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

April 26, 2012

Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of the publication of Jack Zipes' Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion, a milestone in fairy tale studies that challenged a century of scholarship on the origins, psychology and universal meanings of those tales.

Zipes put fairy tales centre stage in Western culture in a compelling social history that showed how authors such as Charles Perrault and the Grimms turned age-old folk tales into lessons in European civility that we are still being forced to learn. In 2009 he shifted gears with Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre to explain that social history as an effect of cultural evolution. If certain stories became classics, it's because they are in our Western patriarchal DNA. Now he spiritedly and provocatively gets to the bottom of how these genomic patterns formed in Western culture: classic fairy tales were anthropological larvae that grew up into a memetic whale.

The Irresistible Fairy Tale is a statement about origins - not the origins of particular stories per se, but of their viral allure. It posits the belief that pre-linguistic "seeds" of human culture (eg, the basic need to communicate our experience) flowered in pagan and oral traditions to become the source of the modern fairy tale and predetermine its irresistible appeal. To navigate the paradox he faces as a social historian looking for the sources of contemporary fairy tales in prehistory, Zipes amplifies the controversial theory of memetics that he laid out in Why Fairy Tales Stick. If the idea of Little Red Riding Hood as a meme had served to show how modern cultural institutions continue to make the classics relevant, it now serves to explain why fairy tales have been "irresistible" throughout human history.

He argues that the self-replicating lore that has emerged from prehistory to gird Western culture is like a whale: now enormous and insatiable, it began as a mere cetacean 54,000 years ago that grew into its bulk by constantly responding to shifts in its environment. So it went for the undefinable, inexplicable fairy tale, which started as a tiny imaginative outgrowth of ancient belief systems and flourished by adaptation to the dynamics of modern oral and print history into a genre.

An oceanic mammal seems an apt metaphor to illustrate Zipes' point that the classic tales (eg, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty) thrive by imposing their ideology in new ways for different environments. They also ingest smaller ideas around them: Zipes cites now-forgotten stories by common women tellers in the 19th century that were preserved by offbeat collectors (eg, Laura Gonzenbach and Giuseppe Pitrè) who never became as famous or as "sticky" as the Grimms. He also supplies a David to confront this Goliath. For Zipes, the whale-like fairy tale of patriarchal culture meets its match in post-1960s feminism, which twists classic plotlines into unimagined shapes and materials. Significantly, they do not destroy the whale but let it "breathe" in new ways (eg, the feminist take on Little Red Riding Hood that graces the cover).

In two appendices, Zipes inveighs against scholars who believe that print history alone produced the modern fairy tale, which reveals the book's ultimate aim to "keep folk origins alive" with memetics. Zipes has made a career of denouncing the victor/whale that writes history, and this book appears to fit into that paradigm. His argument artfully condemns the whale's eating habits and uncovers traces of ingested, nearly forgotten species; yet he treads a troubling line here, both denouncing one type of origin and recovering another, more elusive one.

Aetiology of any stripe is risky business (to the Zipes-inspired materialist writing this review) and whale metaphors cannot entirely save memetics from suspicion. The book could have done without prehistory and still argued that the dynamism of orality and print made the whale and sustains it still. Alas, Zipes appears to finds the memetic hypothesis irresistible.

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

By Jack Zipes

Princeton University Press. 248pp, £19.95. ISBN 9780691153384. Published 9 May 2012

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