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"Asking where a fairy tale came from is like asking who invented the meatball."
December 4, 2012 7:32 AM   Subscribe

Once Upon A Time - The Lure Of The Fairy Tale

Do fairy tales still have appeal? - "The world’s stubborn refusal to grant our wishes lies behind the sudden revival of old stories"

Author Philip Pullman has a New English Version of the classic Grimm's Fairy Tales.
posted by the man of twists and turns (19 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 


I am totally reading The Stubbon Child to the kid.
posted by Artw at 7:51 AM on December 4, 2012


Zipes is a Marxist of the Frankfurt school. He was also heavily influenced by the German philosopher Ernst Bloch and by the student movement of the nineteen-sixties. In keeping with those positions, he believes that fairy tales, because they are grounded in a naïve morality, offer us a “counterworld,” which encourages us to step back, consider the dubious morality of our own world, and take steps to reform it. [...] If some of this seems comical, it should be said that Zipes, in his books, shows a real love of fairy tales, especially the Grimms’. Such are the mysteries of literary criticism. His views, however dated...

For Zipes, the influence of the fairy tale is liberating, subversive, and especially feminist. [...] In seeing the fairy tale as a mode of subaltern literature, a site of resistance to elite male power and logic, however, Zipes is not exactly swimming against the tide himself. Predictably, he rails against the Disneyfication of fairy tales

Who would've thought Jack Zipes, of all people, would prompt such a backlash? But between Acocella and Kirsch there's surprisingly little difference; both want to read fairytales while, basically, refusing to think about politics (including sex politics). The two pieces are strangely alike in their treatment of Zipes's political ideas — both reviews are deeply conservative, both are attempts to assimilate the interest of the topic while leaving behind the emphasis on liberation. One does it with the comfy, superficial nonconformity of New Yorker aesthetics, the other with the bald assertion of conservative opposition; but both are basically uninterested in engaging with Zipes's actual arguments and ideas in any way apart from breezy, basically anti-intellectual rejection. It's enough to make you think he really put his finger on something.
posted by RogerB at 8:53 AM on December 4, 2012


Seriously, here's the shorter version of both these reviews:

ZIPES: Fairy tales are interesting because they show us the world's unpredictability — they remind us that the world can change, that other worlds are possible.

ACOCELLA/KIRSCH: Change? Marxist! Feminist! Burn the witch!
posted by RogerB at 9:13 AM on December 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


Robert Darnton's The Great Cat Massacre is pretty interesting. It has a chapter on folk tales with a grimly pragmatic analysis (the moral is always "The world is dangerous; if you step out of line, expect to be eaten. If you are lucky"), and another on using the most bizarre events in history as points of entry.

I was thinking of the later while reading through a book of Japanese folktales, which often read as extremely bizarre in structure. One of my favorites is about a cook at the Imperial Place who receives a dream in which a god tells him that there is a fire, and he should take action. He does, and the palace is saved. The story ends with "But why did the god appear to a cook? He could have chosen anyone? I guess he had his reasons."

Another involves a functionary who is in trouble for his tardiness. He arrives late to the regular meeting in the West Meeting Chamber, to find the Minister has already entered. He resigns himself and enters to find all the lights out. When he gets the guards to bring a lamp, they find the room spattered with blood and only the Minister's head remaining. After this gristly reveal, the story immediately goes to "After this, the early morning meetings were moved to the East Meeting Chamber." It's like the tales were written by the guy in charge of Court scheduling!
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:43 AM on December 4, 2012 [8 favorites]


Daughter is currently obsessed with a library book which is a fairly straight, undisneyfied retelling of The Little Mermaid. Yikes, I kind of miss Ariel and her happy sea-chums.

Still, comparing the too does give us a lot to talk about.

Maybe I should get the Pullman book.
posted by Artw at 9:51 AM on December 4, 2012


I recently directed a play of fairy tales. While we were in rehearsal, I heard a British director talking on the BBC about his experience with a fairy-tale play. He said that the audience instantly got into the play -- like they had a primal connection to the material.

When my show opened, I had the same experience. I'm lucky to play to enthusiastic audiences in general, so they usually get pretty into the shows. But this was noticeably different: from the moment one of the actors said, "Once there was a king..." it was she'd thrown a switch to a powerful magnet. I saw people leaning in towards the stage. It was the stillest audience I've seen. They rarely shuffled or fidgeted, and they applauded with extra vigor at the end.

Even with the best plays, it usually takes audiences a few minutes to get into them. You can see the change in their bodies as they gradually forget about the worries of their days and tune into the world in front of them. But with the fairy tales, it happened almost instantly.

It wasn't mostly due to me or the actors. We've been doing plays (in a similar style) for years. It was something about the tales themselves.

By the way, the script we used didn't parody the stories. It told them straight, and I had my actors play them all very seriously. I think this was part of the power. We're all used to seeing "fractured fairy tales," but there's something mesmerizing about saying, "Once there was a king ... there really, really was!"
posted by grumblebee at 10:02 AM on December 4, 2012 [8 favorites]


I was thinking of the later while reading through a book of Japanese folktales, which often read as extremely bizarre in structure. One of my favorites is about a cook at the Imperial Place who receives a dream in which a god tells him that there is a fire, and he should take action. He does, and the palace is saved. The story ends with "But why did the god appear to a cook? He could have chosen anyone? I guess he had his reasons."

Another involves a functionary who is in trouble for his tardiness. He arrives late to the regular meeting in the West Meeting Chamber, to find the Minister has already entered. He resigns himself and enters to find all the lights out. When he gets the guards to bring a lamp, they find the room spattered with blood and only the Minister's head remaining. After this gristly reveal, the story immediately goes to "After this, the early morning meetings were moved to the East Meeting Chamber." It's like the tales were written by the guy in charge of Court scheduling!


I hope you won't be too annoyed with me for offering a pseudo-Bettelheimian interpretation of these two tales.

Whom should the god better appear to than a cook, who is a professional fire-maker and knows the damage fires can do when they get out of hand as well as anyone could?

And on another level, who is more likely to be the source of a dangerous fire that gets out of hand and be held responsible for it than a cook? and who is more likely, then, to have a disturbing dream about a bad fire than a cook?

The underlying theme of the second tale, on the other hand, is that it can be very, very dangerous to be a functionary of an important politician in turbulent times, and the moral would be that you should, if you are such a functionary, cultivate an awareness of dangers like assassination attempts and do what you can to avoid them even at a cost of incurring the displeasure of your superior to some degree.

But in the context of the Imperial Palace such a theme could not be stated openly for fear of provoking said superior, any more than cooks could openly acknowledge and discuss the fact that their activities posed an ongoing significant danger to the Palace and everyone in it.

It's like the tales were written by the guy in charge of Court scheduling!

Yes, exactly! They are like chapters from a book of teaching tales for the Palace staff-- and it's hard to imagine a population which had to be more circumspect than the staff of the Japanese Imperial Palace.

That's what fairy and folk tales are absolutely essential for from the Bettelheimian perspective: saying what can't be said and naming the unnameable.
posted by jamjam at 12:26 PM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm not a big fan of Zipes' work--from my understanding of his scholarship, he seems to have had a pretty big turn in the 80s and basically did a 180 as far as his positions on classical, 17th-century literary fairy tales. Where once he saw only conformity, he suddenly sees subversion, something other scholars (many female) had been writing about long before him. I don't understand why he is this sort of God in fairy tale studies, because I find his analysis often boring and overreaching, and I think he has more to say about German fairy tales than French ones (though he positions himself as an expert on both).

Unsurprisingly the New Yorker article doesn't even talk about the origins of the fairy tale, preferring instead to gloss over their history and mention only Perrault, when he was himself following a female-led tradition and was in his time far less prolific and significant than other female authors. As someone who did her Master's research on this very subject, it is quite annoying to see the same things trotted out and the same discussion (the brothers Grimm, the supposed orality of their tales, etc.). I mean, the Grimm brothers didn't revolutionize tales in any meaningful way--fairy tales were never intended for children, so the New Yorker's assertion that they wrote tales to "entertain grownups" is not at all surprising or unusual. It's also bizarre that the New Yorker would quote Alison Lurie as a "children's book expert" without mentioning her well-known and influential New York Review of Books essay in which she 'reclaimed' fairy tales as feminist and started a rather big philosophical debate amongst feminists and fairy tale scholars which has not entirely abated, even now.

This is all to say, I agree with much of the criticism in the comments and am surprised by how lazy and ignorant this article is (especially when it's so easily googlable and accessible). I wish we could talk about fairy tales without defaulting to Grimm, since there are so many wonderful literary tales--all written and intended for adults--written by women, many of which contain strong heroines and subversive plots, with playful and in some instances surprising uses of gender. Murat, d'Aulnoy, de la Force and de l'Heritier are some of the more famous conteuses off the top of my head (d'Aulnoy being a favorite--check out La Chatte blanche (EN) or Belle-Belle ou le chevalier Fortuné (EN), which are excellent).
posted by nonmerci at 12:39 PM on December 4, 2012 [8 favorites]


nomerci - I agree with you; I honestly couldn't believe the New Yorker piece glosses over the genesis of the salon stories and goes straight to Perrault. WTF?!

Additionally, I love Bettelheim - for fun - but in terms of scholarship, honestly I feel like he's only one rung above Joseph Campbell. His influence, in my opinion - is these days far, far more popular than scholarly, which is as it should imho cause the scholarship there is... not great. Is anyone other than Zipes still ineluctably linked to Bettelheim one way or another?

They always seem to leap from Bettelheim to Zipes and the other modern studiers. Where's Aarne-Thompson, for example? (Not say to Aarne Thompson are perfect, but they are important, as are some of the lenguists like Levi-Strauss when he crapped all over Propp. Prop himself...).

I agree with you that Zipes over-reaches, imho that's almost a given of fairy tale studies, though, don't you think?

I often feel that more, um, "pure" anthropology/ists tend to approach mythologies with a more cautious eye - the conclusions re: functionalism are much more muted. I don't know whether this tendency to overstate in fairy tale studies is the influence of English, hermeneutics, or the legacy of Bettelheim etc or what.

I think it's also an issue that for a lot of fairy tales studiers, they are typically part of the cultures that produced and continues to re-appropriate tales etc; there's a certain distance lacking and the malleability of fairy tales - the slippery nature of their symbols - allows for this, encourages it, really (at least, that was the argument in my honours thesis about fairy tales!).

I'm always uncomfortable when anyone tries to hold forth about what a fairy tale "means". It means different things to different people at different times; that's why they resonate and persist with us.

Of the modern writers, I feel like Marina Warner really gets this. She writes about it all the time, but most memorably in regards to Beauty and The Beast. Beaumont's version was a primer for marrying beastly old men - latter day versions are about acknowledging the beast inside, etc etc.
posted by smoke at 3:22 PM on December 4, 2012


Yes, exactly! They are like chapters from a book of teaching tales for the Palace staff-- and it's hard to imagine a population which had to be more circumspect than the staff of the Japanese Imperial Palace.

Well, possibly, but there are an awful lot of other stories that relate a bizarre event followed by a weirdly matter-of-fact comment. "The old man's staff is still there. It hasn't burst into flower or done anything miraculous, but it's there."
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:49 PM on December 4, 2012


GenijiandProust, what book was this? The tales sound fascinating.
posted by nooneyouknow at 3:52 PM on December 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Speaking only for myself, smoke, I don't think fairy tale studies necessarily has to overreach, but I think that in your examples of scholars, you pick a lot who do so. I think that's because those scholars are by and large concerned with some sort of ur-fairy tale, this notion that these tales speak to truths of the human condition we can reach by investigating them. Strangely a lot of those mentioned also seem to have formalism in common, a method of analysis I find totally fruitless with regard to fairy tales (but that's just me, and I'm definitely particular when it comes to this sort of thing).

I personally think Bettelheim is as boring as boring gets. I looked at some of his stuff because he's footnoted by just about everyone, and I agree with your assessment that he's like a more serious Joseph Campbell. He makes all sorts of sweeping generalizations about the real meaning behind all manner of plot devices, which is just lazy. I think there is a turn away from him now in modern fairy tale studies of the French variety, but his name still pops up almost by default. Propp is similar. Aarne-Thompson are I think more crucial to folklore studies, because that's what they're dealing with more specifically IIRC. Raymonde Robert draws on them pretty heavily and she is a seminal scholar in the field (though her work is also very folklore heavy).

As far as fairy tale studies being necessarily overreaching, I think they can be if you are trying to operate within this pseudo-folkloric/archetypal/"this tale must mean this" sort of framework which I think a lot of fairy tale scholars avoid, and rightly. I think the most interesting works of fairy tale studies are works of literary analysis (see: Lewis Seifert and Anne Duggan)--I'm more interested in why 17th century fairy tales were written at all, why the women in particular social circles engaged in their writing, what kinds of characters and situations occur and how these are reflective of sociohistorical context, other writing of the time, etc. I think studies of this nature are far more interesting than trying to reach at so-called inherent truths that as far as I'm concerned don't really exist. It's interesting to speculate as to why a culture might have so many xyz tales, but I don't think it's a useful research question.
posted by nonmerci at 4:19 PM on December 4, 2012


Here's Samuel Delaney weighing in on the side of "myths" being conventional:

http://plastic-lions.tumblr.com/post/37215870878
posted by subdee at 5:14 PM on December 4, 2012


I wish we could talk about fairy tales without defaulting to Grimm, since there are so many wonderful literary tales--all written and intended for adults--written by women, many of which contain strong heroines and subversive plots, with playful and in some instances surprising uses of gender.

The New Yorker article mentions her in passing, but I'd give Angela Carter's work a lot of credit; even using the Grimm stories as a base, you can do better than some of the really pallid retellings.
posted by Forktine at 6:03 PM on December 4, 2012


I don't remember the title or the author anymore, but my favorite Sleeping Beauty story was a fiction novel I read when I was a young teenager. The only part I remember is that this etheral Briar Rose shows up at the King's palace, on his wedding day I think, and covers the carpet in her menstrual blood. Made a huge impression on me at the time.
posted by DisreputableDog at 12:52 AM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Gengiandproust, nooneyouknow, I have a not-dissimilar book published in China in the early 1960s, called Stories About Not Being Afraid of Ghosts. Many of the anecdotes are similarly inexplicable and lacking a conclusion or moral, except that at some point the protagonist is not afraid of a ghost, and that usually goes well for the protagonist or badly for the ghost. I recommend it highly.
posted by Hogshead at 1:34 AM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


GenijiandProust, what book was this? The tales sound fascinating.

Tyler, Royall. Japanese Tales. NY: Pantheon, 2002.

Tyler did my favorite translation of The Tale of Genji, so he has that going for him.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:40 AM on December 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


The only part I remember is that this etheral Briar Rose shows up at the King's palace, on his wedding day I think, and covers the carpet in her menstrual blood.

I love this sort of thing about fairy tales (mysterious and shocking to our modern sensibilities), and yet Disney never works them into the films. What losers. (I also like a Native American version of Cinderella where magic turkeys dance on her clothes to make them fancy. I have often wished that the turkeys around my workplace would work beneficial magic for me, preferably through interpretive dance. I also like the three dogs whose eyes get progressively bigger. Why? I have no idea!)
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:47 AM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


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