You are a fairy tale researcher. How did you become interested in fairy tales?
When I began my graduate work at Columbia University in 1959, I took an interest in American and European romanticism. Many of the writers I studied wrote fairy tales, and as I began writing and teaching, my interest in fairy tales and folk tales grew. I also realized that the approaches taken by many scholars did not understand the role that fairy tales played in the socialization of children. So, I began to focus on the ideological aspects of fairy tales.
What has been and is the importance of the brothers Grimm for fairy tale culture?
The Kinder- und Hausmaerchen (Children and Household Tales) is the most important collection of folk and fairy tales in the world. Not only were there seven large editions and ten small editions published during the lifetime of the Brothers Grimm, but there have been over 100 different translations of the final edition into foreign languages. To a great extent the Grimms' tales form the basis of classical fairy tales in most countries in the western world.
How can the concept of 'memes' be used in fairy tale research?
Folklorists and fairy-tale scholars have always been aware that certain fairy tales have spread throughout the world, and they have never adequately explained why they manage to sprout without clear evidence in documents or in writing of any kind. I have always been interested in developing a "materialist" approach to folk and fairy tales, and the exploration of memes in the last thirty years or so can enable us to grasp how tales of all kinds spread and are disseminated without the conscious determination of people. In my opinion, certain fairy tales become relevant for human beings in all cultures, and we choose them and they choose us to address problems and conflicts that we continually try to resolve.
How would you compare William Steig's Shrek! with the animated movies?
I have addressed this topic in my book, The Enchanted Screen. Suffice to say that Steig's original story is totally different in its New York Yiddish version than the filmic adaptation. This does not mean that one version is better than the other. Certainly, the first Shrek film is groundbreaking in many ways. However, the producers of this film should have stopped after the first one. All the other films in the series are trivial.
'Story is conflict' is often stated. What can children and grown ups learn from fairy tales?
It is impossible to to say what children and adults learn from fairy tales. However, I can say that we use fairy tales, often without knowing it, to address and resolve conflicts throughout our lives. We keep adapting them as societies undergo changes. Despite some of the negative attitudes in many of the tales such as sexism, there is a strong utopian impulse in the best of the narratives and there is social justice that does not exist in our world. So, we continue to tell tales with the hope of improving our worlds. We navigate our way through a conflicted world with the hope that we can attain a tiny bit of justice.