the attention of a Harvard professor, who hopes to broaden our understanding of how those eye-widening fairy tales expand the imaginations of children.

The stories deserve serious intellectual investigation, says Maria Tatar, John L. Loeb Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Tatar is taking a critical look at Andersen to show how these stories have become part of our folklore, playing a formative role in the shaping of childhood identities.

“We need to engage our critical faculties in order to understand what makes these stories so emotionally addictive. Why have these Danish cultural stories taken hold in the United States to become instruments for navigating childhood?” Tatar asks. “How do the stories enable the reader to get lost in the book, to drink the heady elixir of fantasy? And how do they arouse the intellectual curiosity of children?”

According to Tatar, a strong moral message is not the key to Andersen’s appeal. Rather, she says, Andersen’s descriptive techniques create moments with “ignition power” that kindle the imagination.

“Andersen’s descriptions of beauty can weave spells,” Tatar says. “They create an adrenaline rush so that you begin to read with the spine rather than the brain. These luminous moments energize the mind, leading the reader to read on to explore perils and possibilities, but also to dig deeper.”

Tatar investigates the power of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “The Snow Queen,” “The Princess and the Pea,” “The Ugly Duckling,” and 20 other tales in a forthcoming book titled “The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen” (W.W. Norton). Tatar and Julie K. Allen, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, translated Andersen’s fairy tales from the original Danish versions.

“The Emperor’s New Clothes” — one of Andersen’s best-known fairy tales — exemplifies for Tatar Andersen’s narrative powers.

“When I reread the tale I remembered how as a child I had started to imagine what the cloth looked like,” says Tatar. “Even though it is invisible, the swindlers and the adults describe the cloth as silky and beautiful, with gossamer designs … and Andersen invests so much narrative energy in describing the invisible cloth that, ironically, it begins to dazzle in the mind’s eye. That is what Andersen can do — he lights up the imagination.”

Children’s tales like “The Emperor’s New Clothes” are not Andersen’s only legacy. Tatar is eager to revive his short stories, which were enormously popular among adults in the 19th century.

“Many of Andersen’s short stories situate him in the pantheon of 19th century writers,” Tatar says. “I am trying to resurrect him as a writer of real literary stature, an unrepentant eccentric who earned the deep admiration of British and European readers.”

Andersen reached back to the Romantics but he also anticipated the cult of beauty that was to come later in the century with a turn toward aestheticism and decadence, says Tatar.

Regardless of intended age or audience, Tatar says, Andersen’s stories get under our skin. “We still feel the power surges that are meant to rob us of sleep.”

“Andersen tapped into something primal, into cultural fantasies, desires, fears, and phobias that are with us today,” says Tatar. “These stories have become our cultural heritage.”

She sees Andersen’s influence in television shows like “The Swan,” a reality-TV makeover program on Fox.

“The plots of his stories are constantly recycled, and they should be,” says Tatar. “We make improvements to these stories, but we also add our own negative cultural baggage. The tales evolve and grow as we do, and remind us that there is no ‘perfect’ story for children. They are not meant to be politically correct — they are meant to challenge us and make us think.”