7. Hanseldee and Greteldum  

When writers are searching for references to flesh out their writing, they may turn to fairy tales, which are more commonly known and understood by a wide variety of readers. These stories have advantages over classic literature or pop culture because they are more widely consumed as childhood stories. They are also simple enough that every reader can access their meaning. 

Foster argues that of all fairy tales, writers tend to turn to Hansel and Gretel most for its power in helping tell the story of lost children and lost generations. Robert Coover’s “The Gingerbread House,” makes allusions to Hansel and Gretel, relying on the reader’s familiarity with the story to create a sense of menace. While Coover’s rendering of the fairy tale is more straightforward, writers often turn fairy tales on their heads to play with readers’ expectations. For example, in The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter offers subversive feminist retellings of traditional fairy tales in order to free the stories from their traditional sexism. 

Some writers stray further from the original stories but still draw on aspects of fairy tales. What aspects they choose depends on what their larger goals are. The familiarity of fairy tales helps readers orient themselves to texts and interrogate why the writer evokes certain narratives. The references in texts to the Bible, Shakespeare, and fairy tales all create depth and resonance for readers. 

8. It’s Greek to Me 

Foster discusses the influence of myth on literature, defining myth not as something untrue, but as a body of stories that embed themselves deeply into readers’ consciousness. Each community has different myths that resonate and understanding each community’s myths helps readers to understand their texts. For example, while many readers, particularly white readers, assume Toni Morrison is drawing on the Icarus myth when she writes of human flight in Song of Solomon, she actually is referring to the myth of the flying Africans. The story of Icarus is about a child who ignores his father’s advice, flies too close to the sun, and perishes. It’s about his father’s grief, too. To impose this on Song of Solomon is a misreading. 

In Euro-American cultures, the myths that matter are often Greek and Roman, like the myth of Icarus. Myth may show up as the subject matter of paintings and poems, such as Bruegel’s Landscape with Fall of Icarus, William Carlos Williams’s poem of the same name, and Auden’s “Musée de Beaux Arts,” all of which explore the myth of Icarus. 

Writers may use myth in more subtle ways, such as by evoking aspects of familiar stories. Using myth to tell a story can elevate it or remind readers that humans are descended from gods. Writers may also use myths because they evoke certain ideals. For example, The Iliad has come to epitomize ideas about heroism, loyalty, sacrifice, and loss. The Odyssey encapsulates the four great struggles humans go through: with nature, with the divine, with other humans, and with themselves. Modern retellings and mythological references may use irony to play with traditional themes. Recognizing mythical references helps make reading literature a deeper and more meaningful experience. 


Foster often structures the text by posing questions to frame his discussions of how to interpret literature. In this way, he models the Socratic teaching method, which involves asking students questions rather than supplying them with answers. For example, in his discussion of fairy tales, Foster asks a series of questions, interrogating the reader about why they might use fairy tales in a story, what elements they might want to highlight in the story, and how the fairy tale might reflect on the reader’s modern situation. Foster goes on to explore some possible answers to these questions, all while continually pausing to ask further questions. The effect of this technique is to allow the reader to do some of the interpretive work and to invite the reader to think more deeply about the role of fairy tales in their reading. As such, this technique also models the kind of close reading that Foster encourages readers to do throughout the book. 

Foster anchors his discussion of analyzing texts with a discussion of the modern existential state of the reader, and in doing, connects the work of reading well not just to understanding literature but to understanding what it means to be alive. For example, in his discussion of fairy tales, Foster discusses how so many authors have focused on the story of Hansel and Gretel because the modern imagination is attracted to stories about lost children. Foster suggests this is because there is a prevailing sense in modern times that people are lost, searching for meaning and searching for a way home. Foster explores how modern-day retellings of fairy tales, as a result, rely on irony, characters trying to find their way home in unexpected ways or with unexpected consequences. These modern Hansels and Gretels can’t get power from conventional power symbols, and they often aren’t innocent. The ironic retelling, then, allows modern readers to connect these new versions of fairy tales more easily to their own lives.  

In his discussion of myths, Foster uses a very broad definition of myth to upend readers' assumptions about what “counts” as a myth. This allows for a more agile analytical framework to understand the role of myths in pieces of literature. Foster defines myths as stories that matter, suggesting that myths are the stories that have helped people explain themselves to themselves. He also reminds readers that all communities have their own myths, their own body of stories that help that community, specifically, better understand themselves and each other. In his discussion of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, he explores how a misinterpretation of the text links the flying humans to the myth of Icarus. This is a less important story to Morrison’s text than the myth of the flying Africans and this exploration emphasizes reading a story in its intended cultural context as well as how deeply embedded myths are in readers’ consciousness. Using this broad definition, Foster is then able to explore how myths create meaning, always remembering that meaning is rooted both in what readers make of stories and in the cultural memories of a particular community.