Neverending stories

Prospect Magazine

Neverending stories


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.

  1. September 15, 2012


    “the stubbornness of things is ultimately more satisfying to hear about than their mutability”.

    A peculiar peripeteia at the very end of the article, but then, perhaps not so surprising. Not every adult, however, is as disenchanted, or perhaps un-enchanted, as this author–witness such phenomena as Surrealism–and for that reason, among others, he’s better off keeping his “we’s” to himself.

    • September 15, 2012

      annie morgan

      “…he’s better off keeping his “we’s” to himself.”

      Oh yes – interesting article without a doubt, but I agree about that all-inclusive ‘we’ .

  2. September 15, 2012

    Ramesh Raghuvanshi

    Fairy tells are collective unconsciousness of society.They always remembered because they represented the norms of that society. Theme of some fairy tells are universal appeal to whole world. Some are limited to that particular society.They are our greatest valuable treasure.Remind us importance of our culture and civilization.In modern rat race we are forgetting them that I think our great mistake.I think we must include them in our textbooks so our future generation remember them in their chilhood

  3. September 15, 2012

    kev ferrara

    The author of this article is in dire want of a metaphoric imagination. He analyzes fairy tales as if he were fact-checking a news story. What is going on with the supposedly cultured class? Memo to the collegiate humanities: articulateness without imagination or insight is what you want in the accountancy department.

  4. September 15, 2012

    Andrew Lyttle

    There are no such things as memes. The term is a vacuous metaphor that obscures the real conscious processes of cultural transmission.

    Otherwise, nice book, I imagine.

    • September 17, 2012


      Not quite vacuous. How would you explain the evolution of languages for example? Conscious cultural transmission? Really?

      • September 17, 2012


        What evidence that languages evolve, as in undergo any kind of selection criteria? Languages change, but that is not the same as evolve. He’s quite correct you know, memes do not exist – unless you count mindless brainless replication of incredibly stupid things – as in the internet version of meme. The internet meme exists.

        • September 17, 2012

          Dan Piponi

          A possible selection criterion is efficiency. In particular there is a tendency to abbreviate commonly used words or sequences of words. There are obvious examples like “can’t” instead of “can not”. But I also suspect that irregular verbs (which tend to predominate among more commonly used verbs) are usually shorter than the regular forms would be. (“Fell” vs. “falled”, “slide” cs. “slided” and so on.)

        • September 18, 2012

          tyrone slothrop

          Dan Piponi please take a historical linguistics course or read a basic textbook on historical linguistics. I would suggest either Lyle Campbell’s Historical Linguistics: An Introduction or Terry Crowley and Claire Bowern’s An Introduction to Historical Linguistics. Your claims are simply without merit. Languages change for any number of reasons, including–as the example of Michif makes clear–conscious change for indexing a new identity. Efficiency is a lousy argument and a false argument at that. For more on language change based on languages in contact, I would recommend Sarah Thomason’s Language Contact: An Introduction.

          Memes are an utterly vacuous concept. And the arguments in favor of language as like memes show a profound ignorance of the basic facts of linguistic changes.

        • September 20, 2012

          Dan P


          Data for lengths of irregular verbs and lengths of words had they been conjugated reguarly are freely available on the web. Like most people with a scientific training, I prefer to use real data to an argument by authority.

        • September 20, 2012

          tyrone slothrop

          Ha! Scientific training? I do hope that you are not relying on the rather lousy article that was published in Science a few years ago (and note, conflating one brand of English with all languages isn’t really scientific training, nor one kind of change with all language change). I gave you a number of basic textbooks that describe numerous forms of language change. You would ignore them all because they are based on “authority.” I would suggest that if you are going to make claims about language change, you might, I don’t know, have a basic background and understanding of language change. You do know, of course, that it has been shown that there is a bit of a trend or tendency for languages to move from an isolating language to an agglutinating language to an inflecting language back to an isolating language (and repeat). There is no trend for efficiency in language change.

          The facts documented by historical linguists over the years show that. If you would bother to read what actual historical linguists have discovered you might realize that.

          Take the claim concerning irregular verbs, many of those were once regular verbs and then they gained complexity (became, that is, irregular). That is, “to go” and “to be” started out as regular verbs and then became irregular verbs. Such is the nature of language change.

          It is simply a naive assumption that languages become more “efficient,” one that most students in an introductory historical linguistics class are disabused of fairly early on. Pity that you never took such a class, nor it appears would you, those classes being taught by historical linguists (and hence authorities on the topic).

        • September 28, 2012


          As Duke Professor Adrian Bejan observes in “Design in Nature,” language, like every other design in nature, evolves (changes over time) to facilitate the flow (in this case of information).

          From the earliest pictographs (which had, roughly speaking, a one-to-one correspondence between object and symbol) to our current alphabet (26 letters than can create millions of words) there has been a steady evolution toward a more efficient and effective flow.

          Over time, innumerable tribal languages and dialects have been replaced by a smaller number of well-known languages with standardized rules of grammar and spelling. And, at least since the time of ancient Greece, one lingua franca or another has arisen to facilitate communication among different people.

  5. September 15, 2012

    John Francis

    Oh dear, I suggest this author spends some time reading Joseph Campbell…

  6. September 16, 2012


    I’m not sure what the author means when he talks about the lack of logical plotting in fairy tales. Fairy tales use potent images and symbolic confrontations to engage the imagination of the audience. Their narrative “poverty” is poverty to us because we are less able to follow the logic — that is partly a result of how the stories come to us, but also partly the result of us not being able to react to them the same way as the people for whom they were made. There is always a logic, even in a succession of wish-fulfillment fantasies. It is not, however, a logic that can be easily packaged into a medium, like film, whose narrative coherence is tied to visual coherence. Kirsch’s comments comparing fairy tales with the elements of fairy tale in modern film are really off mark.

    With the equation of spectacle with fairy tale, the author gets everything backward. The cartoonish spectacle we see in many of today’s films does not consummate the fairy tale, it is the attempt of people who have lost their sense of imagination to recapture it through excess. On the supply side, it is an attempt to manage business risk by shoving the dramatic equivalent of sugar, fat, and salt down the throats of audiences whose palates have been ruined.

    Fairy tales relied on the absence of spectacle to penetrate the imagination. Every addition of “media” to story-telling has reduced the power of the stories. Media is to fairy tales what porn is to sex, what the internet is to concentration.

    By the way, I am sure that Aristotle would have been gratified to learn that one Adam Kirsch thought he hadn’t gotten everything about poetics wrong. Really was good of Kirsch to throw the old boy a bone wasn’t it?

  7. September 17, 2012

    Bryan C. Garry

    A highly informative book that uses far less florid and tortured verbiage to make all the same points is “Morphology of the Folktale,” by Vladimir Propp, circa 1928. Good to see the Jungian collective consciousness concept still rattling along with vitality.

  8. September 17, 2012

    Jason T Sparks

    “… the stubbornness of things is ultimately more satisfying to hear about than their mutability.”
    In the real-life, non-fairy0tale narratives of Ghandi and Dr. King, there is, I grant you, satisfaction to be had in the stubbornness of the protagonists–but that satisfaction is only completed by the mutability of the others players.
    There are examples, I don’t doubt, of other models of narrative wherein this is the case, to say nothing of narratives wherein the protagonist’s decision to eschew stubbornness is satisfying–any narrative about a successfully recovering addict, for example.

  9. September 17, 2012

    Joe McGrath

    “…the world never does grant our wishes.” Really? The Prospect published your article didn’t it? And as most of us reading this have a reasonable chance of making our three score and ten I’d say the world is astonishingly cooperative.

  10. September 18, 2012

    Trent DeJong

    I can’t help but approach fairy tales with a more child-like naivite like Chesterton did in his book, Orthodoxy. Any belief that is not consistent with the fairy tales, I want no part of. I’ve expanded on this idea in a series of articles:

  11. September 19, 2012

    Edwin Duthie

    Heh, another flake pretending that archaic paganism has anything to do with the sham 20th century neo-pagan nuttery a la Gerald Gardner et al (for all we actually know ancient European paganism could have been the spitting image of modern American fundamentalism).
    All that plus Womyn’s Studies doublespeak, and atheist fanatic Philip Pullman to boot.
    All a generation raised on “Buffy”, Wicca, and Social Studies instead of History is able to come up with I guess. No ideological agenda here at all, no Sir.

    Favorite quotes:
    “the influence of the fairy tale is liberating, subversive, and especially feminist”, “Disney witches are stereotypical products of the Western male gaze and mass-mediated manipulation of the images of women that date back to the (lol) Christian church’s demonisation of women.”

  12. September 21, 2012

    D. Dubowski

    Hmmm, yet another sub-Bruno Bettleheim, Freud, Jung etc, analysis of fairy tales. Lets be blunt, these folk tales originate from a time when oral culture was the prime, if not only, form of entertainment, to fill the spare time that people had. Rather like telling jokes or riddles. The best ones survived and got retold most often, before being written down. That’s it! It’s only in the last century or so have we had this OTT pseudo-science over-analysis of what are just simple folk tales.

  13. September 21, 2012


    I found the article very interesting & provocative. Enlightening.

  14. September 21, 2012


    extract … not article …

  15. October 1, 2012


    An interesting article – for various reasons – and an even more interesting discussion, as befits Prospect readers. Although merely hinted at the very end of the article, one important aspect got lost for me: the ultimate role of fairy tales as the well of HOPE. After all, despite the grimness, most of them end on a positive: ‘and they lived happily ever after’ etc. One way to counteract the short and brutish existence, or life over which we have no control. One of the reasons for their enduring and increasing popularity? Fairy tales were the first psychotherapy.

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Adam Kirsch

Adam Kirsch
Adam Kirsch’s latest book “Why Trilling Matters” is published by Yale University Press 

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