Friday, May 22, 2009

The Ever-Elusive Origins of the Fairy Tale

Fairy tales continue to bewitch and baffle us, as Jennifer Howard writes in the May 22 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, "From 'Once Upon a Time' to 'Happily Ever After': Fairy-tale Scholars Explore the Nuanced History of the Genre."

Howard relates the brouhaha started by Professor Ruth Bottigheimer, who asserts in Fairy Tales: A New History (SUNY Press, 2009): "It may therefore surprise readers that folk invention and transmission of fairy tales has no basis in verifiable fact. Literary analysis undermines it, literary history rejects it, social history repudiates it, and publishing history...contradicts it."


As someone who studied oral epic with Albert Lord (The Singer of Tales), and fairytale transmission with scholars at the Institute for Folkloristics at the University of Oslo, and who has collected tales in the field, I find Bottigheimer's claims far too sweeping. But, more importantly, they seem a bit beside the point, almost forlornly antique in their militancy. Arguments about oral versus literary origins and influence began in the 19th century. We've long studied the upstairs/downstairs interplay between the written and spoken forms of Maerchen, contes des fees, etc. We've researched the Pentamerone, and the stories by Perrault, by the German Romantics and H.C. Andersen, and so on through to the tales by Angela Carter, Marina Warner and Jeaette Winterson-- a good introduction is Jack Zipes, When Dreams Come True: Classical Fairy Tales and Their Tradition (Routledge, 1999).

I have not read Bottigheimer's book, so I can not critique further. I would note, however, that--to take just one set of examples-- the social-historical micro-analyses of fairytale transmission in Norway, Denmark and Finland by respectively Bjarne Hodne, Bengt Holbek and Lauri Honko do not bear out the Bottigheimer quote above.

As Howard says in her Chronicle article: "Many scholars share a dismay at the lingering spell cast by the idea that the study of fairy tales can be divided into two camps: the 'oralist' versus the literary." She quotes Donald Haase (editor of Marvels & Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies) to good effect: "'The history of the fairy tale is a very complex, multifaceted, nuanced history which is not well served by dualities and generalizations.'"

Well put, Professor Haase.

Regardless of which side(s) one takes, I am happy that we all still care enough about fairy tales as a core element of human culture to argue ferociously about them. I am delighted that our arguments matter to a wider audience.

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