By Richard Marshall.
Jack Zipes: ‘The Irresistible Fairy Tale. The Cultural and Social History of a Genre.’ Princeton University Press, 2012.
Le Rochefoucauld remarked that few men would love had they not heard of it. In doing so he acknowledges the power of storytelling. Our current crisis sees corporate control of stories. In our Universities those areas devoted to studying them are being closed. These policies recognise the subversive and anarchic nature of narratives. Zipes once again reminds us of why and how stories nurture even lives in the most deprived of circumstances. Religion purveys absurdity and acquires its necessary charisma by dint of a deliberate Kierkegaardian offence against norms of rationality, empirical evidence and logic. So do military rituals, the contradictions of the Marxist party line, and belief in fairies. In our present intellectual climate absurd beliefs live in a kind of Strindbergian ménage with Reason and Empiricism. Daniel Dennett has written a naturalistic, scientific explanation of why and how religious beliefs have evolved in order to expose the fraudulence of its perpetrators. Zipes wonders about fairy-tale story-telling in a similar naturalistic manner. It’s a wonderful tale in itself. Zipes is as always impressively erudite but wears his knowledge like a linen suit.
He doesn’t seek to expose a fraud however. He sees fairy tales as still breathing. They are subversive expressions of a generosity with a long reach. They are at large in the keep of wimmin. They are used to collide against a misogynist social reality where wimmin still get a raw deal. They are from a past but not a tradition. Thus they can keep making new meanings. This is familiar territory to anyone reading the brave new fairy tales of Angela Carter, say, or those in Susana Medina’s ‘Red Tales’ where in one story, ‘The Space of the Tangible’, the heroine Elle transforms into a knight whose one true desire is to save the object of his/her desire and in another, ‘Where Butterflies Flutter Creating Chemical Turbulance’, the heroine’s desire is cannibalistic and sadistic: ‘… in the throat, between the gums, a kiss is a world: your sweat: I want to eat you, fuck you and leave you prostrate for days: sore, exhausted, deprived of movement: I want to bite you until it hurts. And I want to see you bleeding’ she says to her lover. It is a subversive depravity. Dali’s ‘Autumn Cannibalism’ is never far away.
Zipes has previously looked at Richard Dawkins’ notion of memes to explain how fairy stories replicate, evolve and disseminate. This is a thoroughly naturalistic approach to cultural evolution. He wrote ‘Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of the Genre’ in 2006. His approach here aims to fathom why and how they evolved and why we are compelled to make meanings out of our lives. He links fairy stories to metaphors in early language and communication. The oral roots are of central importance. According to Zipes, attempts to make writing primary are deplorable scholarly errors. He devotes a large appendix about this. Rebuffing Ruth Bottigheimer’s dismissal of the oral tradition, he accuses her of ‘sensationalist scholarship’.
He begins by explaining why and how these stories were told. He says they form the basis of our culture. Memes of oral tales in antiquity have enabled them to evolve. The nineteenth century tried to establish taxonomies but the stories are too fluid. Modern genres came about in the Enlightenment. These have ‘defined cultural artifacts and patterns, divided them rationally into disciples, and established rules and regulations for their study.’ Story-telling has been around for 300,000 years according to Melvin Kanner, so these are old old memes. Arthur Frank thinks human life depends on stories. Zipes thinks stories arrived simultaneously with speech. They were communicating knowledge and experience. Fairy tales were believed even though stuffed full of the miraculous, magical, fanciful and unreal because of the work they did. Zipes sees links between religious, patriotic, and fairy stories. The focus of a fairy tale are those transformations that render people and environments more suitable for peace and contented living. They always begin with a misfit and some consequential conflict. A fairy-tale is communication that invents the ways and means to resolve conflicting desires and instincts.
There are wonder tales which remain oral and literary folk tales which came from oral traditions mediated by manuscripts and print. These two types are inextricably dependent on each other. Arthur Frank in his book ‘Letting Stories Breathe’ doesn’t want to interpret stories because he resists the attempt to foreclose their meanings. He is influenced by Mikhail Bakhtin’s ‘dialogic narratology.’ All utterances are essentially dialogic and depend on an interplay of different, sometimes conflicting, meanings. Frank thinks that stories don’t belong to the teller. They are on loan from shared sources. We use them to interpret ourselves and social reality. All the stories interweave with each other. Dialogic interpretation opens them to everyone. No voices are necessarily submerged or excluded. Stories can deceive and divide as well as tell the truth and harmonise. Stories are facts independent of any storytellers and should be studied as such so we learn about ourselves. Frank uses the term ‘breathe’ to capture the reality of stories.
Marshall Poe divides communication into eight elements: ‘accessibility, privacy, fidelity, volume, velocity, range, persistence and search ability.’ Poe says that ‘Evolutionarily speaking, we talk because we were the only primates who gained social status and therewith fitness by talking… Psychologically speaking, we talk because we must be heard.’ These are not equivalent however. No other primate has the capacity to talk as we do, so the issue of talk’s role in social status and fitness doesn’t enter the world of any other primate. It’s a physical limitation of the brain that explains this. But given that we have brains that enable talk, values have arisen from this ability. Early on, says Poe, ‘ speech is not so much a form of cooperation as a contest between speakers for the approbation of listeners.’ Relevance becomes a key. Telling stories is linked with commanding the world. Leaders mobilize stories better than rivals: shamans, priests, kings, queens, healers, ministers are examples. The stories mobilised and communicated have to be relevant to defeat rivals and persuade listeners.
Communication to control the world conflicts with speech for knowledge of the world and the self. The tension between these two ideas is embedded in the stories and oracy itself. Knowledge is determined by culture and genetics. Where a child is born will largely determine which stories she hears and transmits. Relevance will determine the stories and their success. The Chinese Whispers effect of omissions and accretions through retelling stories are accountable in the light of this rather than theories of transmission error. The role and function of the story is important in determining which elements are found useful and relevant.
Vladimir Propp discovered thirty-one functions in the Russian wonder tale. Alan Dundee calls them ‘motifemes.’ He says they can be found in most fairy tales, myths and oral tales about banishment and the fulfillment of a lack. These motifemes allow the expression of the complexity of biological life as experienced. Fucking, giving birth, child abandonment, abuse, hunting, casting spells, killing, gifting, rape, planting are the experiential grounds for many of these stories. The linear narratives of oral fairy tales map reality. It also applied to experience of cultural life, where specific references to customs, rituals, and beliefs are also expressed. Threats to communities, and quests undertaken for a civilization breathe new life into stories that reach beyond merely biological considerations. The interplay between these strands makes stories potent. Rape, sibling rivalries and fucking are prime grounds for well known tales such as ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’. They are hybrid narratives.
Andre Jolles connects legends, rumours, myths, riddles, proverbs, memoirs, case reports, fairy tales and jokes under the name ‘simple forms.’ Their functions are different but they are related because they are building blocks to more complex and literary narratives. The simple forms were used to shape experiences into relevance. Zipes thinks Jolles approach important but also incomplete, too abstract and oversimple. It excludes anecdote, fable, ballad and exemplum, animal tale and warning narrative, for example. But his work establishes how these forms were interconnected. Zipes discusses the development of the fable as an interesting case study of the general point about interrelatedness and relatednesss. Fables must always be understood in their socio-historical context but have universal appeal because they function to question power relations in societies, don’t always end happily even if resolved, ask listeners and readers to ask themselves how they would have reacted in a similar situation and therefore are enlightening and disturbing without being preachy. They illustrate something fundamental. Humans have choices to make.
Schiller is important: he says that Nature reveals what we lack and the possibility of harmony. A naïve morality grounds the fairy story according to Jolle’s reading of Schiller writing , ‘… the fairy tale confronts the world of ‘reality’ because this world of reality is not the world which confers values on a general valid way of life. It is a world in which the incidents contradict the demands of naive morality, a world which we naively experience as immoral. … the preoccupation [of the fairy tale] has a double effect: on the one hand , the preoccupation grasps and holds on to the world negating it as a reality which does not suit the ethics of the event. On the other hand, the preoccupation affirms another world in which the demands of naïve morality are fulfilled.’ Out of this emerges the counterworld of the fairy story. It is not the world of the teller or listener.
‘Puss in Boots’ is a good example of how what is important is the moral pulse of its strange counterworld. A supernatural cat persuades the king that his poor peasant master is worthy of the King’s daughter. Some say this is a ‘rise tale’ but the peasant who gets the girl is not its focus. It’s the cat (sometimes a fox, in Straparola a fairy, in Perrault a king’s messenger). Its about brains and cunning exposing the contradictions and pretentions of upper class figures. Ines Kohler-Zulch finds versions all over Europe, the Middle East, North and South Asia, North Africa and North America. Its cat motifs link with various supernatural associations – cat goddesses in ancient Egypt like Bast who was linked to the cult of Isis – witches and fairies elsewhere. Fairy tales like this ‘were told because they were told’.
Straparola used a master frame tale celebrating storytelling. He told seventy four. Fourteen were fairy stories. His stories deal with incest, fucking, sibling rivalry and jealousy, premarital sex and class struggle, slave/master relations and are told to be ‘mimetically relevant’. Zipes means by this phrase how stories, despite being without agency, remain memorable. Some stories become so well known they appear to be universal memes. Richard Dworkins introduced the term meme to name a unit of cultural transmission. Memes have been used to explain how children become acculturised and how cultures can be replicated. Perceived relevance helps memes to be passed on. Zipes says, ‘ Fairy Tales were not created or intended for children. Yet they resonate with them, and children recall them as they grow to confront the injustices and contradictions of so-called real worlds. We cannot explain why the origins of the fairy tale are so inexplicable and elusive. But we can elucidate why they continue to be irresistible and breathe mimetically through us, offering hope that we can change ourselves while changing the world.’
In chapter two Zipes demonstrates how it was the fusion of oral fairy stories and literature that served as the basis of all short narrative forms appropriated for print. Yet he insists that orality is still crucial for the creation and dissemination of fairy stories. ‘Fairy tale signifies belief in the supernatural, not the suspension of belief. We all believe in the extra-ordinary of Once Upon A Time. We need to believe. We all dream and breathe through our tales,’ writes Vincenzo di Kastiaux. If this is right then the fairy tale is not presenting alternative strange worlds in paranthesis. The miracles, supernaturalism and magic are expressions of our belief systems, values, rites and experiences first produced and reproduced orally. Despite print, painting, photography, film, radio and internet technologies fixing them they are still responsive to and relying on oral transmission. Zipes wisely demurs from trying to define ‘fairy tale.’ They weren’t called fairy tales until a woman called d’Aulnoy coined the term in 1697. She never said why. It was however a term signifying difference and resistance.
The stories were full of omnipotent fairies or gods and they were largely written by women from the Parisian salon culture. They were proof of the powers of women and showed them resisting and opposing the prevailing regulations of good manners and comportment that crushed women’s independence in public. Between 1690 and 1710 fairies dominated many of the tales being printed in France. Patricia Hammond writes: ‘ Both modernist advocates of women’s tales such as the Mercure, and detractors such as the clergymen Villiers, understood the fairy tale to be a female genre…’ The tales allowed them to live according to new standards of behaviour for a time. They were about transforming the relationship between men and women (although only of the upper classes). They stood in opposition to the court of Louis XIV and the Catholic Church. The worlds were ‘spectacular, absurd and naively moral.’ This is reminiscent of the early days of pop music where similar moves were made by middle and working classes. Paul Ginsty makes this more plausible by considering the link between fairy tales and the development of the divertissment feerie. Ballets, masques, opera, gala spectaculars were developed at this time, and Corneille, Moliere and Lully all got involved. They were ways of commenting on the narrow religiosity and misogynist tendencies of the Court, just as, say, Siouxsie Sioux was seen as telling stories opposing the class, race, gender, generational, sexual received wisdoms of Capitalism back in the day.
Midwives, nannies and childbirth also were important in the spreading of fairy memes. D’Aulnoy tried to get her nasty husband executed for plots against the king, failed and was in prison for a while whilst pregnant. Zipes comments that ‘… it was not by chance that she assigns the midwife or protector role to fairies in her tales.’ Fairies didn’t only substitute for the Virgin Mary, Jesus and Christian Saints. They were also capable of being used against themselves. People were steeped in rites and superstitions and so many stories also mocked these views. The stories were often carnivalesque. The rejection of literary discrimination was a refusal of constraint and allowed the genre to be rooted in great wedges of diverse source materials. Laurence Harf-Lancer claims the myths about the Moirai (Greek fates) and Parcae (Roman fates) as foundational. The Moirai prophesied newly born destinies. They link with the God Fauna, Goddess of eroticism and wild nature. She is ‘the Oracle’, ‘she who speaks Prophecy’ and ‘she who has your back.’ She’s a split image, one image being of both free sex and the courtesan that has fused into images of the bad witch.
‘ Bona Dea was supposedly the divine name of Fauna, wife of the archaic Faunus. .. Fauna is beaten with myrtle branches and tortured for drinking undiluted wine. In another version she refuses, even though drunk and battered, to give way to the incessant advances of her father, Faunus, who has his way with her after assuming the form of the serpent. In short, all the sources portray the cult of Bona Dea as an upside-down world…. It was also … deeply ambiguous. The seemingly contradictory attitudes of Bona Dea and her matrons towards wine, sex and men are somewhat reminiscent of the ambiguous status of the Vestals. The matrons both accept and reject undiluted wine and sex, signifying an ambivalence of masculine and femine, active and passive… Women did what they did in secret, at night, in a private residence and in disguise…’ This reminds me of Parmenides and the role of philosophy. Parmenides took a mystical journey to the halls of the night. This is a place of judgment, the place where the souls of the dead go. He is taken there by Night herself, a goddess serving as a councilor to Zeus in Orphic cosmologies. Night instructs Zeus on how unity should be preserved: she instructs: absorb all things. So Night is where a unifying cosmogonic phase is inaugurated.
Unity is a key to philosophy at night in Ancient Greece. Parmenides is the parade case for this issue. Night instructs the philosopher, ‘You must needs learn all things,/ both the unshaken heart of well-rounded reality/ and the notions of mortals, in which there is no genuine trustworthiness./ Nonetheless these things too will you learn, how what they resolved/ had actually to be, all through all pervading.’ Night first presents “the unshaken heart of well-rounded reality” and then “the notions of mortals, in which there is no genuine trustworthiness.”
The second way is discarded for the first: ‘Come now, I shall tell—and convey home the tale once you have heard—/just which ways of inquiry alone there are for understanding:/ the one, that [it] is and that [it] is not not to be,/ is the path of conviction, for it attends upon true reality,/ but the other, that [it] is not and that [it] must not be,/ this, I tell you, is a path wholly without report:/ for neither could you apprehend what is not, for it is not to be accomplished,/ nor could you indicate it.’ Night has much to say: ‘It is necessary to say and to think that What Is is; for it is to be,/ but nothing it is not. These things I bid you ponder./ For I shall begin for you from this first way of inquiry,/ then yet again from that along which mortals who know nothing/ wander two-headed: for haplessness in their/ breasts directs wandering understanding. They are borne along/ deaf and blind at once, bedazzled, undiscriminating hordes,/ who have supposed that it is and is not the same/ and not the same; but the path of all these turns back on itself.’ True reality is ‘ungenerated and deathless,/ whole and uniform, and still and perfect’ and messed up and missed by ‘aimless sight and echoing hearing/ and tongue.’ What to do? Night calls us out to ‘judge by reason the strife-filled critique/ I have delivered’ she says. True philosophy seems to reject the generated and deathly narratives of the earthly.
However: ‘Absorb all things’ says Night.
Harf-Lancer shows that there were two types of plots that were used to bring these fates into the fairy stories that transformed the medieval period. One was based on Mesuline. A fairy enters the human world, a human falls in love with her, they make a pact based on some prohibition, and the pact is violated and he loses his happiness and wife. The other is the Morgan le Fay story. A hero journeys into another world, stays there a long time, is allowed to leave on agreeing a prohibition and the prohibition is violated and he is expelled and dies. Motifs from both of these are taken up and transformed by d’Aulnoy. It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970’s that women writer’s recreated the stories so they identified with the powers of the witches and fairies.
Zipes is impressed by Burkert’s use of sociobiology to explain how the stories have evolved. Burkert links the functions of Propp’s morphology to biological needs. This is a crucial move in Zipe’s thesis that the oral traditions have precedence over literary forms. ‘Cupid and Psyche’ fairy stories were supposed to all derive from the written text of Apuleius. But this is countered by the idea that the written text is always ‘a variant of what has always been around.’ Apuleius inherited the Cupid and Psyche meme. The meme was trasmitted in an artifactual language that, according to Distin ‘evolved under adaptive pressure for more effective representation, and one of their representational advantages over natural language is that they can be detached form their human originators. This enables information not only to be disseminated over much greater expanses of time and space than the context of speech but also to shed the social associations of its human originators.’ Zipes disparages the approach to fairy stories by Disney. He calls them ‘blundering and distorted’ but even if the fraudsters of corporate power attempt to contain the meanings he shouldn’t presume that they have succeeded. The sexy stepmother in Snow White certainly provoked one of my first moments of erotic desire. As he says of the fairy tale generally, ‘Like Herman Melville’s White Whale, its essential truth will never be captured or defined. The irony of fairy tale’s cultural evolution is that it originated out of human necessity, and we are still trying to determine why fairy tale is still so irresistible and necessary.’ Disney is no exception.
Chapter four examines Catherine Breillat’s film of the Bluebeard story as an example of the memetic process of imitation, innovation and transformation. Perrault’s tale is shown as ‘part of a singular discursive process within the larger genre of the fairy tale.’ The literary and cinematic rendition of the story mark our continual interest in mass murder through supernatural stimuli. Perrault wrote his Bluebeard story in 1697. It is the ur-text about serial killers. The origins of the story are linked with Gilles de Rais, with Eve, with Pandora, with Minos of Crete who brought fatal consequences to the women with whom he had sexual relations, with the ‘Thousand and One nights’ and the virgin fucker and killer King Shahryar. This is territory Zipes has explored in ‘The Enchanted Screen.’ Perrault’s authorship is largely forgotten, overshadowed by Bluebeard. Zipes analyses the Breillart film ‘… as a filmic remake with an eye toward understanding how oral and literary tales have interacted with new media in a long historical tradition to form a fairy tale discourse that addresses changes in manners, attitudes and values.’
Bluebeard had its genesis in oral wonder and medieval literature. This is what the authors of the 1690s were all about, rewriting and remaking, and filmic renditions of the twentieth century pick up on the same process. Formalist textual and structuralist approaches to this are compromised by extratextual factors. Zipes argues that we require a link between orality, literacy, visual arts and technologies of representation to accommodate the fluidity of cultural genres and the interaction of the intertextual and extratextual conditions of specific times and places.
Literary formalists are limited because they perform close readings whilst excluding contexts. Folklorists universalize without noting specific sociocultural context and intertextual meanings. Zipes wants to find a way of meshing these approaches. He includes oralicity, the design of cover art and written and pictorial evidence of how nannies and lower class storytellers had influence on Perrault. Historical folklorist studies, Perrault’s narrative habitus, evolving fairy tales within a literary movement of literary innovation all contribute to how best to see the way memes work.
Breillat’s film of Perrault’s ‘Bluebeard’ is seen as part of the French feminist movement begun in the late 1960s, as part of a wave of fairy-tale films (including Catherine Hardwicke’s ‘Red Riding Hood’ which Zipes condemns as trivial commercialism) as is Breillat herself for her later version. ‘It is a film that reduces feminism to platitudes’ he sneers. But he thinks Breillart is nevertheless a serious feminist film maker. She is the first woman to make a film of Bluebeard. She transforms the story into one about women’s rebellion rather than victimization. She introduces two sisters who then enact a mirroring tale of response to the Bluebeard narrative. ‘One plot concerns the deep desire of a young girl, who wants to avoid poverty and live in a fairy-tale world. In the process she learns from Bluebeard, shares his loneliness, and strangely strokes his decapitated head after he is killed… The second tale is more about sibling rivalry and how a self-asserting young girl “twists” Perrault’s tale, so that she dominates and accidently kills her older sister. Perhaps she too, has unconsciously attained what she sought.’ They are tragedies that open up further stories.
Zipes broods on origins. The misogynist strands are clear and form distinctive elements of patriarchal societies. By focusing on prohibition, transgression and punishment and focusing on women’s assertion of their power Breillart turns Bluebeard into an intellectual loner that women desire and his death is merely a rupture in the Bluebeard discourse of serial killings where Breillart won’t have the final word. There are no final words.
Zipes then looks at the historical development of tales about witches such as Baba Yaga, looking at how witches are related to fairies and how witches are demonized to reinforce dominant stereotypes about women. Witches evolved out of ancient divinities and Goddesses. They gave birth to the Fates. They connect to ancient rituals and customs of the pagans. In the eleventh century venerated mother Goddesses gave us the Fates who are the ‘indisputable protagonists of all fairy literature.’ Witches function as fairies or sorcerers and owe their existence to pagan goddesses. The stereotype of the witch has been mimetically disseminated from the middle Ages to the present. Witches, fairies, wizards and magic were believed by most people up until the Renaissance. It became dangerous to admit this belief by the fifteenth century. Zipes looks at the connection between fairies and witches and the ‘deep roots in pagan and Greco-Roman beliefs’ via the Slavic great witch Baba Yaga.
Baba Yaga is both dangerous witch and maternal benefactress. She amalgamates shamanism, sorcery and fairy lore. There are many manifestations. Sometimes there are three sisters. Sometimes she is killed but comes back. She is inscrutable and too powerful for the devil to rule. God and storytellers can’t control her either. She decides who shall live and die, who will be helped and who not. She eats children and women – occasionally men. She is ugly. She tests people who come to her forest dwelling for advice. She’s maybe Mother Earth. She is the decisive figure. She is enmeshed with Russian blood. Survivors of encounters with Baba Yaga must have perseverance, kindness, obedience, integrity and courage.
Propp said that what ‘the compositional unity of the wondertale lies neither in the specific features of the human psyche nor the peculiarities or artistic creation, rather, it lies in the reality of the past.’ He’s describing the memetic evolution of tales. Where word to world fit there is the relevance that ensures that a tale will continue. Degenerating from initial relevance, tales found new resonance in different contexts. Yaga’s initial function is that of the donor. She is evolved from Mother Earth figures, ‘large, hairy and dangerous.’ These ‘Rusalki’ ‘were the initiators of young girls about to be wed… that … prefigured the Greco-Roman goddess Artemis/Diana.’ Baba Yaga seems a supercharged version with vast powers and seems to be ‘an amalgam of various pagan deities that underwent gradual transformation in the Greco-Roman period and early Middle Ages.’ She has forbearers in Romanian, Hungarian, Slovakian and other countries as well as relations with Perchta of Germany, the ur-figure for Frau Holle in Grimm. She’s the ‘majestic, dangerous figure of resistance to Christianity.’
The suicidal autodidact intellectual Ralston distinguishes Baba Yaga from traditional witches. Her powers are too vast to be merely a witch. She is Lamia, Striga, Troll-Wife, Ogress and dragoness… ‘the terrible female form which figures in the Anglo-Saxon poems as the Mother of Grendel.’ By paying tribute to some sort of mysterious great goddess the stories have been censored and banned. It is through the transformation of belief systems that goddesses were changed into witches and fairies. Witches and fairies were then denigrated and demonized.
Carlo Ginzberg looks at the ‘sabat’ which, he writes, ‘… illustrates the decisive importance, traceable over a very large cultural area, of the image of the traveler, male or female, in a trance in the world of the dead, in relation to the genesis and transmission of the narrative structure – and perhaps more ancient and certainly more durable – elaborated by the human species… Thus the stereotype of the sabbat represents a fusion of two distinct images. The first, a product of the learned culture (judges, inquisitors, demonologists) centered on the supposed existence of a hostile sect, inspired by the devil, members of which had to renounce their faith and profane the Cross and sacraments. The second image, rooted in folk culture, was based on belief in the extraordinary powers of particular men and women who – in a state of trance, and often in animal form or riding upon animals – travelled to the realm of the dead in order to bring prosperity to the community… the second image was much older than the first, and infinitely more widespread.’ Baba Yaga is a hopeful character because she resists people who invade her world and doesn’t mince her words.
On this account contemporary belief in witches and sorcery and supernatural are neither beliefs of the rural nor culturally underdeveloped. They are beliefs of ‘ultra-developed people who require continual innovations.’ Corporate storytellers like Disney fail to show the multi-dimensionality of the witch and portray her as simply evil. They are products of the male gaze and mass media manipulation of images of powerful women who often took the role of protecting virgins from male intrusion. Witches tangle with fairies in a competing set of narratives and images about violence and misogyny, resistance and domination within a patriarchy.
Persecuted heroines are also key elements in these stories. The stereotype makes them helpless, passive, obedient and industrious. Fairy stories were early stories where women were assertive, confident and courageous. Only towards the end of the nineteenth century were heroines starting to show characteristics of the witches and fairies. Zipes examines the women storytellers, collectors and heroines of tales of rape, incest, abuse and violation. Zipes gives us in full four stories as case studies collected respectively by Gonzenbach, Levesque, Nemcova and Busk – ‘The Snake Who Bore Witness for a Maiden’; ‘Marion’; ‘The Twelve Months’; and ‘Mari Wood.’ They are tales of ‘rape, starvation, attempted murder, physical and psychological abuse, and incest.’ They are difficult to find in anthologies. The heroines are cunning and resilient. Zipes gives smart biographical details of the four collectors to emphasise his point that notions of folk tales have been determined by a restricted repertoire that has excluded collections such as those of Busk et al. Zipes is interested in the way collections are collected and transmitted, so this is not a moralized point, rather it is treated as an interesting and relevant datum. Similarly, Zipes chides those who criticize the brothers Grimm for being more literary products than true to their oral roots. ‘There is nothing “immoral” in what the Grimms did… and nothing immoral in editing and appropriation. Yet it is crucial for the understanding of folklore, fairytales and cultural history that the complexity of the process of their collection be open to study and evaluated and compared with other collections.’ The fifth chapter brings to the foreground obscure, neglected and obfuscated figures of great significance from the past. As Zipes says: ‘ Hardly anyone – and this includes folklorists and fairy-tale scholars – knows anything about the tales of Laura Gonzenbach, Bozena Nemcova, Nannette Levesque and Rachel Busk, despite great advances made in feminist studies that led to the rediscovery of important women European writers of fairy tales from the seventeenth century to the present.’
The sixth chapter continues the examination of neglected fairy tales and looks at Giuseppe Pitre as a case study showing the ‘profundity of the oral tradition and why middle-class professionals turned to examining tales that stemmed from common people.’ Zipes notes that serious scholarship on fairy stories and folk talles generally is being eroded in Universities as Humanity Departments come under pressure. Folklore has become marginalized. The mass media spread uninform nonsense encouraging people to stop wondering about why we tell so many stories all the time. The new corporate culture of universities particularly in the UK and the USA misunderstands folklorists and denigrate historical, anthropological and ethnological work.
The studies were originally thought important as a new emerging society seemed to move away from folklore to science. Modern people however still heard folklore on the lips of the ‘backward portion of society’ where, according to Bronner; ‘ … the past was directed forward.’ Folk stories uncovered ‘a usable, hidden past’. The Brothers Grimm used their stories from the German past to foster a united nation. They were enormously influential in the transmission of folk tales from other countries and served as catalysts for work of other folklorists elsewhere. Giuseppe Pitre is an Italian folklorist whose obscurity masks his comparability to the Grimms that was noted in an obituary notice in 1916.
Pitre aspired to grasp the nature of the neglected Sicilian common folk in his work. His romanticism ironically made him more scientific and anthropological. He was dubious about attributing everything in folklore to relics of survival, but nonetheless agreed that ‘folklore was a conglomeration of relics that originated among primitive peoples; they were kept alive and survived through the comportment, belief systems, and customs of the common people.’ He thought people changed motifs from well known stories depending on their circumstances. ‘History should not be a list of men, in which their outstanding acts are registered, but the revelation of ideas, passions, customs and civil interests, in short, of the life of the people, of a nation’ he wrote. ‘The history of a people is confused with that of its dominators… [T]heir story has been taken and made into the same history of its governments without taking into consideration that they, the people, have a memory that is very different from that which is often attributed to them, whether it be from the side of the institutions or from the predominant powers.’ Collecting and studying fairy tales is a subversive political act. This is why the humanities are under siege at the moment. They are the departments and subjects that have counter-narratives to those of the prevailing corporate master narrative.
The past is endowed with present meaning. Storytelling in Sicily was about learning to survive a harsh life not live a moral one. Zipes quotes several story-endings that show this. ‘ And so they lived on as husband and wife, /While we toil away without a life.’ Zipes summarises succinctly: ‘Happiness is a fiction.’ This was what Pitre saw as the essence of Sicilian thinking about work, sex, religion, law, other ethnic groups, money and power. He was accused of excusing the mafia and other immoral things. Pitre was excusing nothing. He was identifying storytelling as a confrontation with everyday vicissitudes rather than contriving escapism. His Sicillian Cinderella, Ninetta, for example, is candid and extraordinary. She ‘… toys with a prince in his garden until he falls desperately in love with her. She constantly evades him, even at three different balls, until he is at his wit’s end. The prince’s father must intervene to save his son’s life, and actually proposes to Ninetta for his son.’ In his Sicillian Rapunzel ‘after the young girl is abandoned by her mother, she is brutally treated by an ogress. Yet instead of running away from the tower with a prince. She shoves the ogress into an oven and makes peace with her mother.’
Zipes says Pitre’s four volume ‘Fiabe, Novelle e Raconti Populari Siciliani’ is more important than Grimm. He was from the lower classes, spoke a Sicilian dialect and understood the people from whom he heard the stories. They are rough in style. They are disjointed. They have a ‘charming earthy quality.’ They show how literary the other collections, including Grimm’s, really are. Joseph Brodsky wrote: ‘art is not a better, but an alternative existence, it is not an attempt to escape from reality but the opposite; an attempt to animate it.’ Pitre’s approach embodies this.
[Picture: Saatchi Gallery]
In his last chapter Zipes explores further women’s contributions to ‘… contemporary fairy-tale drawings, paintings, sculptures and photographs.’ He sees these as offering a ‘metacritique of canonical print versions.’ The seventies saw a rise in feminism and the continuation of that time’s ‘fervor for change’ is what Zipes sees as animating present interest. Fairy tale topics have been treated for the last fifty years or so as being largely ‘in collision’, says Zipes, with traditional norms and conventional expectations of fairy-tale representations whose parade case is Disney. The new representations ‘… defy pulp-produced and sanitized images that publishers and media moguls have spread.’ This collision stems from feminist hopes of the late sixties, the civil rights movements and political reforms that were largely unfulfilled.
Zipes notes a largely hidden fact that 70% of artists in England who have become professional since the 1970’s are women. He comments that ‘ The worldwide rise of women artists is the greatest artistic revolution of this age.’ Paula Rego and Kiki Smith are key figures in the artistic representation of fairy-stories. Rego writes: ‘ My favourite themes are power games and hierarchies. I always want to turn things on their heads, to upset the established order, to change heroines and idiots. If the story is “given”, I take liberties with it to make it conform to my own experiences, and to be outrageous. At the same time as loving the stories I want to undermine them, like wanting to harm the person you love. Above all, though, I want to work with stories which emerge as I go along. It is something I have done in the past, and now I wish to do exactly that.’
Her works are surreal and disturbing reopenings of deep seated wounds, haunting scenes of horror, cruelty and comedy as in her 1989 series ‘Nursery Rhymes.’ Her works are perverse. She shows callous abuse and a voyeuristic society. She takes the side of women and children. She finds darkness in the stories. Peter Pan becomes brutal. Mermaids drown Wendy, Tiger Lily is mercilessly tied up, cannibalistic pirates take naked boys away, a crocodile swallows a dog and Peter looks weirdly older. Neverland is death’s realm. She exposes Barrie’s conception. Her Snow White collides with bromine Disney’s. Snow White is ‘brawny, solemn and mute’, dead and raped by her stepmother after eating the apple. Her ‘Red Riding Hood’ is optimistic. The mother cuts open the belly of a middle aged man to save her daughter.
Kiki Smith always makes Zipes think of ‘blood, the body, rupture, and movement.’ She painted the picture on the cover of the book. She is elusive and keeps all endings open. In this she is linked with eighties second phase writers of fairy stories such as Angela Carter, Tanith Lee and Robert Coover. Her ‘Little Red Rising Hood’ is not a wimp asking to be raped and killed as in Perrault’s version nor does she need a hunter to save her as in Grimm. She is heroic and various. Her wolves are friendly, protective and noble, as in Carter’s ‘The Company Of Wolves.’ Smith sometimes links this to St Genevieve, patron Saint of Paris who was born from a wolf womb. Her women are enigmatic and confident, even when nude and spinning wheels. Her Alice can both cry and be composed. Her heroines are multidimensional but she keeps the blood and gore.
Zipes looks at others. He concludes that all the women artists revise ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ because it alludes to rape ‘An entire book, ‘Afterouge’ has been devoted to the collective memory of artists and writers who have been affected by ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. Vanessa Jane portrays her as brave and smart. Donna Leishman permits us to intervene in the narrative. Emma SanCartier shows a submissive wolf. Sarah McRae does too. Elena Sisto portays Snow White as a zombie. Dina Goldstein turns her Disney image into a trapped domestic drudge. Cindy Sherman uses dummies and prostheses to show fairy tales as nightmares. Miwa Yanagi emphasizes the struggle between young and old, bringing out the mysogeny of our culture. Polixeni Papapetrou is more optimistic. Rima Staines portays Baba Yaga as an oracular priestess, stressing the importance of ‘gaining and nurturing wisdom.’ Anna Gaskell shows ominous images suggesting abuse and manipulation. The father will never be forgotten in these, unlike in most fairy-tales. Meghan Boody shows somber adolescents in surreal scenes and poses to reveal oppressive conditions.
These are our wonder narratives. They make strong collisions. They are a way to talk back. Like Baba Yaga, they raise insolence into a limitless cosmic force. They don’t mince their words. They shake down grim powers even if, like Sicilian folk, they know that ‘happy ever after’ is just a fairy-story.
Julee Cruise/David Lynch’s sinister fairy story ‘Pinky’s Bubble Egg’ ends: ‘And the melody sounded forth again, this time, not from the realm of dreams but in what we call reality, which we all know is a joke.’
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, June 5th, 2013.