Fairy tales as literature

Why do the National Book Awards bar fairy tales?

Humanity’s favorite stories are punished for their vaguely disreputable origins

By Laura Miller, salon.com, November 16, 2010

Juries for the National Book Awards are famous for coming up with nominees that defy expectation and prediction, but there are nevertheless a few things you can be sure you won’t see on the NBA short lists. Books that aren’t published in the U.S. or translations from other languages, for example, are disqualified, as are “anthologies containing work written by multiple authors.” Those restrictions make sense, but what about this stipulation, from the official rules posted on the NBA website: “Collections and/or retellings of folk-tales, myths, and fairy-tales are not eligible”?

Two authors recently wrote to the National Book Foundation, asking the organization to reconsider its exclusion of retold fairy and folk tales from NBA consideration. (The rule applies to both the “fiction” and the “young people’s literature” categories.) Maria Tatar is a professor of folklore, mythology and Germanic languages and literature at Harvard, and Kate Bernheimer is the founder and editor of the Fairy Tale Review, a literary journal, and editor of a sumptuous new book of short stories based on fairy tales, “My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me.” Contributors to that anthology — which wouldn’t be eligible to begin with, on account of containing “work written by multiple authors” — include Joyce Carol Oates, Neil Gaiman and Michael Cunningham, and as the title suggests, we’re talking about the unexpurgated, frequently gruesome, old-school-style fairy tales, not the sanitized Disney versions.

Bernheimer and Tatar point out that the NBA rules don’t exclude “retellings of the Bible and Shakespeare’s plays,” or, for that matter, retellings of any other literary form. The singling out of fairy and folk tales belies a long-standing uneasiness with the form, its vaguely disreputable air. The fairy tale plays havoc with the premium we moderns place on originality. Where do these stories come from? Tatar, who has translated, edited and annotated editions of the folk tales collected in the 19th century by the Brothers Grimm, informs us in her introduction to “The Grimm Reader” that many of the Grimms’ sources, at first said to be simple peasant folk, instead turned out to be members of the brothers’ middle-class social circles. We can’t even be certain that the most iconic fairy tales are as ancient as they’re made out to be.

A fairy tale, like a myth, has no single author, no definitive version. Yet it can be identified despite significant variations. The story of “The Three Bears” originally featured either a fox or an old woman as its protagonist; only in the 19th century, when it was written down by the poet Robert Southey, did the star become a nosy blond child named Goldilocks. If literary quality resides above all in the best words arranged in the best order, then fairy tales may not qualify as “literature” at all. They can dispense with words entirely, yet remain themselves; “Sleeping Beauty” is still “Sleeping Beauty,” even if you tell the story in pantomime.

On the other hand, fairy tales can certainly provide the springboard for literature. The late British author Angela Carter (to whom Bernheimer’s anthology is dedicated) proved this definitively in 1979, with “The Bloody Chamber,” among the greatest short story collections of the 20th century. A.S. Byatt, another contemporary novelist fascinated by the form, speculates in her preface to “The Grimm Reader” that childhood exposure to these strangely “flat” stories, with their recurring motifs of talking animal helpers, wicked stepmothers and patterns of three (brothers, wishes, castles, etc.), lays down “the narrative grammar of our minds.”

That may be why so many decidedly literary classics can also be viewed, in the right light, as retold fairy tales. Is “Pride and Prejudice” a Cinderella story, or a variant of “Beauty and the Beast”? Exactly how far away do you need to get from the original (although of course there are no originals) to evade the label of “retelling”? The record shows that the National Book Awards themselves have not strictly enforced the exclusion; as Bernheimer and Tatar note in their petition to the NBF, the 1964 NBA winner for fiction, John Updike’s “The Centaur,” “retells multiple classical myths.” Furthermore, the back-cover ad copy for the 1973 winner, John Barth’s “Chimera,” describes that book as “three of the great myths of all time revisited by a modern master.”

According to the NBF’s executive director, Harold Augenbraum, the organization will reconsider the exclusion. “My understanding,” he told me in an e-mail, “is that the use of folk and fairy tales has never excluded a book from consideration for the National Book Award: Only straight, unchanged or little-changed retellings have been excluded.” (Although, again, the absence of definitive originals would make this a difficult case to prove.) Besides, the rule is probably superfluous. Having served on a couple of prize juries myself, I can testify that judges are always on the lookout for ways to narrow the field, and don’t need to be admonished to pass on a work that’s significantly derivative of another.

At any rate, no one on the NBF’s current staff was around when the rule was ordained or knows why it was thought necessary in the first place. Perhaps there was a rash of shameless Grimm Brothers knockoffs in the 1950s, when the awards were launched? It’s ironic that this prohibition against fairy tales has roots nearly as obscure as those of the stories themselves. Chances are, though, it won’t last nearly as long as they have.


Why Fairy Tales Are Immortal

by Jack Zipes, the Globe and Mail, November 28, 2010

About 50 years ago, critics were predicting the death of the fairy tale. They declared it would fizzle away in the domain of kiddie literature, while publishers sanitized its “harmful” effects. Academics, journalists and educators neglected it or considered it frivolous. Only the Austrian psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim tried to rescue the fairy tale in 1974 with The Uses of Enchantment, but he treated it primarily as healthy therapy for children.

So, the fairy tale shrugged off his help and laughed at its critics. Indeed, most of those writers predicting its demise are long since dead. In the meantime, the fairy tale has flourished for not only for children, but for adults, everywhere you turn – in cinema, opera, theatre, books, storytelling festivals, graphic novels, computer games, television, the Internet, even iPads.

The fairy tale arose from a wide variety of tiny tales thousands of years ago. They were widespread throughout the world and continue in our own day, though the older forms and contents have changed to reflect new realities and preoccupations. As a simple, imaginative oral tale that contained magical and miraculous elements, it was originally related to the belief systems, values, rites and experiences of pagan peoples. Known also as the wonder or magic tale, the fairy tale underwent numerous transformations before the invention of the printing press in the 15th century led to the production of fixed texts and conventions of telling and reading.

But even then, the fairy tale refused to be dominated by print requirements; it continued to be altered and diffused by word of mouth. That is, it shaped and was shaped by the interaction of oral performances and print and other technological innovations: painting, photography, radio, film etc. In particular, technological inventions have enabled it to expand in various cultural domains, even the Internet, which can incorporate animation..

Like most popular art forms, the fairy tale adapted itself and was transformed by both common non-literate people and by upper-class literate people. From a simple brief tale with vital information about human preoccupations, it evolved into a volatile and fluid genre with a wide network. The fairy tale grew, became enormous and disseminated information that contributed to the cultural evolution of diverse groups.

In fact, it continues to grow and to embrace, if not swallow, all types of genres, art forms and cultural institutions, and adjusts itself to new environments through the human disposition for narrative and through technologies that make its diffusion easier and more effective. A vibrant fairy tale has the power to attract listeners and readers, to latch on to their brains and become a living force in cultural evolution.

Certain fairy tales resemble memes, a term coined by Richard Dawkins to represent the cultural evolution and dissemination of ideas and practices.. These tales form and inform us about human conflicts that continue to challenge us: Cinderella (abusive treatment of a stepchild), Little Red Riding Hood (rape), Bluebeard (serial killer), Hansel and Gretel (child abandonment), Donkey Skin (incest). In fact, the memetic classical tales and many others have enabled us – metaphorically – to focus on crucial human issues, to create – and recreate – possibilities for change.

At their best, fairy tales constitute the most profound articulation of the human struggle to form and maintain a civilizing process. They depict symbolically the opportunities for humans to adapt to changing environments, and they reflect the conflicts that arise when we fail to establish civilizing codes commensurate with the needs of large groups. The more we learn to relate to other groups and realize that their survival is linked to ours, the more we might construct social codes that guarantee humane relationships. In this regard, many fairy tales are utopian, but they are also uncanny because they tell us what we need, and unsettle us by showing what we lack and how we might compensate.

Fairy tales hint of happiness. We create works of art that contain traces, signs, forms and patterns that anticipate and illuminate ways into the future. We do not know happiness, but we instinctually know and feel that it can be created and perhaps even defined. Fairy tales map out possible ways of attaining happiness; they expose and resolve deep-rooted moral conflicts. The effectiveness of fairy tales and other forms of fantastic literature depends on the innovative manner in which we make them relevant for listeners and readers.

As our environment changes and evolves, so we change the media or modes of the tales to enable us to adapt to new conditions and shape instincts that were not necessarily generated for the world that we have created out of nature. This is perhaps one of the lessons that the best of fairy tales teach us: We are all misfit for the world, and yet, somehow we must all fit together.

Jack Zipes has published and lectured widely on fairy tales, their linguistic roots and their “socialization function.” He has written or edited more than 30 books, including Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion, to be published next year.

This entry was posted in fairy tales, jane austen, kid lit. Bookmark the permalink.

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