Yes, we do all believe in fairies

The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales

September 1, 2000

From time to time my musicologist father updates me on his research into "fairy music", by which he means the songs and instrumental music attributed to the fairies in that branch of oral folk tale known as fairy tale.

But when last week my mother told me that all her childhood was "fairy tales and forests", she did not mean that she had heard tales from oral storytellers and was not even referring to the oral tradition. She meant she had been brought up on a diet of Grimm and Peter Christen Asbjornsen and Andersen and the like.

The confusion between the two genres of fairy tale, oral and literary, is a common one, and Jack Zipes loses no time in distinguishing between them at the beginning of his hefty introduction to this ground-breaking book.

Nobody is likely to quarrel with Zipes when he writes: "It is distinction that preserves the unique socio-historical nature of genres. It is distinction that exposes the magic of genres while at the same time allowing us to preserve and cultivate it so that it will continue to flourish;" and nobody will argue with his claim that this Companion is "one of the first major efforts in the English language to make some of these distinctions and to define the socio-historical rise of the fairy tale mainly in the nation states of Western Europe and North America that share common literary traditions".

Indeed, this introduction, all of 10,000 words long, inquiring into Vladimir Propp's structural approach to the wish-fulfilling wonder tale, suggesting reasons for the literary appropriation of wonder tales, tracing the evolution of the literary fairy tale (Apuleius, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Straparola, Basile, Cortese, Sarnelli) until, in the 1690s in France, a vogue for the fairy tale among educated classes was created by Mmes d'Aulnoy and d'Auneuil and de Murat and de La Force and Mlles Lheritier and Bernard...

Stop! I'm falling into the same trap that bedevils Zipes. Everywhere he bogs himself down with lists of names, tranches of appositions, Sargassoes of qualifications and reiterations. In one opening alone, he writes of "admiration, fear, awe, and reverence", "lack, deprivation, prohibition, and interdiction", and of how oral tales have served to "stabilise, conserve or challenge the common beliefs, laws, values and norms of a group".

The pity of this is that Zipes is an important folklorist and his introduction is serious and original. It is bound to be used as a valuable quarry by scholars and students for its discussion of the genre's evolution and its appeal to Romantic writers, the rise of the fairy tale for children, and the fairy tale's connection to other genres; but the wider readership attracted to a new Oxford Companion will sigh and skip to the individual entries.

Of these, there are more than 800 written by a strong and varied team of contributors, among them musicologists, art historians, experts on cinema, librarians, and professors of folklore, French, Italian, Islamic studies, Portuguese, English, German, Scandinavian studies, theatre, children's and adolescent literature, women's studies and comparative literature. The British contingent includes Gillian Avery, Stephen Benson, Robert Dunbar and Geoffrey Fenwick.

As one would expect, the majority of the entries concern individual tales,writers and artists. They rapidly and stylishly combine essential information with authoritative opinion. So, for instance, Alison Lurie makes an exceptionally strong case for the sometimes underrated Joan Aiken as having "not only tremendous inventive powers but unusual emotional range" and speaks of her as the natural heir to E. Nesbit; while Maria Nikolajeva makes an interesting point about the often-overlooked ambivalence at the heart of "The Ugly Duckling", that "you have to be born a swan in order to become one". There are many delightful aperçus of this kind.

No less well organised are the longer entries charting the story of the literary fairy tale within specific countries. Avery's survey of British and Irish fairy tales ranges from Beowulf to Angela Carter and A. S. Byatt,and finely illustrates underlying pattern with specific instance. Why, she asks (and answers) was "Tom Thumb" the story most execrated by Puritan preachers? Why did the fairy folk wither in the 18th century? And is it right to think of the early 20th-century predilection for fairies ("On December 1904," she writes, "an audience of adults at a London theatre responded to Peter Pan's appeal by enthusiastically assenting that yes, they did believe in fairies") as a reaction against liberal progressive late Victorian culture? These national entries do much to ensure that this Companion will be of as much value to social as to literary historians.

But perhaps least expected and most entertaining are the "topic" entries on fairy tales and advertising, cartoons, communist folk-tale films, Disney, feminism, opera, psychology, science fiction; and these pieces repeatedly emphasise not only the extraordinary adaptability of fairy tales but also the way in which they have come to serve as a universal currency, as the Bible and classical mythology used to do.

Thus, Ulrich Marzolph's comment on "Aladdin" that "the image of the omnipotent demon hidden within a humble lamp has become proverbial in everyday language, literature, politics, science and commerce" interlocks with Wolfgang Mieder's piece on "Advertising and fairy tales" and his assertion that advertising agencies will choose motifs only from tales that are well known, most excruciatingly: "Rumpelstiltskin is my name./ Spinning straw into gold was my game./ But now I'm a new man and I have new cravings./ I spin 'phone calls into savings."

When I asked my young daughter to define a fairy tale, she said that "it is something believable even when it is not". Just so. An unwitting variation on the Martini slogan "Fairy tales can come true".

It is always possible for the reviewer to point to imbalance and omission.The absence of Richard M. Dorson is impossible to understand. His great study, The British Folklorists (1968), has plenty to say about the development of the literary genre. There should be entries for Sybil Marshall, Geraldine McCaughrean and Neil Philip, all distinguished retellers of traditional tale, and it is a shock to find nothing on the folklorists Jacqueline Simpson, and Iona and Peter Opie. All the same, this Companion is on the whole generously inclusive. There is a superb 37-page bibliography and, most usefully, many of the individual entries are capped with short reading lists.

Shortly before his death in 1637, Nicholas Ferrar, founder of the household of prayer at Little Gidding, told his brother John: "It is the right, good old way you are in; keep in it." These simple and strong words could almost serve as an epithet for makers and remakers of fairy tale. They draw on a long tradition. Using their own experience, they extend that tradition for purposes literary, religious, social, political, commercial. On the fairy-tale tree there are leaves of every colour.

Et nova et vetera . That is their unbroken song.

Kevin Crossley-Holland is a poet and writer on traditional tale.

The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales

Editor - Jack Zipes
ISBN - 0 19 860115 8
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 634

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