Do fairy tales still have appeal? The world’s stubborn refusal to grant our wishes lies behind the sudden revival of old stories
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, in which Philip Pullman has translated 50 of his favourite stories from the classic German storytellers; a slimmer selection of tales, Long Ago and Far Away, that draws from French and Italian sources; and the new study The Irresistible Fairy Tale, by Jack Zipes, the dean of academic fairy-tale studies? And that’s just the books: the last few months have seen two movie versions of the Snow White story, Mirror, Mirror, starring Julia Roberts, and the darker Snow White and the Huntsman, starring Kristen Stewart. Viewers of American TV can tune in to Grimm, a show about a police detective with magic powers who is called upon to fight supernatural monsters; and Once Upon a Time, in which ordinary human beings are revealed to be the avatars of fairy-tale characters like Prince Charming and Rumpelstiltskin.
Consider it all proof of what Jack Zipes calls the irresistibility of the fairy tale. “Think of a gigantic whale soaring through the ocean, swallowing each and every fish of any size that comes across its path,” Zipes writes. The fairy tale evolved from unknown origins into a gigantic cultural juggernaut, and survives by digesting every new medium, from print to films to the internet. Like Vargas Llosa, Zipes traces the origin of storytelling back to a primal past: “the fairy tale was first a simple, imaginative oral tale containing magical and miraculous elements and was related to the belief systems, values, rites, and experiences of pagan peoples.”
The reason they survive to this day, Zipes suggests, is because the classic fairy tales—such as Snow White, Cinderella, and Rapunzel, which all have analogues in cultures throughout the world—are perfect examples of “memetic” engineering. Drawing on the notion of the meme coined by Richard Dawkins, Zipes imagines the elements of fairy tales competing for mental space over generations of cultural evolution, until only the fittest tales survived. And what makes a tale “fit” is that it has the power “to determine and influence social practices,” to shape the way human beings live together.
For Zipes, the influence of the fairy tale is liberating, subversive, and especially feminist. If “fairy tales came to be contested and marked as pagan, irrelevant, and unreal,” he writes, it is because they gave voice to the powerless—children, women, the poor. Indeed, Zipes shows in The Irresistible Fairy Tale that many women writers contributed to making the fairy tale a standard genre of modern literature: the very term “fairy tale” comes from the contes de fées of Madame d’Aulnoy, published in 1697 and soon translated into English. The name stuck even though most of the stories we think of as fairy tales do not contain any actual fairies: “the term’s usage was a declaration of difference and resistance,” Zipes insists. Several of his chapters deal with the contribution of women writers and artists to the renewal of the fairy-tale form, including the French film director Catherine Breillat, whose film Bluebeard Zipes discusses at length.
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, lamenting that so many of us now experience Snow White and Cinderella for the first time as bowdlerised cartoons. Tangled, the recent Disney retelling of the Rapunzel story, he describes as “banal,” “inane,” and worse: “the Disney witches are stereotypical products of the Western male gaze and mass-mediated manipulation of the images of women that date back to the Christian church’s demonisation of women.”
Yet many of the new mass-media versions of fairy tales pride themselves on taking their female heroines seriously and granting them personal and even political agency. Take Snow White and the Huntsman, in which Kristen Stewart’s Snow White is less a damsel in distress than a Che Guevara figure, leading a popular uprising against an exploitative Queen. In this film, the seven dwarfs are revolutionary bandits out of Eric Hobsbawm, who turn to violence after losing their jobs as miners, and Snow White leads a cavalry charge wearing a suit of armour. Even the evil queen, played by Charlize Theron, is not a “stereotypical product of the Western male gaze”: on the contrary, the film shows us that her concern for preserving youth and beauty, while pathological, is the only way a woman can gain power in a society ruled by violent men. Seldom has the villain of a fairy tale been a more sympathetic figure.
This way of telling the Snow White story may be tendentious; but then, the modern history of the fairy tale is one of its use and abuse for ideological purposes. In the introduction to Grimm Tales, Philip Pullman reminds us that Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were motivated to collect and publish their stories because they were German patriots. The first edition of their book Kinder- und Hausmärchen—“Children’s and Household Tales”—appeared in 1812, at the height of German resistance to Napoleon, and was inspired by the same cultural nationalism that later led them to produce the first major dictionary of the German language.
In this view, the German fairy tale was a window onto the spirit of the people. As for Wordsworth in England around the same time, the culture and language of the peasantry was a survival from a purer past, which could be cultivated as an antidote to modern urbanisation and alienation. By the mid-20th century, by contrast, fairy tales were being put to other uses, interpreted in the light of Freudian and Jungian psychology as repositories of sexual anxiety and fantasy.
Today, perhaps, what draws academics and writers like Vargas Llosa to the fairy tale is a certain piety about the act of storytelling itself. Pullman, whose children’s fiction is noted for being anti-religious, engages in a kind of sentimental animism when it comes to telling stories: “I believe that every story is attended by its own sprite, whose voice we embody when we tell the tale, and that we tell it more successfully if we approach the sprite with a certain degree of respect and courtesy.” What happens, though, when we approach these tales in their original state—as we find them in Grimm Tales, or Long Ago and Far Away? What if the effect of reading these stories in bulk is actually to highlight their fundamental poverty as narratives?
In fact, fairy tales have a double relationship to poverty. They are poor themselves—in motivation, imagery, description, ambiguity, complexity, everything that makes for literary interest—and they are the products of poverty. This is clear enough from their social and economic premises: they are frequently tales of hunger and neglect and child abuse. What we remember about Hansel and Gretel is the gingerbread house and the witch in the oven, but it starts out as a portrait of starvation and infanticide: “If we don’t get rid of them, all four of us will starve,” the children’s mother says to their father. “You may as well start planing the wood for our coffins.”
The obvious object of desire, in such dire circumstances, is fabulous wealth, of the kind symbolised by and associated with royalty. That is why there is no intermediate class, in fairy tales, between paupers and kings: this is a world in which actual, gradual advancement is unthinkable, so that one can only move in imagination from the bottom of society to the top. The Grimms’ “The Fisherman and His Wife” offers a wry commentary on the insatiability of this kind of ambition. When the fisherman hooks a magic flounder and lets it go, his wife demands that he return and ask it to grant a wish. First she wishes that her shack could be a cottage, then a mansion, then a palace, then a cathedral. Finally, the wife demands to be turned into God: “I want to cause the sun and the moon to rise. I can’t bear it when I see them rising and I haven’t had anything to do with it. But if I were God, I could make it all happen.” This proves to be a wish too far, and the fish turns their cathedral back into a shack—or, as Pullman literally translates it, “a pisspot.”
More often, the fantasy of advancement works through marriage—as in Cinderella, where the abused servant wins the hand of the prince—or through the discovery of a mistaken identity—the servant turns out to be a prince in hiding. But on a more fundamental level, the object of desire in fairy tales is not just high rank, or sudden wealth, or endless food—as in Jack and the Beanstalk, which conjures a Cockaigne where “the trout, salmon, carp, and other inhabitants of the stream leaped upon the banks.”
Rather, what fairy tales obsessively conjure up is a world of mutability, in which things and people are not immured in their nature. The frog becomes a prince, the wolf becomes a grandmother, the little mermaid becomes a woman, the beast becomes a handsome man, the 12 brothers become a flock of ravens. So much of the appeal of these stories, in a preliterate, premodern culture, must have been simply in their demonstration of the power of words to defy the laws of nature. In this way, the storyteller enacts the magic powers he describes and possesses the wealth he fantasises about.
In Aristotle’s Poetics, however, we are told that spectacle is the least important element of a drama, and that the most important is plot. Fairy tales, it is plain, reverse the order of importance, offering a constant parade of spectacles with the most rudimentary and illogical of plots. When we ask why something happens in a fairy tale, the real answer is usually just “because I said so.” That is why the marriage of fairy tale and cartoon was such a natural one: cartoons are the medium of spectacle, able to show us things that could never happen in the real world. And with the increasing sophistication of computer generated imagery, live-action films can take over this cartoonish plasticity. In Snow White and the Huntsman, the “mirror, mirror on the wall” is a molten pool of metal that assumes the shape of a man, while soldiers shatter into pieces of glass and a wounded deer turns into a flock of butterflies. This kind of movie magic is not a banalisation of the fairy tale, but its natural consummation, speaking to exactly the same popular appetite for spectacle that the storyteller once fed through words.
Still, Aristotle was not wrong that spectacle is finally, for readers used to something more, the least interesting element of literature. If fairy tales are “marked” as literature for children, it is not, despite Zipes, because the patriarchy is trying to minimise their subversive power; it is because only children can be truly affected by stories of magic. The proof of this lies in the way that fairy-tale movies, even those designed for children, inevitably minimise the eventfulness and randomness of the tale in order to make it more logically and psychologically truthful: Snow White becomes a fable about vanity, Cinderella a fable about humility. In the Harry Potter stories, the formula of the fairy tale is inverted: magic becomes an accessory to what is essentially a parable about growing up, which may be why the Potter books appeal to older readers as well.
To read fairy tales in their original forms, on the other hand, is to realise that what they are really about is the primitive wish-fulfillment that storytelling makes possible. Literature is born when this kind of storytelling begins to acknowledge that the world never does grant our wishes, and that the stubbornness of things is ultimately more satisfying to hear about than their mutability.