The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre, Jack Zipes, Princeton University Press, Pp 235 (HB), $29.95
Zipes is considered one of the true experts on fairy tales. He brings considerable erudition to the book which covers some broad issues in fairy-tale analysis, such as how they spread – he takes his lead from Richard Dawkin’s Theory of Cultural Names – and the role of women collectors and narrators.
Though it is impossible to trace the historical origins and evolution of fairy tales with reference to a particular time and place, we do know that humans began telling tales as soon as they developed the capacity of speech. They may have even used sign language before speech originated to communicate vital information for adapting to their environment. Units of this information gradually formed the basis of narratives that enabled humans to learn about themselves and the worlds that they inhabited. The tales were not given titles but were simply told to mark an occasion, set an example, warn about danger, procure food, or explain what seemed inexplicable. People told stories to communicate knowledge and experience in social contexts. There is a very valuable quote provided by Arthur Frank, author of Letting Stories Breathe, who said, “Stories may not actually breathe, but they can animate…stories work with people, for people and always stories work on people, affecting what people are able to see as real, as possible and as worth doing or best avoided.” If there is any single genre that has captured the imagination of people in all walks of life throughout the world, it is the fairy tale, yet, we still have difficulty in explaining its historical origins, how it evolved and spread and why we cannot resist its appeal, no matter what form it takes.
The book focuses on the significance of Madame Catherine-Anne d’Aulnoy and the French writers of fairy tales in the 1690s.
Zipes concludes by saying that in the distant past, those people who learned to read and write served the victors and rulers, taking little interest in the culture of the common people, whose tales and social relations were largely ignored or dismissed. But Zipes is happy that the pioneer folklorists of the 19th century opened their eyes and ears and began preserving the rich narrative traditions of the folk.
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