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The Trees of Knowledge: Willa Cather’s Use of the Fairy Tale

Updated: Dec 13, 2019


As Marilyn Berg Callander writes in Willa Cather and the Fairy Tale, “Cather’s imaginings were shaped by myth: her childhood reading was steeped in myth and she read Grimm’s Fairy Tales, The Arabian Nights, and Germanic-Norse folklore.” Cather’s love of the fairy tale is evident in the many allusions she employs throughout her work, and they co-exist with her many other references to “American and European literature, the classics, Shakespeare, the Bible, and works of music, painting, and sculpture” (Callander). She names Hans Christian Andersen a few times in her novel O Pioneers! and the “Frithjof Saga”; she mentions the "Märchen" (German for “tale” which is the term the Brothers Grimm used) twice in The Song of the Lark, as well as "Little Red Riding Hood"; she references "Snow White" in My Àntonia and "Cinderella" in One of Ours; and this is but a minuscule accounting for the numerous times Cather consciously alludes to folk or fairy tale in her writing.


Perhaps unconsciously, Cather’s straight-forward writing style is influenced by the directness of myth, legend, and tale. Similar to fairy tales, Cather’s work explores universal, human themes with clear language and organic form: the narrative is allowed to go where the story leads. This simplistic style, however, can sometimes obscure the profound intricacy of Cather's work. The intersection of simplicity and intellectual complexity in Cather’s style is examined by Bernice Slote in her influential essay “Willa Cather: The Secret Web.” Slote writes, “Cather’s art, it seems to me, is apparent simplicity, actual complexity. Books, when read for all nuances, all allusions and implications (and with a writer like Cather whose fierce intelligence and comprehensive knowledge suggest that she is capable of many complexities, indeed) – these books show many strains, chords, counterpoints. They come from an intricately civilized mind, and when taken all together in one movement they comprise a new, and subtle, imaginative world.” Like the allusions of other Modernist writers such as T.S. Eliot and James Joyce, many of the allusions Cather employs take either research or a similar intellect to comprehend, but Cather’s fairy tale allusions are readily accessible to everyone as fairy tales are embedded in the human consciousness.


One of my (Cramer) favorite allusions to fairy tales in Cather’s fiction occurs in a memorable scene in My Àntonia. On his first Christmas Eve in Nebraska, narrator Jim Burden is delighted when farmhand/cowboy Otto Fuchs produces Christmas tree ornaments from his trunk that his mother has sent to him from Austria. As the ornaments are hung, Jim remarks, “Our tree became the talking tree of the fairy tale; legends and stories nestled like birds in its branches. Grandmother said it reminded her of the Tree of Knowledge.” These ornaments—such as a “bleeding heart,” “the three kings,” and “the Baby in the manger”— represent meaningful, human, universal stories, as do myths, fairy tales, and Cather’s entire body of work. All of these stories are the Trees of Knowledge.


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