Fuss about Fairy Tales

Tales of Magic first cover (from prospectus)Jack Zipes, who is considered as something of a fairy tale specialist, does not like my book Tales of Magic, Tales in Print. This book is about the history of fairy tales and especially about the transition from written to oral tales. He classifies it as reductionist and has dedicated a special appendix to it in his book The Irresistible Fairy Tale. He thinks it represents a worrisome tendency in fairy tale research.Why is that?

Let me be absolutely clear about one thing first: it is Zipes’ good right not to like my book. He won’t be the only one, because it is a critical book. He is also perfectly right to publish his opinion. Discussion is part and parcel of the academic endeavour, without it research becomes stale. But Zipes has been hasty and overplayed his hand. He could not wait till my book appeared in print and had to use the uncorrected proofs to launch his attack. He was not supposed to use the proofs for that end, and certainly not before my book is published. He also did not ask me for permission. He was so desperate (I have to conclude) that he ignored good academic protocol.

The normal way to proceed is to find a venue for a review, get the book from the publisher or the journal that wants to run it, write it and wait till that appears. If you are lucky this process will only take a few months, but it can easily take a few years, too. Since Zipes did not follow this route, he will have had another purpose. He hates my book so much, that he does not want it to find a proper audience. In particular, he does not want to expose impressionable students to it. As he writes: `I am concerned that young students might be misled by what I’ll argue are reductionist theses’ (the plural is because he has problems with another book as well, to which I will come back in a moment). He basically says: do not feature this book in your fairy tale course 101! Academic publishers are very sensitive to this, because an important part of their sales goes to university libraries that spent their ever decreasing budgets on books students need in their courses. Why? My book is not pornographic, after all, there is only a tiny bit of sex in it.

In my humble opinion, students should be made familiar with opposing views, also when it concerns fairy tales (or maybe especially when it concerns fairy tales) and be taught how to make informed judgements. Relate arguments to evidence, distinguish theories from historical events, and so on. It seems that Jack Zipes does not want students to learn that. He only wants students to absorb his own books (and those from a few other writers he has earmarked as reliable). As if students, or for that matter their teachers, cannot decide for themselves. Is that not one of the reasons to go to university?

Thus again: Why does he hate my book so much? (I have progressed from `not like’ to `hate’). Because it is reductionist? Of course not. That is just a label to frighten people off. It must be because of something I have written. Yes, there are some very critical passages about Zipes’s work in it. But that cannot be the main reason. For Zipes’s work and mine hardly overlap. I have looked at the possible reception of printed fairy tales in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century `oral’ repertoires. I have put `oral’ between inverted comma’s because it is not always certain that a story recorded by folklorists was oral beyond the moment in which it was related to a folklorist. He has never done that; he has studied the way individual artists dealt with fairy tale material, for instance in his recent book about fairy tale films. During the more than thirty years he has worked many more things which I do not have to list here.

Zipes has never taken the trouble, however, to wade through hundreds of fairy tale texts to find out how they can possibly relate to each other. Even in his book dedicated to a single fairy tale `type’, Little Red Riding Hood (which folklorists have given the number 333), he does not present all the available versions. I have not done that either, because I have selected other fairy tales for my discussions. But one thing that should be remarked about LRRH is that it is extremely unlikely that the texts recorded in, for instance, France in the late nineteenth century (a whole series of them can be found in the journal Mélusine which is now online), are solely and purely derived from an oral tradition that had survived for a number of centuries and, among others, stood at the basis of the famous rendering of it by Charles Perrault at the end of the seventeenth century. If someone insists on that, she or he puts history on its head. During the entire nineteenth century, there were, in fact, apart from a lot of reprints and adaptions and separate illustrated broadsides of the tales from Perrault’s little book, a number of LRRH performances. In the shape of a play,  an opera, and a comedy. As far as I know, nobody has studied these and tried to establish the relation of all these very public representations to the stories that folklorists recorded, or at least published afterwards.

It turns out I have found a way of dealing with fairy tales that at least results in asking questions that have not been posed before. They may also lead to possible answers. One of the things I study in my book is the way that Hansel and Gretel was composed of bits and pieces of existing (that means published!) tales in the early nineteenth century. I have also published a separate article about this (in 2008 in the journal Fabula), but to my knowledge Zipes has never paid any attention to, or warned susceptible students about it. If I were him, I would be happy that someone has found new approaches to fairy tales. Instead he goes beyond the appropriate and tries to undermine sales and wider attention.

As I already mentioned, I am not the only one to attract Zipes’s ire. His other appendix (which is only partially available online) engages with the work of Ruth B. Bottigheimer, which he finds troublesome, too. In the past he has also written a sour review about the book by Manfred Grätz. What we all three have in common (and where we differ from Zipes), is that we question the assumption of the orality of fairy tales. We cannot find any sign of a prolonged oral tradition but instead we see one fairy tale publication after another, long before any serious fieldwork took place to record any oral `folk tales’. The usual reaction to this is: of course you cannot find any written sign of an oral tradition; it was oral, duh. Frankly, that is nonsense. The arguments are all in my book (please read it!) but what it boils down to is that, in Europe, a lot was written down, by people themself, or for them, or about them. Any historian will tell you that. An oral tradition and certainly one comprising fairy tales, could not have gone unnoticed because there would have been people, members of the clergy for instance, to complain about them.

Zipes has never studied oral tradition. He has seen a few stories here and there that are purportedly recorded from a `oral tradition’; he did not engage much with the work of folklorists. He did not touch on `oral tradition’ because he imagined it was out of reach and over the years it has become sacrosanct.  I see Jack Zipes as the high priest of fairy tales, who has become a venerated story teller himself and who delivers one exegesis after another. He has put himself outside the academe, does not feel he should adhere to its rules anymore and is simply defending his beliefs. We are punching holes in that. It is like someone telling you that Santa Claus does not exist. Maybe he already has his own suspicions.

Old print of 'Little Red Riding Hood'