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Brothers & Beasts: the boys who love fairy tales

The Three Feathers by Maurice Sendak

Many of you will be familiar with Kate Bernheimer's fine book Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales, originally published in 1998, containing memorable essays by Margaret Atwood, A.S. Byatt, bell hooks, Joyce Carol Oates, Fay Weldon, Joy Williams, and many others. (Ursula Le Guin, Midori Snyder, and I contributed essays to the second, expanded edition in 2002: "The Wilderness Within," "The Monkey Girl" and "Transformations.")

The Story of One Who Set Out to Study Fear by Maurice SendakLess well known than Mirror, Mirror, but equally good, is Kate's follow-up volume: Brother's & Beasts: An Anthology of Men on Fairy Tales, 2007. The book has a fine roster of writers, including Gregory Maquire, Neil Gaiman, Robert Coover, Timothy Schaffaert, Christopher Barzak, Jeff VanderMeer, and Alexander Chee, plus contributions from scholars Maria Tatar and Jack Zipes, and a fascinating introduction by Kate discussing the way the project came together.

She'd originally intended to publish both men and women in Mirror, Mirror, she writes, but "several people who greatly supported that book did not support the inclusion of men. They claimed, quite adamantly, 'No one will be interested in what men have to say about fairy tales.' Worse still, they continued, 'Men wouldn't have much of interest to say about fairy tales.'

Hans My Hedgehog and May-Furs by Maurice Sendak

"But evidence of men's interest in fairy tales is vast and spans many centuries," Kate continues. "At the time I was very young and did not argue. Besides, I thought that a book gathering essays by women would be interesting too. Why not? But I always considered that book incomplete -- or, more precisely, because I am an emotional editor, I consider it unfair. Of all the literary traditions, the fairy-tale tradition is generous and spiteful  towards boys and girls, men and women -- it does not prefer one over the other. I did not like to suggest that women more than men had a stake in these powerful stories.

"Also, I felt that the assertion that men would have nothing to say about fairy tales was reflective of a two-fold prejudice: against men and against fairy tales. There was an implicit disdain for boys drawn to stories of wonder. There was also an implied disdain for fairy tales, so strongly associated with girls and the nursery.

The Poor Miller's Boy and the Little Cat

"Though several eloquent gender studies of fairy tales exist, one hardly encounters a popular reference to men and fairy tales -- Robert Bly's Iron John nothwithstanding. It is as if men are not allowed to have an emotional or artistic relationship to fairy tales. On the whole -- in the classroom, at conderences, or at lectures -- I find that men are not accustomed to being asked if they like fairy tales, let alone whether fairy tales have influences their emotional, intellectual, and artistic lives. "

The premise of Brothers & Beasts, Kate says, "was to reverse that poor spell."

The Golden Bird by Maurice Sendak

"While I appreciate the celebration, both in scholarship and in popular culture, of the strong female characters in fairy tales," Kate adds, "I think that, first and foremost, our devotion to fairy tales is with 'the whole of the mind' and not with our gender. Phrased differently, perhaps less controversially, it is clear that in both Mirror, Mirror and Brothers & Beasts artistic fervor comes first -- a fervor begun in childhood with a fervor for reading....

"For me, there was nothing like reading fairy tales as a child. As Maria Tatar points out in her lovely forward, 'When you read a book as a child, it sends chills up your spine and produces somatic effects that rarely accompany the reading experience of adults.' Jack Zipes, in his afterword, writes, 'The fairy tale has not been partial to one sex or the other.' Reading fairy tales -- or writing about them -- is, I can assure you, one of the few ways that adults can re-create that delicious, somatic childhood chill.

Hansel & Gretel by Maurice Sendak

"Yet men, so discouraged from speaking personally about fairy tales and their connection to them, may lose that opportunity -- which is a loss for us all. That is why I so badly wanted to do this book. I was surprised by the urgency the writers felt too. And I cherish the tenderness with which these writers talk about thimbles and flowers, myth makers and cowards, bears both little and big. It is the tenderness that strikes me, the tenderness and urgency here."

Brothers & Beasts is available from Wayne State University Press. I highly recommend it if it's not on your fairy tale shelves already.

Bearskin & The Goblins by Maurice Sendak

The art today is by Maurice Sendak (1928-2012), from his two-volume fairy tale masterpiece The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm. Sendak, the child of Polish-American parents, came from a family much decimated by the Holocaust. Raised in Brooklyn, New York, he vowed to become an artist after watching Disney's Fantasia at the age of twelve. He began illustrating books in the late 1940s, then moved on to writing them as well, creating such classics as Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, and Outside Over There, and winning virtually every major award he could win.

"Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it," Sendak recalled in one interview. "I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters -- sometimes very hastily -- but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, 'Dear Jim: I loved your card.' Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, 'Jim loved your card so much he ate it.' That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it."

The 12 Huntsman & Brother and Sister by Maurice Sendak

Fairy Tale anthologies edited by Kate Bernheimer

Words: The passage above is from Brothers & Beasts, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Wayne State University Press, 2007); all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: Maurice Sendak's drawings are from The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm, translated by Lore Segal & Randall Jarrell (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, revised edition 2003); titles can be found in the picture captions. All rights reserved by the Sendak estate.

Related reading: Fairy tales and youngest sons, Hansel and the trail of stones, and The road between dreams and reality.


I'm a man who's been interested in fantasy and fairy tales since boyhood. Disney was my first introduction to fairy tales (as well as Sesame Street and other child-appropriate shows), but I as grew older and learned about the uncensored and original fairy tales, my mind was blown and captivated. It inspired me to write my own stories, and some of them are my own retellings of classic fairy tales, but going back to their original roots, with a few changes of my own.

For example, my Cinderella retelling has Cinderella revert back to her old cunning and self-determined predecessors. And instead of marrying the Prince, which is left ambiguous, she seeks to reclaim her family estate and identity, both of which were stolen by her stepfamily. She also practices a form of ancestor worship, with the ghosts of her sister, mother and grandmother as her fairy godmother figures.

I find how sex segregated our society currently treats its children to be bizarre. Up until the early 20th century, boys and girls wore the same clothes (dresses) until they were between 5-7 and had long hair. Boys and girls both listened to fairy stories, folk tales, and other tales of the fantastic. It's the peculiar hubris of our modern age that we somehow have decreed that despite thousands of years to the contrary we have decided that from birth, boys and girls must adhere to our current, arbitrary sex stereotypes. The divide of what's "for boys" and "for girls" extending to things as foolish as colors- that pink is exclusively for women and blue is exclusively for men, despite the opposite being true in the West for centuries- the idea that if a 4 year old girl prefers pants and a 4 year old boy dresses that this is somehow indicative of something deeper is non stop mystifying to anyone who has even the slightest knowledge of history. And now this, that anyone could have said with deep conviction in their correctness that boy don't like fairy tales and thus the men who grew up on them have nothing to say about them is bonkers. Many, many fairy tales have boys as the protagonist or co-protagonist. Is Jack from the Beanstalk not a character? Tom Thumb? What about Hansel? Gretel is the clever and valiant heroine, but she doesn't exist in a vacuum.

I read my sons fairy tales all the time, along with various mythologies. They love stories of magic, witchcraft, and adventure. Despite the eldest being 9, neither of them as ever characterized fairy tales as not for them.

Thanks for raising this subject. I am often uneasy with the apparent imbalance of gender discourse in the newer writings about folk and fairy tales. I love it that us female types get to say what we want about it all, but where's the broader human-and-beyond common ground if we don't hear from our Brothers and Others?
I like how Iona and Peter Opie worked TOGETHER on their studies of fairy tales and children's culture, producing some of the foundational texts for students in the 1970's, but then maybe I'm just a romantic.
And aren't those Maurice Sendak illustrations wonderful?

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