Do fairy tales still have appeal? The world’s stubborn refusal to grant our wishes lies behind the sudden revival of old storiesby Adam Kirsch / August 22, 2012 / Leave a comment
Little Red Riding Hood (Illustration by Margaret W. Tarrant): classic fairy tales give voice to the powerless, says the academic Jack Zipes
The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre By Jack Zipes (Princeton, £19.95)
Grimm Tales: For Young and Old
By Philip Pullman (Penguin Classics, £20)
Long Ago and Far Away: Eight Traditional Fairy Tales
Introduction by Marina Warner (Hesperus Press, £10)
It has been more than 70 years since Walter Benjamin, in his classic essay “The Storyteller,” declared that telling stories was obsolete. “Less and less frequently do we encounter people with the ability to tell a tale properly,” Benjamin complained. “It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences.” For most of us in the western world, our first experience of our culture’s classic stories—Snow White, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood—does not come through a wise man or woman sitting before an audience, spellbinding us with words. It is in print or through images that we learn our culture’s foundational stories.
This development has led to a certain nostalgia about the mere act of telling a story. In his novel The Storyteller, Mario Vargas Llosa writes lovingly about the raconteurs of the Machiguenga people, a remote Amazonian tribe that has had almost no contact with modern Peruvian civilisation. By reciting their people’s cosmogonies and myths, by bringing news from one far-flung group to another, the storyteller “remind[ed] each member of the tribe that the others were alive, that despite the great distances that separated them, they still formed a community, shared a tradition and beliefs.” Something of this kind of reverence has always attached to storytellers—just look at the way the Greeks made a legend of blind Homer—but there is a peculiarly modern nostalgia in Vargas Llosa’s feeling, predicated on the fear that this kind of authentic, meaningful, face-to-face storytelling is a thing of the past.
At the same time that storytelling seems an obsolete handicraft, classic stories—the bloody, surreal folk inventions we know as fairy tales—seem to be having a revival. It’s even possible that in a time of economic uncertainty, readers are drawn to the oldest, most familiar stories. What else explains the simultaneous appearance of Grimm Tales: For Young and Old,…