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What I'm Reading: The Irresistible Fairy Tale part 1

The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre by Jack Zipes 

Hi, welcome to a series of sharing what research I'm currently doing. I've just started a ten month 'sabbatical' from my day job (unpaid, not really a sabbatical!), and I'm delving into a long reading list. This is one of the first books I've started with. I have had it for years, but it was just one of those books I picked up and never got past the forward. I was drawn to this book at first because of the chosen cover art by Kiki Smith (“Born,” 2002, lithograph). Smith’s work engages with a lot of topics I’m interested in: narrative, feminine-coded bodies, horror. There’s a direct, economical but sensitive approach to her drawings and prints that I love.

Zipes is a professor of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota - he’s been author, translator, and editor of dozens of studies and collections of folk and fairy tales. 

Zipes book, The Irresistible Fairy Tale (according to the back cover) attempts to describe why fairy tales were created and then why they appear to be an infinitely adaptable part of cultures around the world. 

I am a few chapters in, and enjoying it so far but it’s definitely the most academic book I’ve picked up in years. This caused me to slow down, look up the definitions of words, and re-read paragraphs over and over again! It's been a long time since I've engaged with this kind of language, but it's coming back to me bit by bit. I had to stop letting the cat sit on me while I read, though, since the snuggles and purrs combined with academic language sent me straight to sleep. My 'student brain' is coming back to life though, and I've really enjoyed the first few chapters.

Some notes on what I’ve learned so far: 

  • Zipes provided a helpful distinction regarding the terms fairy tale, folk tale, and fable; essentially, folk tales are the oral tales of cultural and social groups. Fairy Tales (a name introduced by the French writer Madame d’Aulnoy) are those folk tales which have had a literary translation or retelling. Fables are those tales, oral or written, which specifically deal with moral tales of human conflict represented by animal characters. Zipes uses the term Fairy Tale throughout the book for simplicity’s sake, and for the reason that many of the tales he refers to have been recorded in writing since their origination, taking them from folk tale to fairy tale. 

  • Zipes and other researchers believe that the world of Fairy Tale is a "counter-world:" this world tells us what we want, what we lack, and what we need. In this way, we can discern the values and priorities of an ideal world and how it clashes with reality. Zipes cites Andre Jolles, a Dutch-German art historian and folklorist, who believed that fairy tale worlds live within a ‘naive morality.’ He argued that this lies outside of socio-religious divine orders, as the morality of fairy tales are tolerant and have a ‘natural disposition … to pure ethical and absolute judgement.’  This is interesting and I’m curious how Zipes might discuss this in the context of the mass christianization of folk stories as well as contemporary retellings -- where socio-religious values are placed into the stories. Do those fairy tale worlds still hold a “naive morality?” I’m still not sure I understand Jolle’s definition of naive morality (Zipes notes that Jolle’s definition is different from the standard philosophical notion of naive morality, which I currently know nothing about.)

  •  Zipes does follow up on this a bit in the next chapter, and discusses pagan religiosity in Fairy Tales -- and how the presence of fairies persisting are a symbol of pagan struggle with the unstoppable and aggressive advance of Christianity. Zipes says that the fairy tale, even when adapted with inserts of saints and Jesus, conserves a “ritual character that is typically pagan.” The pattern or plot of experiences in these stories is inexorably tied to pre-christian myths. 

What I’ve been thinking about while reading these chapters. 

This has led me to think about my connection to religion and culture. 

It’s weird to think about the Christianization of the places my families come from -- as a white person in Canada, I’m very disconnected from my family’s cultures. We have some small traditions on my mother's Icelandic side, primarily centred around food, but we have no language or real-world connection to that place. This is, I think, part of why I feel the need to engage with stories. I look to Irish, Icelandic, and Scottish folk tales, fairy tales, and epic sagas, in addition to the general Fairy Tale stories that have been mass preserved in the media of North American childrens' literature. The christianization of my ancestors happened so so long ago, and ... I’m an atheist. I don’t have a connection to Christian or Catholic faith (outside of my political views which leads me to actively disconnect from these religions for the most part). If I was to move away from atheism, and preserved my disconnection from Christianity and Catholicism, I might be compelled to look to what my ancestors practised, and what has been preserved and brought back (like the Ásatrú faith). But, I don’t currently have the wherewithall or incentive to form a spiritual connection to what my ancestors believed or valued -- and this is where, perhaps, stories can help. I hope that Zipes and Jolles are correct in that despite the adaptation and manipulation of the old oral stories the pagan ritual patterns remain, and they can provide me with something valuable that was slowly lost over the last thousand or so years. I don’t aim to uncover my own spirituality through this process: rather, I want to know what values people held and continue to hold, and identify what I hold now. And I want to do this through making visual stories. 

I’m not sure about my reasons or the validity in trying to use my research to reconnect to a culture that my great-great-great etceteras assimilated away from so long ago. Not only with the Christianization and colonisation of those places (looking at you England, you butt); and also with my families’ immigrations to Canada and their participation in the project of Canada. I need to ask myself if I have a right to the old cultures --- or if I’m just acting the privileged genetic tourist. If I went to Ireland, Scotland, or Iceland today, I would be a stranger. I am embedded in the prairies, and know nothing of those places's plants, weather, and coasts. These questions seem harsh, but I think they are fair questions. 

On the other end of things, does trying to connect to those histories, as Isa Segalovich offers, serve towards a goal of disassembling and delegitimizing the myth of Whiteness, and in that way challenge white supremacy? Perhaps embracing my family histories connects me to the world more, not less.  

For now, reading the stories and teaching my teeth and tongue to tangle with names like Cŵn Annwn (Kun An-noon) and Cù-sìth (Koo Shee-eh) is bringing me a little bit closer to my family history, at least I think it is. Speaking words in a language that preceded and contributed to your existence feels like magic. Reading stories that existed and continue to persist despite cultural and geographic movements is magic. I think that is valuable to me, and something I can hold for now. 




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