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BOOK LIST: My Seven Favourite Academic Studies of Fairy & Folk tales

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Here are my Favourite Seven Books on Fairy Tales. 

1. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning & Importance of Fairy Tales by Bruno Bettelheim
First published in 1975, this is one of the most important early books on fairy tales. It is stuffed full of ideas, but must be read with a caveat in mind. Bettelheim was a Freudian psychoanalyst which means that some of his interpretations seem very out-of-date nowadays. Also, he was drawing on limited scholarship because he was essentially the man who sparked the later intense academic interest in the subject. His reputation has also been tarnished by his suicide and the accusations of child abuse that followed. Nonetheless, he was a man of vision that helped rescue fairy tales from the dust balls under a child’s bed. He says that fairy tales teach us ‘that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable … but that if one … steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious.’ 

2. Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of A Genre by Jack Zipes
All of Jack Zipes’s books are eloquent, insightful and cleverly argued, but this is my favourite because it is so accessible to people outside arcane academic circles. He has the ability to communicate clearly and yet with great depth of scholarship. And he is interested in the socio-historical background of the tales as well as what they may mean. He says: ‘As we know, tales do not only speak to us, they inhabit us and become relevant in our struggles to resolve conflicts that endanger our happiness.’
Other books by Zipes that I would thoroughly recommend are The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of A Genre, which builds on Why Fairy Tales Stick; and Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales.

. From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers by Marina Warner
I cannot tell you how much I love this book. I have read it so many times I know parts of it off by heart. It’s a massive work of scholarship that looks at the history and meaning of fairy tales with a strong feminist and revisionist slant. This is a must-read. She says: ‘The marvels and prodigies, the seven-league boots and enchanted mirrors, the talking animals, the heroes and heroines changed into frogs or bears or cats, the golden eggs and everflowing supplies of porridge, the stars on the brow of the good sister and the donkeytail sprouting on the brow of the bad – all the wonders that create the atmosphere of fairy tale disrupt the apprehensible world in order to open spaces for dreaming alternatives. The verb ‘to wonder communicates the receptive state of marvelling as well as the active desire to know, to inquire, and as such it defines very well at least two characteristics of the traditional fairy tale: pleasure in the fantatsic, curiosity about the real. The dimension of wonder creates a huge theatre of possibility in the stories: anything can happen. This very boundlessness serves the moral purpose of the tales, which is precisely to teach where boundaries lie.’ 

4. The Witch Must Die: The Hidden Meaning of Fairy Tales by Sheldon Cashdan 
This book sets out to explore how fairy tales can help children deal with psychological conflicts by projecting their own internal struggles onto the characters in the stories. In this way, Cashdan is building on Bettelheim’s legacy. He divides the stories based upon vices such as vanity, gluttony, deceit, greed and lust, which is interesting but can sometimes be a little simplistic. Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating read. He says: ‘Beyond the chase scenes and lastminute rescues are serious dramas that reflect events taking place in the child’s inner world. Wheareas the initial attraction of a fairy tale  may lie in its ability to enchant and entertain us, its lasting value lies in its power to help children deal with the internal conflicts they face in the course of growing up.’

5. The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar
Murder, mutilation, cannibalism, infanticide and incest: the darker side of the Grimm fairy tales are examined in this fascinating book. She looks at the countless wicked women in a chapter entitled ‘Stepmothers and Other Ogres’ and the beastly men in ‘Bluebeard and Other Monsters’ – it’s a racy, clever, and intriguing read. She says: fairy tales are up close and personal, mixing fact with fiction to tell us about our deepest anxieties and desires. They offer roadmaps pointing the way to romance and riches, power and privilege, and most importantly, a way out of the woods, back to the safety and security of home.’ 

6. Grimms' Bad Girls and Bold Boys: The Moral & Social Vision of the Tales by Ruth B. Bottigheimer
First published in 1987, this is a fascinating and insightful look at the history of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales, and some of the key motifs and story patterns that emerge. She also examines the various different editions and shows how the Grimm brothers had changed the stories over subsequent editions to better suit their devout, middle-class principles. She says: ‘People tell tales: peasants and artisans, lords and ladies, mothers and fathers, priests and preachers, girls and boys. The literate read aloud, the gifted recount. Over and over people tell tales whose contains seem the same but that nonetheless differs in profound ways.’

7. Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales by Valerie Paradiz
It was this book that inspired me to write my novel ‘The Wild Girl’. It tells the story of the forgotten women who were the primary oral source of the stories the Grimm brothers collected. The book is wonderfully accessible, and draws upon the tales themselves in a way which I think worked wonderfully. She says: ‘Few readers know that more than half of the 210 fairy tales included in the Grimm anthologies had a woman’s hand in them.’ 

I hope you find this post insightful! Please leave a comment - I love to know what you think

SPOTLIGHT: Spike Dean & her fairy-tale-inspired art

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Spike Deane is a friend of mine who does the most exqusite fairy-tale-inspired art - she is exhibiting her work at the moment and I just had to share some of it with you. It is so beautiful.

Spike says:

My inspiration comes from stories, particularly those of folk and fairy tales, and I like to read them all! I can’t say enough how reinterpretations and retellings inform my visual arts practice. 

Collecting different impressions of a story, from old tales and new, academic papers, poems, short stories, comics, novels and of course lots of images of illustrations and sculpture (hello Pinterest) assists in critically examining the tales and feeding the creativity well.  All the words and ideas bubble around in my head until one particular concept comes forward, demanding to be made. 

In my work I focus on the narrative elements of metamorphosis and becoming, for folk and fairy tales for me encourage us to believe that change and transformation are essential aspects of the human condition. That is why, I think that Kate’s character Isabeau/Khan’tinka from the ‘The Witches of Eileanan’ series is a favourite of mine, she very much embodies the power of transformation and personal growth.

Whilst many of my glass pieces draw on the magic of the woods and forests my newest body of work is based on the shape changing Selkie. It was Margo Lanagan’s novel ‘Sea Hearts’ which rekindled my interest in Selkie tales. 

From that point I read every Selkie retelling I could get my hands on, though it was an article on Midori Snyder’s blog (on the Swan Maiden’s feathered coat) that really got me thinking about the role that the ‘Selkie’s Coat’ plays in the tales. The skin/coat then became in my interpretation, the symbolic core of the myth. It signified change, transformation or becoming within the story. The shed seal skin, rendered someway in glass was the image in my head, demanding to be made. That was the beginning to these works in glass and textiles.

Thank you to all the folk and fairy tale writers and researchers. Know that your words and ideas have an ongoing effect on my arts practice.

Fragments of poems often become my titles, two pieces I named from Carol Anne Duffy’s ‘Little Red Cap’: ‘the breath of the wolf in my ear…’ & ‘he held a paperback in his hairy paw…’ Duffy’s words are so fitting for the pieces I couldn’t imagine anything better.

One of my favourite quotes from Jack Zipes:

"Inevitably they find their way into the forest. It is there that they lose and find themselves. It is there that they gain a sense of what is to be done. The forest is always large, immense, great and mysterious. No one ever gains power over the forest, but the forest possesses the power to change lives and alter destinies.”

My next exhibition is a group show called Silhouettes - Red Gallery, Fitzroy. September 24 - October 11 2014.

The works for this exhibition are inspired by the fiction subgenre ‘urban-fantasy’; where folk tale creatures dwell in city streets, where a sliver of magic stands out like a rainbow on a rainy day, a glimmer of elusive enchantment. The outline of the silhouette, like a folktale offers us just enough clues to fire up the imagination and then asks us to fill in the detail from our own store of memories and dreams. 

Charles De Lint is one of my favourite authors in this genre. I always loved his character Jilly Coppercorn who paints fae folk in city streets. In my early 20's I wanted to be just like Jilly. Does anyone else have a fictional role model?

FILM REVIEW: Tangled by the Disney Animated Studios

Sunday, August 03, 2014

'Rapunzel', by Kevin Nichols

Many of you may not know I have spent the last few years working away steadfastly on a Doctor of Creative Arts. My novel Bitter Greens (a telling of the ‘Rapunzel’ fairy tale interwoven with the true life story of the woman who first wrote the tale) was written as the creative component of this doctorate. 

As my theoretical component, I also wrote a mythic biography of Rapunzel. I traced the story’s genealogy from its ancient mythological roots to contemporary reimaginings of the tale, including Disney’s recent animated musical fantasy Tangled.

I am always being asked what I think about Tangled, and so I thought I’d share some of my thinking with you all. 
Released on 24 November 2010, Tangled was Walt Disney Animation Studio’s 50th animated motion picture and their first to be shot in 3D. It cost the studio $260 million to create, making it the most expensive animated film ever to be made, but earned more than $590 million worldwide.  The studio promoted it with the tagline: ‘Tangled is the ultimate story of breaking free after being grounded for life.’ 

The story, the studio announced in its publicity material, ‘is based on the classic German fairy tale 'Rapunzel' by the Brothers Grimm.’ Most journalists added the adverb ‘loosely’. That is probably an understatement. There is little remaining of the original story except for a girl in a tower, a witch, and a whole lot of hair. 
The story is funny, light-hearted and visually rich. It features a girl who can use her magical hair as a lasso, and a wise-cracking thief as the hero. 

It seems clear to me that the screenwriter, Dan Fogelman, must have previously encountered the brilliantly witty graphic novel Rapunzel's Revenge, written by husband-and-wife team Dean and Shannon Hale, and illustrated by Nathan Hale (no relation). Shannon Hale certainly noticed the resemblances herself, tweeting in January 2011: ‘Just watched Tangled. Feeling slightly violated.’ (@haleshannon, twitter post, 9/1/11).


So what do I think about Tangled

I have to say that I think Disney Animation Studios adroitly sidestepped most of the key moral dilemmas in the tale. Their heroine is not a poor girl sold for a handful of lettuce, but a beloved princess kidnapped from her bed. The tower is not a prison, but a vast and luxurious palace. Most importantly, it is not difficult for Rapunzel to leave her tower – she can simply abseil her way out anytime she pleases, thanks to the magical properties of her glowing, golden hair. The only bar to her freedom is her duty to the woman she thinks is her mother. 

The film deliberately sets out to be light-hearted, fast-paced, and sentimental. It makes the occasional nod to its forebears, but always in as frivolous and amusing way as possible, as in the following dialogic exchange: 
Flynn Rider: Alright, blondie ... 
Rapunzel: Rapunzel.
Flynn Rider: Gesundheit!

The narrative purpose of the movie is not to recount Rapunzel’s escape from the tower – this occurs easily and joyously in a matter of seconds – but rather her journey towards the unmasking of her false mother and finding her true parents. 

Tangled has its moments of charm, despite its abandonment of many of the key motifemes of the plot, but the character of Mother Gothel is not one of them. She remains a cartoonish character, shallow and manipulative, with no moral ambiguity. As Mother Gothel says in Tangled, ‘You want me to be the bad guy? Fine, now I'm the bad guy.’

One consequence of changing Rapunzel from a surrendered child to a stolen child is the alteration of the whole power mechanics of the tale. It is no longer what Bottigheimer calls ‘a rise fairy tale’, but rather becomes ‘a restoration fairy tale’. The key difference, Bottigheimer explains in Fairy Tales: A New History is that in a restoration tale, the protagonist first loses, then - after a series of adventures and lessons - is returned to their proper social and economic status. However, in a ‘rise fairy tale’, the story begins with ‘a dirt-poor girl or boy who suffers the effects of grinding poverty and whose story continues with tests, tasks, and trials until magic brings about a marriage to royalty and a happy accession to great wealth’. The former upholds the socio-political status quo. The latter holds out the hope for social-political change. 

Jack Zipes said in an interview in 2013 that ‘the Disney promoters should have called the film Mangled because of the way it slaughtered and emptied the meaning of the Grimms’ and other ‘Rapunzel’ folk tales … The major conflict is between a pouting adolescent princess and a witch. The Disney films repeatedly tend to demonize older women and infantilize young women. Gone are any hints that ‘Rapunzel’ might reflect a deeper initiation ritual in which wise old women keep young girls in isolation to protect them’ (Interstitial Journal 2013, p3). 

Disney’s abandonment of the key motifemes of the ‘Rapunzel’ tale and its messages about growth, transformation, and the hard journey towards wisdom shows that there is no steady ‘evolution’ from conservative attitudes to less conservative ones with the passing of time. Each teller makes their own individual choices in what aspects of the tale are to be preserved or abandoned, and thus even a story as full of camouflaged mythic power as ‘Rapunzel’ has the potential to be drained of all meaning whatsoever.

That said, I did enjoy the movie and my daughter loved it. The character of Rapunzel is at least a little feistier than earlier Disney heroines, and the story was in turns funny, poignant, and romantic. I would have liked a greater sense of the horror of being locked away in a tower, and I certainly would have liked Rapunzel not to have been turned into a Disney princess but to have remained an ordinary girl in extraordinary circumstances. 

'Rapunzel, Forgotten' by Sarah Schloss

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