Hello Blog! Let’s Talk about Fairy Tales!

Hello Blog! Let’s Talk about Fairy Tales! October 19, 2011

I’ve been meaning to start and maintain my own blog for, hm, a year and a half now, but I’ve been busy writing my dissertation, moving to Estonia, and the like. Better late than never, eh? Since I write specifically about sex and gender over at MySexProfessor.com I thought I’d go for more folklore content here, though I’ll also discuss feminist issues when the mood strikes me. Same goes for topics related to the digital humanities, food, travel, dancing, and all those other things that have captured my interest.

For this post, I thought I’d revisit a lengthy answer I wrote up to a query: Where are today’s fairy tales? I composed this response while on a two-hour run (I think I was training for a marathon at the time?), and it’s meant for a popular audience rather than a folkloristic audience, but I think folklorists might find it interesting too.

What are today’s fairy tales? The short answer is that they’re much like fairy tales from earlier times–fictional, formulaic narratives concerned with magic objects, quests, and happily ever afters. However, today’s fairy tales differ largely in the forms they take, ranging from filmic and literary versions to the hypertextual and intertextual variants found on the internet.

The longer answer is that it depends on how one defines fairy tales. If you take “fairy tale” to mean a falsehood or lie (“oh, that’s just a fairy tale”), as the term is often used in vernacular English, then yeah, fairy tales are everywhere today. Or even if you take “fairy tale” to mean some sort of diverting narrative, or any kind of story, you could also make a case that they’re all over the place. However, folklorists prefer a narrower definition of the genre of fairy tales, which I’ll explain briefly, using some of the main criteria of genre definitions: content, structure, context, style, and function.

In terms of content, fairy tales are filled with encounters with the magical, the marvelous, and the numinous; characters encounter fairy godmothers and dragons, magic rings and flying horses. Yet fairy tales also partake of human society, since characters are situated in kinship networks and kingdoms with rulers. In the encounters between the otherworldly and the mundane, fairy-tale characters grow and transform, metamorphosing from youth to adult, from low-status to high-status, and from single to married.

This point leads me to structure: almost all fairy tales have the same patterns in plot, the same way of stringing together sequences of action in the narrative. Most tales begin with a disturbance that leads to the fracturing of the nuclear family, an evil act or villainy, or alternately a wish or lack that must be fulfilled. Through encounters with helper figures, journeys to other places, tasks completed, obstacles navigated, and villains defeated, the protagonists emerge as competent adults who marry and rule. Plot episodes may be repeated, usually three times, as three is the “magic number” in Indo-European culture groups.

The contexts in which fairy tales are transmitted occupy a spectrum from oral performance to literature. Fairy tales are generally considered more literary in nature, while folktales are more oral and traditional (other genres of folktale include animal tales, fables, and jokes). Folktales were just as often intended for adults as for children in European tale-telling traditions, though this trend is only recently reemerging in English-speaking countries, with the numerous “fairy tales for adults” collections (some of which deal with mature content, drawing out the sex and violence implicit in so many sanitized fairy tales, others of which are explicitly erotic).

Fairy tales have a distinctive style that tends toward simplicity and abstraction (Swiss folklorist Max Luthi has written extensively on this topic). In English we recognize many linguistic markers of fairy tales: once upon a time, happily ever after, as golden as the sun, and so on. Fairy tales speak in metaphors, and as such, their language tends to favor extremes (not just black, but black as a raven’s feather), symmetry, and synecdoche.

Finally, we get to function. As marvelously entertaining as fairy tales are–think of Scheherezade, spinning tales to save her life for one thousand and one nights–they are not mere entertainment. No item of folklore, however amusing, fun, or pretty to look at or listen to, is just that. Fairy tales not only entertain, they also educate about and inculcate social values (for instance, in many of the “classical” fairy tales, girls are rewarded for being passive, pretty, and domestic, while boys win kingdoms through violence and warfare). Fairy tales provide a release, an outlet, a means of critiquing the dominant power structures, but at the same time, they provide escapism and wish fulfillment. They reflect the values of whatever culture they are adapted to, and can be regarded as documents that always partake of the sociohistorical as well as the symbolic. Fairy tales, like all folklore genres, are at once cultural and individual: the traditional plots, themes, and motifs are resources that individual narrators can utilize and manipulate to voice their own concerns, questions, criticisms. As such, fairy tales, like all art, can be therapeutic, and can reach and resonate with almost anyone.

So, where are today’s fairy tales? In some sense, where they’ve always been: in printed collections, but also circulating in oral tradition through variants. Folklorists are still recording the tales told by traditional narrators in cultures with a thriving oral tradition, in the Ozarks, in Palestine, in Greece; and then there’s the storytelling revival, with professional storytelling workshops, festivals, and conferences all around Northern America. Today’s fairy tales are also increasingly commodified by the mass media, though I think that films like Shrek 2 and Enchanted tell us more about the capitalist worldview than about the paradigms of the individuals who make them. Whether you call them postmodern fairy tales, fairy tale pastiches, or contemporary fairy tales, there is a thriving literary tradition, led by writers and editors such as Jane Yolen, Teri Windling, Ellen Kushner, and so on, with other important contributors like Angela Carter, Anne Sexton, and A. S. Byatt stretching back for decades.

Ultimately, I do not mean to disparage anyone’s definition of fairy tales; rather, my point is that those of us in fairy tale studies have a fairly nuanced perspective to contribute to the discussion. We in folklore trace our intellectual heritage back to the Grimm brothers and earlier. We’ve had this long to develop terms, tools, and theories for the study of folk narrative, always having to account for cultural change and the effects of new technology, so I think we can and should fruitfully converse with others who are interested in fairy tales. What do you think?

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