At the end of Kate Bernheimer's “Introduction to Fairy Tales” class, she asked her students to fill out a survey about course content. One of the questions was, to paraphrase, “Of all the authors we read this semester, who was your favorite?” Kate’s syllabus was loaded with great reads, including work by J.K. Rowling, Lucy Clifford, Aimee Bender, and Neil Gaiman (alongside the classic tales, of course). But, without hesitation, I typed “Maria Tatar.”
Tatar, a professor of Germanic Languages and Literature at Harvard, edited The Classic Fairy Tales—which served as our textbook—and the annotated edition of Peter Pan that we read. While she is more often thought of as a scholar than as a writer, I’m riveted by her introductions to and notes on texts—I sometimes love them more than the texts themselves. That's not so weird if you know me: I'm an info nerd with a strong interest in obfuscated, folkloric history. (This interest started years back: I’ll never forget how frustrated I felt when, at age twelve, my American Online Parental Controls precluded me from doing a successful search for “Snow White”—I needed, desperately, to know if it was of French or German origin.) But, even among writers of fairy tale scholarship and history, Tatar's writing is special. She keeps me glued to the page in a way that no other fairy tale scholars, and few fairy tales, do.
When I pitched the idea for Tiny Donkey, the online journal of short-form fairy-tale nonfiction that's an offshoot of Fairy Tale Review, Tatar served as a major inspiration. It was Kate who challenged me to make Tiny Donkey “short-form” and, though I didn't recognize it at the time, brevity is also characteristic of Tatar's writing—she has a way of summing an entire history or theoretical approach in a single, perfectly paced paragraph. Take, for example, this 243 word opening to her Classic Fairy Tales chapter on “Hansel & Gretel”:
Food—its presence and its absence—shapes the social world of fairy tales in profound ways. It is not at all uncommon for a peasant hero, faced with three wishes, to ask first for a plate of meat and potatoes, or to be so distracted by hunger that he yearns out loud for a sausage while contemplating the limitless possibilities before him. “What shall I command?” asks the hero of a Greek tale when told he can have anything he wants. Without a moment's hesitation, he responds by asking for “Food to Eat!” Wish fulfillment in fairy tales often has more to do with the stomach than with the heart. As Robert Darnton has pointed out in his discussion of the origins of fairy tales in adult peasant culture, “To eat one's fill, eat until the exhaustion of the appetite . . . was the principal pleasure that peasants dangled before their imaginations, and one that they rarely realized in their lives.” The same could be said about small children. While many folktales take us into the rugged and often brutal world of peasant life, where survival depends on getting your next meal, fairy tales often take us squarely in to the household, where everyone seems to be anxious about what's for dinner and about who's for dinner. The peasants of folktales may have to worry about famines, but children in fairy tales live perpetually under the double threat of starvation and cannibalism.
Like Tatar's work, Tiny Donkey allows its contributors to take a slice of the fairy-tale universe, chase it down a rabbit hole, and sum up findings elegantly in about four-hundred words. Of course, Tiny Donkey essays aren’t limited to scholarship, and neither is Tatar. In The Annotated Peter Pan, Tatar includes a section of quotes from Charlie Chaplin, J.R.R. Tolkein, Virginia Woolf, and others who love or loathe Barrie’s tale. Woolf says, simply, “We went with Gerald to Peter Pan, Barries [sic] play—imaginative and witty like all of his, but just too sentimental.—However it was a great treat.”2 These two sentences let me imagine the author of Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando in the box of a London theater, grappling with a children’s play. We want to leave space in Tiny Donkey for works like this, little memoirs that emphasize the I and analyze how fairy tales interact with our lives.
Fairy tales have a deeply personal resonance for me—they've cropped up over and over again throughout my life. I chose Tatar's opening paragraph as an example, in part, because I love food. I'm a culinary memoir addict, which means that I read story after story about an author's childhood pantry full of cornichons, or the macho, fast-paced heat of a New York City restaurant kitchen. While I remember my mother's Christmastime “spritzer cookies” fondly, and I've worked as a professional prep and short-order cook, my strongest food memories are the stranger, more fairy-tale ones. There are the Greek diners of suburban New York where, in high school, I'd eat late night “disco fries” and talk about Alice, Tom Waits' album-length take on the questionable relationship between Liddell & Lewis Carroll. Then there’s the kitchen of the cooperative I lived in the first time I went to college, where friends and I once prepared a “Lost Boys”-themed meal that consisted of homemade donuts and platters of raw vegetables (an alarming number of those donuts ended up on the facade of our house during the requisite food fight). And there’s the kitchen I found myself in when I, in a way, got lost in the woods, and ended up spending a year of my life working with an anti-mountaintop removal direct action campaign in southern West Virginia. The outdoor kitchen was made of tarps, plywood and propane burners, and it was manned by a career cook and activist who was once described as a “figure straight out of Tolkien” by the Missoula Independent. There, in that little compound along a West Virginia river, I knew it was time to wake up when the scent of cowboy coffee, made with a dozen scoops of Maxwell House in a giant pot, wafted through the air. Much of the kitchen equipment, and the cook himself, came from an organization called Seeds of Peace. One of Seeds of Peace's slogans is “Eat First! Then Smash the State,” which reminds me of the Greek hero in Tatar's paragraph, who demanded food before anything else. In social movements, like in fairy tales, food is crucial, central, and not to be forgotten.
Tatar mentions that “. . . fairy tales often take us squarely in to the household, where everyone seems to be anxious about what's for dinner and about who's for dinner.” The household is oft considered the heart of society and family, and meals are an extension of this. But homes, and food, can exist on the margins, too. Hansel and Gretel find their way to a witch's house deep in the woods, and the jumbled collection of houses I trampled through in West Virginia hardly resembled my parents' kempt, suburban home. Likewise, Tiny Donkey is particularly interested in marginal and unique voices—we want to publish the work of undergraduates, writers working outside of the academy, and writers underrepresented in fairy-tale scholarship and literature. When we serve up our brief dishes and you ask what's for dinner, we want it to be something you haven't tried before.
To submit to Tiny Donkey, please visit us here.
Wren Awry is a writer, student and cook based in Tucson, AZ. They’re a contributor to and founding editor of Tiny Donkey, an undergraduate journal of online, fairy tale non-fiction affiliated with Fairy Tale Review. They occasionally write criticism for The Anarcho-Geek Review, and their creative nonfiction has been published in Loom Art Zine. In the past, Wren dabbled in advocacy journalism, zine-making, and media strategy for environmental campaigns.
Tatar, Maria. "Introduction: Hansel and Gretel." The Classic Fairy Tales: Texts, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999. 179. Print.
Tatar, Maria, and J.M. Barrie. Ed. Maria Tatar. The Annotated Peter Pan. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011. 34573. Print.
Klemz, Patrick. "Time to CUT a Deal." Missoula Independent. Missoula News/Independent Publishing, 10 Apr. 2008. Web. 03 June 2015.