Fairy Tales

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Painting by Edwin Henry Landseer, in public domain. You get the reference, I hope.

Welcome to another tongue-in-cheek post about folklore studies pet peeves. This one is about how to approach the study of fairy tales from a perspective that is, well, not dick-ish.

First, we have to clear up the misconception that just because something is in public domain, or has been widely experienced, it doesn’t mean that everyone’s qualified to talk about it in a scholarly fashion. I’ve found this phenomenon occurring about folklore in general (see my blog post on the topic) and also about fairy tales specifically. So, even if you’ve seen every Disney movie and even started to poke around the scholarly web a bit (not that there’s anything wrong with, say, SurLaLune and Dr. Ashliman’s folk-texts, but they’re starting points for further research the same way Wikipedia is), please consider taking some of the suggestions in this blog post.

Next, please be aware of existing folklore scholarship on fairy tales. As my colleague Will Pooley points out, “folklorists are THE experts on oral narratives, such as fairy tales.” We’ve “developed tools and methods for studying this material, but the clickbait stories about ‘myth’ and ‘fairy tales’ often ignore this expertise, preferring dramatic accounts of undiscovered materials.” So I guess it’s not a big surprise, given this reporting trend, that a lot of folks come away with the impression that you can blithely say whatever you want about fairy tales and folklore.

For example, I wrote about hearing a conference paper on “Cinderella” that ignored all existing folklore scholarship on the tale type. This exemplifies my two previous points – someone thinking they’re qualified to present scholarship on fairy tales because I don’t even know why, and ignoring existing folklore scholarship – but in addition, the author got defensive when I politely pointed out that maaaaybe their methodology needed some work.

Snark aside, here are some ideas for how to not draw the ire of folklorists and fairy-tale scholars if you want to come play in our sandbox.

  • Cull the phrase “the original” from your language. Just do it. In a handful of instances, we can identify the first time a fairy-tale plot or motif appeared, as is the case of Hans Christian Andersen’s literary tales (because his “The Little Mermaid” was the first text with its particular synthesis of mermaid motifs from legend, fairy-tale elements like the quest for love, and so on, and it went on to inspire future versions). But mostly, because of the dense interconnection between fairy tales and folklore/oral tradition, it’s impossible to say when a given tale was the ACTUAL first time something appeared, and not just the first time somebody happened to write it down.
  • Be aware of some of the main methods and theories for studying fairy tales. If you are absolutely undeterred from studying origins, for example, make sure you’re familiar with the historic-geographic/Finnish method. If you’re into structuralism, read Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale (bonus points for chasing down Bengt Holbek’s simplification of Propp’s 31 narrative functions into 5 moves). Learn what a tale type is. For psychological approaches, get your hands on some of Alan Dundes’s work, because while he’s biased toward the Freudian side of things, he’ll at least mention some of the Jungian stuff out there (I summarize some of the symbolic approaches to fairy tales in my master’s thesis). Max Lüthi’s work does a great job explaining the literary and stylistic qualities of fairy tales. For Marxist approaches you’ve GOT to read Jack Zipes, and for feminist approaches, Donald Haase’s edited volume is a fine start. Heck, we even have digital approaches to fairy tales these days!
  • Make sure you cite existing fairy-tale scholars and scholarship. That includes those of us still alive and kicking, not just references to the greats of the last century. Pick a handful from this list, and acquire their books and articles (many are available in the journal Marvels & Tales, which you can buy issues of or read online from a university computer): Jack Zipes, Donald Haase, Maria Tatar, Cristina Bacchilega, and Marina Warner. Some of my colleagues are doing great work editing and making accessible the work of others, like Pauline Greenhill, Jill Terry Rudy, and Kay Turner, with their own work appearing too in excellent volumes like Transgressive Tales and Channeling Wonder. There are some folks in my cohort of younger scholars doing great work as well. Not all of us have books out yet, but look for our blog posts and journal articles: Claudia Schwabe, Christy Williams, Veronica Schanoes, Linda Lee, Adam Zolkover, Brittany Warman, Sara Cleto, and, of course, myself. Most of these are my American colleagues; I could go on about fairy-tale scholars and folklorists in other countries!

These are just the suggestions off the top of my head; I’m sure I’m forgetting some folks who should be included. The field of fairy-tale studies has a centuries-long history, with its own internal vocabulary, paradigms, and debates. If you plan to play in our sandbox, please familiarize yourself with our history. It’s only polite… and it makes you that much more likely to be taken seriously by us.

Fairy-tale scholarship is a thriving, complex, wondrous field. It is at once highly intellectual and confoundingly creative. We’re working at the intersections of folklore, pop culture, and literature, and with theoretical concerns ranging from psychological symbolism to feminism to aesthetics. If you want to come play with us, please do – but tread as respectfully as you would if interacting with actual fairies. I’m not saying we’re quite that temperamental, but, well, we also get cranky when people come uninvited into our territory and starting flinging their uninformed selves around.

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Illustration by John D Batten for “Indian Fairy Tales” edited by Joseph Jacobs, 1892. From Wikimedia.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to the “At the Crossroads of Data and Wonder Symposium” held at Brigham Young University this month, where folklorists gathered with digital humanities folks to discuss the application of quantitative and digital methods to fairy-tale and folklore research. I compiled all of the #VisualizingWonder tweets into a Storify here, but I also thought the event merited a blog post.

Professor Jill Terry Rudy convened the event to brainstorm new projects, create a collaborative working group, and showcase her Algorithmic Visualizations of Fairy Tales in Television project, which is a fairy-tale teleography. Users can search the database for TV shows that include fairy-tale material, access visualizations, and so on. It’s shaping up to be an intriguing tool for research, and we’re all eager to see what comes of it. The associated blog, Fairy Tales at BYU, has some excellent blog posts presenting on their preliminary research, such as this post on Fractured Fairy Tales and the American Dream.

The other major collaborator in this investigation is Professor Pauline Greenhill, the driving force behind the International Fairy-Tale Filmography. She and other Canadian colleagues teleconferenced in for the symposium, and presented on their research, some of it methods-driven and some questions-driven. The IFTF is still growing and is accepting contributions from folks who’d like to suggest that films with fairy-tale tie-ins be added to the database.

This leads me into some major themes of the symposium. We discussed the benefits of crowd-sourcing information about fairy tales in pop culture, and the merits of involving the public in other ways. As scholars, what is our obligation to the public? Does it increase when we’re studying pop culture topics? If we start helping people understand fairy tales in film and television, do we risk becoming curators of material and losing our critical function?

Defining what we’re even studying is also a difficult task. Where do TV shows end and commercials begin? What about music videos?  What about pornography? If we want to understand the audience reception of fairy tales in film and TV, how do we go about setting parameters for studying how people process and remember and reformulate their content?

We spent a good deal of time discussing methodology, which is an endlessly fascinating topic to me (when I teach, I focus a lot on process, too, as in my Body Art class last fall). My perspective is that we scholars should strive to be as transparent as possible about our process. This is for a few reasons: first, it behooves us to be honest about what we’re doing, how, and why; it’s something we in ethnographic disciplines ask of our collaborators, and so we shouldn’t be afraid to do it too; and it’s often helpful for those who come after us. Given that I was presenting on some of my quantitative dissertation research, reframed to focus on birth and hierarchy in fairy tales, it made sense for me to discuss my methods honestly, both to give my peers insight into my working process and assumptions, and to issue a few cautionary tales about what not to do in this vein of research.

We also talked about future publications and presentations, and even though I’m not amassing publications in the hopes of getting tenure (since I’m currently an adjunct professor, not a tenure-track professor), I’m pretty excited to see where all this goes. I would be thrilled to have my name associated with anything that comes of this. Hell, it was an honor being invited to the symposium in the first place!

I could go on and on, but I’d urge readers to check out the top 2 links, containing a list of the attendees/topics and my Storified tweets for more information. It was a fantastic experience, and I hope to be able to post updates about the status of these projects in the future.

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Me at the ICFA Banquet with my dear friend Austin Sirkin.

Me at the ICFA Banquet with my dear friend Austin Sirkin.

As most people who know me know by now, ICFA (the annual meeting of the International Association of the Fantastic in the Arts) is one of my all-time favorite conferences. I get to present on and learn about cutting-edge fairy-tale scholarship, as well as overlapping areas like fantasy literature, children’s literature, science fiction, fan culture, and so on. I get to see some of my favorite people, scholars and writers and artists alike. I get to regale people with stories and meet really amazing writers who have thoughtful things to say about folklore. And since it’s in Orlando, I get to enjoy some nice weather and also meet up with some of my family members who are in the area.

Last year, I came out as post-ac at ICFA, which went far better than I could’ve hoped. This year, I continued that trend of engaging people in conversations about adjunct activism and awareness, and being quite open about my new career as a sex educator. I even got to dispense some relationship advice, and talk about how ideas from the history of sex education are relevant to everything from Twilight to other vampire fiction to speculative fiction set in World War I! People flocked to see my paper (despite the early morning slot it was in) and requested a copy if they couldn’t make it, so that helped me feel validated as a scholar still, even if I’m not doing scholarship full-time or trying for a full-time academic job. I guess it helps that I’m researching the sexy TV show Lost Girl!

One of the other notable things that happened at ICFA was  the huge amount of scholarly compersion I experienced. I’ve written about compersion before – the feelings of happiness we can experience when our partners/lovers/loved ones are happy by someone else’s doing – and I think it applies here.

So while my list of things that I enjoyed at ICFA in the above paragraphs may sound very self-congratulatory, fear not, I was also very moved by the successes and joys of my colleagues. I got to witness and be a part of the inception of a new group devoted to Fairy Tales and Folk Narratives, which is a major step forward for our interdisciplinary bunch of scholars. I got to cheer on colleagues who are going to play a major role in next year’s ICFA specifically dedicated to Wonder Tales. I got to introduce people working on similar themes – say, disability studies – in disparate textual fields like science fiction and fairy tales. That connection might’ve happened without me, but I still felt great about having the social contacts to make sure that scholars who should know each other’s work will from now on.

I got to hear about the success of one colleague who’s working to unionize adjuncts on her campus. I got to hear about another colleague’s book coming together. I got to support another colleague as she prepares to start a family. I got to congratulate yet another on the formation of a new relationship.

These reminders of other people’s joys and successes that have nothing to do with me are always a pleasure. Even though academia is largely run on a limited-good model wherein we must compete for increasingly dwindling resources, it’s still possible to be happy for each other when these successes occur. Perhaps it’s even easier from a vantage point on the margins, when I’m less affected by the drama and politics of being invested at the full-time level. Another reminder as to the importance of context, eh?

While this may not be the most polished blog post ever, I wanted to make sure to get my thoughts written out and shared while I’m still feeling the post-conference glow. The addition of compersion to my normal maelstrom of conference feels – elation, intellectual stimulation, despondence when it’s over – is a welcome one, furthering the alchemy that makes ICFA the amazing experience that it is.

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An early illustration of the Grimms’ “The Frog Prince.” Thanks to Wikimedia for the image.

If you’re a fairy-tale scholar/nerd like me, you’re probably making your way through (or at least aware of) Jack Zipes’s new translation of the first edition of the Grimms’ fairy tales. While reading the introduction, which details how the brothers collected and edited their tales, I came across a fascinating quote about how they view censorship, which I wanted to share here.

To briefly give some context, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were scholars whose interest in German folklore began as a combination of art and science: they were gathering tales to help some friends in the literary scene achieve enough material to publish, and they were also interested in the historical evolution of language and genre. Documenting the oral traditions (Naturpoesie) of the German people was also a political means to an end, as Germany was not yet united and was suffering under Napoleon’s wartime rule.

So in 1812 and 1815, the Grimms published volumes 1 and 2 of their fairy tales… which also contained a bunch of scholarly annotations. This first edition wasn’t that well received by the public; many readers thought the stories were too crude, violent, and sexually explicit. The annotations didn’t really resonate with the general public, either, and the topic seemed trivial to some. For the next 40 years, the Grimms continually revised their tales, putting out new editions, until the final (and for many, definitive) edition of 1857 was published. The stories from that edition are probably the ones you’ve read, unless you also read German.

Are the tales meant for kids? Yes and no. As scholars have extrapolated from their writings, the Grimms were writing for fellow scholars, but also believing that young and old readers alike could derive both wisdom and entertainment from these tales. They vehemently rejected the idea that the tales should be withheld from children on the basis of their being unsuitable for them, and here’s where things get interesting.

The Grimms weigh in on the subject:

“In publishing our collection we wanted to do more than just perform a service for the history of Poesie. We intended at the same time to enable Poesie itself, which is alive in the collection, to have an effect: it was to give pleasure to anyone who could take pleasure in it, and therefore, our collection was also to become an intrinsic educational primer. Some people have complained about this latter intention, and asserted that there are things here and there [in our collection] that cause embarrassment and are unsuitable for children or offensive (such as the reference to certain incidents and conditions, and they also think children should not hear about the devil or anything evil). Accordingly, parents should not offer the collection to children. In individual cases this concern may be correct, and thus one can easily choose which tales are to be read. On the whole it is certainly not necessary. Nothing can better defend us than nature itself, which has let certain flowers and leaves grow in a particular color and shape. People who do not find them beneficial, suitable for their special needs, which cannot be known, can easily walk right by them. But they cannot demand that the flowers and leaves be colored and cut in another way.” (Zipes xxix-xxx)

Although the Grimms did increasingly edit their tales for certain kinds of content (changing wicked mothers into wicked stepmothers; removing mentions of pregnancy; removing overt incest), this assertion is still a fascinating one. Why, indeed, should artists and content creators/curators be beholden to the complaints of a few? If people can be expected to overlook things that don’t serve them in nature, why can’t they do so with art?

I very much think that the Grimms are correct, and that people can and should be responsible for their own content intake much of the time. Concerned parents can try to monitor what their children are reading, or better yet, raise the kids with values congruent with their own, so that if kids encounter “objectionable” material then hopefully they won’t be too vulnerable to it.

It also amazes me that almost the exact same argument for censorship we hear so often today – “but think of the children!” – was being made TWO centuries ago. It’s clearly a powerful rhetoric that resonates with a lot of people, though I think it’s overused and misused in many cases.

The “art is like nature; take it or leave it” argument might be flawed, though. Goodness knows that some folks take what is natural – say, sex and sexuality – and try to obscure it, making it seem like it doesn’t exist. But it seems to me that the Grimms have, two centuries ago, articulated a very important anti-censorship argument: that we inhabit a world that is not always to our liking, and we must make our peace with this fact.

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The famous non-consensual kiss from “Sleeping Beauty.” Image by Henry Meynell Rheam (in public domain).

I spent a good chunk of this year’s annual meeting of the American Folklore Society live-tweeting the conference. And, given that I’m now working as a sex educator, a lot of what I tweeted about was sexuality and gender.

When I tweeted disparagingly about the lack of sex positivity at the conference, a colleague responded by asking what exactly I mean by sex positivity. It’s not, unfortunately, something that everyone in our society learns about, nor is it on the curriculum for most folklore studies programs. So I wrote this blog post about what sex positivity means to me, and decided to do a follow-up post relating it back to folklore.

In folklore studies, and especially my specialty of narrative studies, we spend a lot of time talking about genres. A genre is a basic category of folklore, a type of expressive culture that we group by similarities in content, structure, transmission/performance, and function. So my first thought when it comes to relating sex positivity to folklore is to write about which genres engage with sex positivity (or not).

Based on the paper I gave this year, examining gender and sexuality in the TV show Lost Girl, I’ve been thinking about sex positivity in two specific narrative folklore genres: legend and fairy tale. We define legends as belief tales that are told as though they actually happened, which is why you so see so many urban legends debunked on Snopes.com: they tie into people’s beliefs about reality, so strongly that they’ll be transmitted regardless of their truth value.

For a representative sampling of legends about sex, check out these summaries of texts from just one legend book, The Vanishing Hitchhiker by folklorist Jan Brunvand: innocent make-out sessions lead to death in “The Boyfriend’s Death,” infidelity is punished in “The Solid Cement Cadillac,” and various nude surprises occur because people are generally acting pervy. Then there are legends regarding the transmission of HIV/AIDS, organ theft after a one-night stand, people getting stuck together during sex, and people losing objects internally during masturbation.

Based on this sample, I think it’s safe to say that most legends are NOT sex positive. They depict sex acts as having dangerous consequences. Even if a character’s intention was not malevolent, the effects are harmful. This probably relates to how legends function in society: they often contain socially conservative messages meant to police communal behavior.

With fairy tales—which have a bit more distance from reality as they’re fictional, formulaic tales about magic, quests, and transformation—it’s a bit harder to make sweeping proclamations about whether or not they’re sex positive. Most fairy tales end in marriage, after all, which would seem to be an endorsement for sex. However, fairy tales give us a fairly narrow vision of acceptable forms of sexuality: most fairy-tale pairings are heterosexual, monogamous, and transactional.

I’ve been researching promiscuity and non-monogamy in fairy tales, and based on that, I’ve concluded that fairy tales (like legends) convey rather restrictive attitudes about sexuality. Promiscuous female characters are punished, while there’s rarely any comment on the need for a man to be a virgin before marriage (yes, there are tales about magical virginity tests before marriage—only for the female characters, of course). It’s a little disturbing to realize that fairy tales contain many similar elements to contemporary abstinence-only programming: an emphasis on virginity before marriage, a need to police sexual behavior especially in women, and a correlation between chastity and virtue. (want citations? contact me for a copy of my paper)

In contrast to legends, though, fairy tales do show sexuality as being potentially generative and therefore positive in that light at least. Sex in fairy tales leads to children, and fairy-tale children are generally valued. You never know when having a kid might lead to breaking a curse down the road, after all. So while it’s still a mixed bag, I have to conclude based on this brief survey that fairy tales are a bit more sex positive than legends.

I can’t think of any other folklorists using sex positivity as a metric to evaluate the messages within various folklore genres. This could be an intriguing and useful line of inquiry, so if you have suggestions for folklore genres to compare and contrast in regard to sex positivity, feel free to leave a comment and get in on this discussion!

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Thanks to Wikimedia for the image.

As a folklorist – and especially one who researches fairy tales – I get the following comments a lot:

  • “Oh, you study folklore? Do you also write children’s books?”
  • “How cool that you study fairy tales! Do you write them too?”
  • “I’m sorry to hear you’re having trouble on the academic job market. Have you thought about writing books for kids?”

While these statements are often accompanied by good intentions, they begin to get annoying after a while (and I hope that I can say that without totally disregarding the positive intentions of the people saying these kinds of things, especially since a lot of the people saying these kinds of things to me are family members!). So I thought I’d take the time to explain why this kind of linkage is not only erroneous in nature, but ultimately unhelpful.

By now readers of my blog should know that folklore isn’t just fairy tales and other kinds of stories, it also encompasses other verbal genres (riddles, jokes, slang, proverbs, etc.) as well as material culture (traditional foods, clothing/costumes, crafts, vernacular architecture) and customs/beliefs/behavior (holiday customs, festivals, folk dance & music, gestures, games, and so on). Folklore is intertwined with power relations and weaves in and out of every individual’s life, tying us to our various social groups (or “folk groups” we as call them) while also highlighting our unique life circumstances.

So for someone to assume that simply because I have a background in folklore, I should be writing children’s books, is to erroneously whittle the entire purview of folklore studies down to “stuff for kids.” That can come across as insulting even if it’s not meant to be. It further implies that we shouldn’t do what we’re trained to do – that is, research, teach, and write about folklore – but we should come up with a specifically marketable product instead.

Okay, you might be saying, but I actually do study fairy tales and related genres such as fantasy literature, children’s literature, and YA fiction. However, studying something is different than producing it. Very, very different. As I’ve said before, I’m not that good at telling stories, but I’m great at telling stories about stories (by which I mean analysis, criticism, interpretation).

Many scholars do, in fact, learn to do the phenomenon they’re trying to study, whether this is part of participant-observation while doing fieldwork, or whether they’re studying the social phenomena that accompany creative actions. There are a lot of reasons for an ethnomusicologist to learn to play the instruments that the community he studies play, or for a sociologist to learn the dance that the community she studies performs. But you shouldn’t assume that it’s something that every scholar does, nor that a scholar will take that ethnographic knowledge and go on to perform/publish/market it.

Further, writing children’s literature is a very specialized sort of task that, while I have no doubt in my mind that I could do it, comes with ethical questions that I don’t know if I want to face. I’m comfortable teaching at the college level, but do I feel comfortable disseminating a message to much younger minds? Children’s literature has historically been used to shape (and in many cases hobble) the minds and morals of children. Do I really want to throw my hat in? I don’t know the answer yet, but it’s not something I’ll undertake lightly.

Let’s recap. By suggesting that because I study folklore, I should write children’s literature, you are:

  • Demonstrating that you don’t understand the full extent of what folklorists do
  • Devaluing the work that folklorists are trained to do, instead suggesting that we should turn to crafting and selling capitalist products
  • Conflating studying something with being able to and/or desiring to creatively produce it and market it
  • Stating that you think I should take on the moral obligation of sending messages to children

I’d love to hear from some other folklorists on their experiences with this subject, but I think I’ve covered the main points where this kind of thing bothers me.

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As the semester winds down, I like to reflect on what I’ve learned about folklore and being a folklorist in the past few months. Thankfully, I didn’t encounter one of my primary pet peeves (where everyone assumes they already know about folklore) while teaching my folklore class this fall, but in general conversations and reading, I ran into another annoyance I thought I’d elaborate on here.

I sorta don’t care about the origins of most folklore.

There, I said it. This is a big deal since most people assume that folklorists are ALL ABOUT origins. As though wondering about the origins of myths and stories and customs is what keeps us lying awake at night, tossing and  turning in bed until, with frantic eyes and mussed hair, we lurch to our libraries and laptops to look for answers. Maybe that’s the case for some folklorists, but it really isn’t for me.

Allow me to explain. One of the key attributes of folklore is that it’s transmitted traditionally within groups, where “traditionally” can mean through oral culture and word-of-mouth, or it can just mean informally rather than institutionally (yes, folklore exists in institutions, but it’s rarely found in the printed rule books and the official or elite culture of that institution, but rather in the customs and on-the-job knowledge and skills that people acquire from other people).

As Lynn McNeill so eloquently puts it in her new (and awesome) book Folklore Rules,
“The significance of folklore studies as an academic field comes back to the idea that folklore exists as a form of cultural expression without the anchor of institutional culture.” (33) McNeill goes on to use  examples from the literary canon (we can’t just decide to ditch Dickens if we don’t like him anymore, since his contribution to Western literature has become institutionalized) and the law (we can’t simply decide to stop following certain laws if we don’t feel they’re relevant any longer) to illustrate her point.

But when we’re talking folklore, we’re in a different realm entirely: “Folklore, on the other hand, isn’t institutionally determined. That urban legend no longer speaks to something we  care about? Gone. That custom no longer meets the needs of that family? Done – never happens again. While we may record the legend or a description of the custom in an archive so that we remember it was once relevant, there’s no formal organization still making us tell the legend or practice the custom. Unlike reading the past works of a famous author or obeying an outdated law, the moment folklore is no longer relevant, we simply stop using it.” (33-34)

The amazing insight here, which McNeill has highlighted beautifully, is that “if folklore is currently circulating, it must be important” (34, italics in original) That means we can use folklore as a way to measure and interpret the concerns of people today, if we’re studying today’s folklore… and we can use folklore of the past to understand the concerns of people in the past. Both are legit, but both are not automatically the purview of folklorists.

See, if I’d wanted to study the past, I’d have become a historian, or at least a folklorist who is more historically-oriented than I am now. I am definitely interested in some historical origins of things, like when it comes to one of my favorite genres, fairy tales. But I’m also big on relevance, and most of the time, I find myself confounded by the social groups around me, so I want to use folklore to understand them (not least because the actions of others affect me, especially living in a democracy and whatnot).

Hopefully I’ve shown why it’s erroneous to assume that ALL folklorists are interested in the origins of a given story, or festival, or traditional food. Some of us are, sure, but not all of us. Understanding where something comes from can help us understand how it’s become the way it is today (assuming that it’s still practiced/told/transmitted), and that in its own right can be a fascinating example of the twin laws of folklore, tradition and variation, at work. But tracking down the origins of something won’t help us understand why it’s relevant today, or the functions it serves in today’s society. It might give us some hints, but it won’t yield the full picture, not the same way researching its contemporary uses will.

So now you know: not every folklorist is into chasing down the origins of a given item or genre of folklore. You’re welcome.

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"Donkeyskin" by Nadezhda IllarionovaI recently had occasion to celebrate a new article being published, my “Sorting Out Donkey Skin (ATU 510B): Toward an Integrative Literal-Symbolic Analysis of Fairy Tales” (which you can read on the Cultural Analysis website for free). That project has been in the works for a while, over a decade at this point. I thought I’d share not only the link to the article, but also a piece that I wrote to accompany my MA thesis (also on this topic) which I submitted in 2007 as part of my coursework in folklore at Indiana University. It’s more personal and process-oriented than most of my scholarship, so I thought it might be an interesting read. Certainly some of my views have evolved since then, but such is life.

So sit back, relax, and get ready for some vintage 2007 writing.

My involvement with ATU 510B, “Donkeyskin,” began in 2002, when I enrolled in Alan Dundes’s “Folk Narrative” class at UC Berkeley, where I was working toward a bachelor’s in folklore (technically, my degree would be in “Interdisciplinary Studies Field” with a concentration in folklore, as there was no undergraduate degree in folklore at Berkeley, just a master’s degree). Professor Dundes gave a lecture midway through the semester about the Electra complex in “Donkeyskin,” which thoroughly infuriated me. Where he saw a psychological attachment between father and daughter in the tale, I saw incestuous abuse. I resolved to write a research paper on the topic, and Professor Dundes heartily encouraged me to do so when I visited him in office hours. Despite my feminist leanings, in that first paper on ATU 510B, “The Problematic Electra Complex vs. Realities of Abuse: Psychoanalytic and Literal Approaches to ‘Donkeyskin’ (AT 510B),” I concluded that psychological and literal approaches to the tale were complementary. In fact, it seemed odd to me that most scholars tended to view the tale from only the one angle or the other, when both approaches had powerful explanatory appeal. This paper is included in Appendix A.

I revisited my research on ATU 510B in 2004. That spring, among the last classes I took at Berkeley were Alan Dundes’s “Psychological Approaches to Folklore” and Andreas Johns’s class on the fairy tale. I expanded my work on ATU 510B, the result being a paper double the length of the first one, titled “If the Interpretation Fits: Psychoanalytic and Literal Approaches to Father-Daughter Incest in AT 510B” (see Appendix B). I referred to more versions of the tale in my analysis, and brought in more theoretical references as well. I also presented my research on ATU 510B at two conferences that year, one version of the paper at the California Folklore Society meeting in Northridge, California in the spring, and the other version at the American Folklore Society meeting at Salt Lake City. I include the latter paper, “If the Interpretation Fits: Symbolic and Literal Approaches to Father-Daughter Incest Fairy Tales,” here as well (see Appendix C).

Those three prior versions of my work on ATU 510B represent different phases of my thinking about not only the tale itself, but also the interpretation process. I started out with the aim to demonstrate that a feminist perspective was necessary to supplement the lacks of a psychoanalytic perspective, but I was unable to completely discard the insights of psychoanalysis, despite its sexist biases. When I began to revise my research, I wanted to explore the spectrum of meanings available within different versions of the tale. I was still interested in the gap between psychological and feminist interpretations, but I wanted to expand the frame of the paper. Hence the shift in the title from psychoanalytic and feminist terms to symbolic and literal terms. The readings I’ve done in psychoanalysis have thoroughly influenced me here, for I first encountered the terms “manifest” and “latent” in psychoanalytic literature. That fairy tales should have both manifest and latent levels of meaning is evident; but how to access these multiple meanings?

Influenced by my classes at Indiana University in folklore as well as gender studies, I began to think about how texts “mean.” Intertextuality, performativity, and other postmodern concepts inspired me to explore the polysemous nature of texts (and also to put more things in the plural and in parentheses than possibly ought to be). I realized that there never was and never would be only one meaning for anything, so why should ATU 510B be treated as a homogenous phenomenon? I also had the opportunity to write articles for The Encyclopedia of Folk and Fairy Tales (forthcoming from Greenwood Press), which, particularly the ones on psychological approaches to folklore, gender, and incest, got me thinking about the frames through which we approach fairy tales.

Like any type of cultural performance or art form with historical ties as well as symbolic content, traditional elements as well as innovative ones, fairy tales fulfill multiple functions, ranging from entertainment and education to political instrumentalization. Fairy tales also provide flexible discursive spaces in which prevailing norms can be debated and alternative identities can be explored. However, fairy tales are also mirrors, to put it simply. I discuss this oft-used metaphor in the “Interpretive Methodologies” section of my thesis paper, for it continues to fascinate me and be useful for thinking. The interesting thing about the mirror metaphor is that it is visually oriented, like much of Western culture, and also that it implies that an objective reality exists, or at least that viewer and viewed, subject and object, are separate. I believe that the prevalence of the mirror metaphor in scholarship is one reason why fairy-tale scholarship has been so one-dimensional, focusing only on one version of a tale, or only on one interpretive frame, and so on. While the mirror metaphor is poetic and can be helpful in explaining why the interpreter or listener or reader of a fairy tale continually sees in the tale what she desires to see, I believe that fairy tales must be approached as more complex than mirrors. Moreover, interpreters must become aware of the perspectives that they bring with them to the interpretive act, for these perspectives may impose a frame upon the materials. This framing process is not necessarily artificial, for fairy tales are multiply framed texts to begin with, but it means that extra caution must be taken if one intends to make theoretical statements about fairy tales.

The purpose of this paper, then, is not only to revise my prior writings on ATU 510B into some publishable form in order to bolster my academic career, but also to get my ideas out there and start some dialogue about how we look at fairy tales (and texts in general). I am excited to get to talk about one of my favorite fairy tales at length, for I take genuine pleasure in working with these materials, but I’m also thrilled at the idea of proposing a syncretic approach to fairy tales that might be interesting and useful to other scholars. This dual purpose—to provide an interpretation of ATU 510B as well as provide a theoretical framework for interpretation in general—was my goal from the inception of this project. However, I have trouble with the revision process, so this project took me longer than I’d anticipated. The theoretical framing of the first few sections was the most difficult; once I got into the interpretation, I was able to coast. A good chunk of this paper is simply interpretation of ATU 510B. I believe that this is as it should be with folkloristic scholarship, for theories without data are just about as unsatisfying as data without theories (channeling Dundes with that statement, perhaps).

Throughout the revision process, I learned about my style of scholarship in an archaeological fashion. The earliest version of this paper was too heavy in quotes and clunky passages, indicating my insecurities as a younger scholar. I sought validation by letting others speak for me, and I hadn’t really found my voice yet. Then, in the second version of this paper, I let my own voice appear more in the text, but I still quoted other scholars quite extensively. I looked for everything that had ever been written on ATU 510B, in part because Professor Dundes had trained us to do exhaustive research on a topic before writing about it in order to avoid repeating what’s already been said, and in part because I wanted to write something authoritative on ATU 510B. Now, I look back and wonder why in order for a paper to be authoritative it must reference everything else on the subject. How much must we demonstrate familiarity with texts within a discipline in order to achieve competence, and by whose standards? Is this an issue of respect towards one’s elders, or is it fueled by a tradition of learning by example? I’m not saying that I regret doing all the reading and synthesizing that I did, nor that scholars should write about a topic without thoroughly researching it first. Rather, I’m wondering why that approach was so thoroughly ingrained in me, and why I clung so fervently to it for so long. I wonder, too, why it was so important to me to write something “authoritative” on a given tale. What baggage comes with the notion of authoritative writing? The attractive position of being an author, surely, as well as being an authority on a subject. But with authority comes the danger of silencing and excluding other perspectives.

This is what I struggle with in regard to fairy tales, and folklore in general: the desire to say something true and important about these texts and phenomena, weighed against the knowledge that truth is relative, everything is subjective, and Western epistemologies for learning and meaning-making are very skewed. I seek validation as an academic—hence my earlier phase of excessive quotation, which I still catch myself doing sometimes—even as I recognize that academic thought is based upon concepts that are grounded in and create historical inequalities, such as Cartesian mind-body dualism, sexism and essentialism, and Judeo-Christian hierarchies. So my work is, in part, about challenging and changing the system from within.

Another aspect of my engagement with fairy tales within academia is the attempt to understand culture and the human condition from one particular angle. As ambitious as I am, I have to accept that I have limits, and I cannot possibly hope to study everything about culture. Instead, I can limit my scope and go deeper into meanings. Fairy tales resonate very deeply with me, and also with the myriad others who read them, write them, and write about them. These transforming and transformative narratives may only comprise one tiny part of culture, a felicitous conjunction of oral and literary traditions and innovations, yet they are also sites where cultural change and conflict, gender issues, and means of production and privilege interact. Fairy tales are artistic expressions of communal and individual concerns, using fictional and formulaic structures, with flexible vocabularies and conventions. For all that they are currently regarded as entertainment in Western cultures, fairy tales are not any less stories about culture and people, with insights into culture and people. What I am trying to express here is my dual frustration at the trivialization of fairy tales and their importance, as well as the trivialization within the study of fairy tales of the significance of certain themes. For example: “What, a story about incest? No, that’s certainly too horrible, it must be a metaphor for something else…” While I’m not certain whether this line actually goes through people’s heads, I suspect that some kind of similar rationalization is put forth for the metaphorization of fairy-tale content. And this question—on which level to understand the content of fairy tales—is one of the central issues I address in this paper.

The fact that fairy tales are generally about individuals within families, whether these families are perceived as real or as symbols for ego-complexes, continues to intrigue me and be relevant to my research. A close friend and I were once discussing why we were drawn to our somewhat bizarre research topics: she to prostitution, and I to father-daughter incest fairy tales. These things were not part of our life experiences, and yet we got something meaningful out of their study. My friend hypothesized that I was so fascinated by the father-daughter dynamic because within a nuclear family unit in a patriarchal culture, the father-daughter relationship is the most asymmetrical. That is, the father has the most power within the family (itself a model for society), and the daughter has the least power. This relationship, then, reflects a tension that resonates with larger power imbalances within societies. And because I am drawn to patterns, to stark illuminations, this relationship entrances me, and compels me to try to explain its presence in stories that have gone through many redactions and guises.

This explanation works, partially. So does the reason that I am drawn to these tales because they were once ostensibly common in the oral traditions of cultures that speak Indo-European and Semitic languages, yet these tales now have been subsumed under their sister tale, ATU 510A, “Cinderella,” in popularity (a topic I address in the paper I will deliver at the American Folklore Society meeting this year). What is going on with father-daughter incest stories, that they ceased to appear in collections of fairy tales and children’s books and movies, but only recently made a resurgence in retellings by modern American feminist writers of fantasy? This reason is the one I give most often to family members and non-academic friends, because I can use a concrete example, “Cinderella,” to discuss the divergences of “Donkeyskin” in oral tradition and literary retellings. Nevertheless, I can only rely on such explanations for a certain amount of validation. It is rather more difficult to provide a satisfactory account of my interest in the tale when my family takes an active interest in my folklore career, and shows up to hear one of my conference papers. This happened at the California Folklore Society meeting in 2004, which was held at Cal State Northridge, of which both my parents are alumni. Since my parents still live in the area, they not only hosted a bunch of Berkeley folklore students for the weekend, but they also showed up to hear my paper on ATU 510B. That was an interesting experience. I felt that I had to act in a scholarly manner, analyzing my material from as detached a distance as possible, in order not to upset anybody or arouse undue suspicion about my attachment to this tale. My parents were, to their credit, not too alienated either by the topic of my paper or by the overly academic, discipline-specific, and jargon-filled approach I took. The processes of meaning-making and revision, then, had different ramifications for this one conference presentation, as I was concerned about how this paper about relationships would impact my own relationships.

Revising my work on ATU 510B for conference presentation was challenging largely because I had so much to say about the tale, it was difficult to fit it into ten pages or twenty minutes, whichever came first. At the same time, that process helped me to cut out unnecessary quotations and synthesize my thoughts in digestible segments. It is difficult to know where to be brief, and where to expand; it is also interesting for those of us who study artistic communication to think about how we communicate insights about said communication. In sum, this project, born of a fascination with a particular story and revised numerous times, represents various phases in my scholarly development but is also marked by my personal life. There are myriad connections between my academic work and the rest of my life, and this is evident in how and why I study fairy tales, particularly how I am drawn to investigate the ways in which multiple meanings can be understood through attention to different layers of the texts.

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Mayken González Backlund’s illustration for “The Nightingale”

I’ve been doing some reading on Hans Christian Andersen lately, and it’s really spurred me to think about my own interactions with art. In addition to reading Andersen’s tales, I’ve been reading Jack Zipes’s book Hans Christian Andersen: The Misunderstood Storyteller, which (in my opinion) does a great job of using contextual information from Andersen’s life to illuminate his fairy tales and stories.

Fun fact: Andersen never married, and is believed to have never had sex (despite apparently visiting brothels a couple of times in his life). Contemporary scholars debate whether he was gay, bisexual, or “spiritually androgynous” yet asexual in practice. Based on the fact that he proposed to two women, and yet in numerous letters and diary entries described his passionate feelings for men, it seems likely that he wasn’t 100% heterosexual (as much as that category existed in 19th century Denmark or anywhere else for that matter). Either way you slice it, he felt like he didn’t fit in and was thus lonely and misunderstood.

Perhaps related to his loneliness was his drive to create. He was amazingly prolific, penning not just the tales we know and love him for, but also poetry, essays, novels, plays, travel books, and memoirs. Zipes gives us a quote from one of his diaries:

What could become of me, and what will become of me? My powerful fantasy will drive me into the insane asylum, my violent temper will make a suicide of me! Before, the two of these together would have made a great writer. (7)

Other quotes reveal that Andersen believed he was guided by God to become a great artist, that he had a gift to share with the world. In Andersen’s tales, too, we see notions of inner nobility (such as in “The Ugly Duckling”) and ruminations on the nature of art (“The Nightingale”)… and those are just from some of his better-known works! There are tons more.

All this has me thinking, as an artist, about what makes me similar to and different from Andersen. I also feel driven, perhaps to the point of narcissism and solitude. I don’t, however, believe that I have a God-given destiny to become an artist… though I do feel like I have talents and skills that I ought to use, if only because I have them and don’t want them to get rusty. When it comes down to it, what’s the difference between the two? If I believe I have a gift and ought to use it to create art, does it really matter whether I believe it came from God or is just a part of my personality and makeup?

One of Andersen’s tales, “The Pen and the Inkwell,” shows the two titular objects arguing over which of them has agency and is thus responsible for creating the masterpieces they write. The poet who wields them ends up writing a parable about how the bow and violin that create marvelous music are not, however, the creators of their art:

“How absurd it would seem if the bow and the violin should be proud and haughty about their accomplishments. Yet we, human beings, often are: the poets, the artists, the scientists, and even the generals often boast in vain pride. Yet they are all but instruments that God plays upon. To Him alone belongs all honor. We have nothing to pride ourselves upon!” (Hans Christian Andersen: The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories, trans. Erik Christian Haugaard, 640)

I believe that artistic inspiration comes from somewhere, but that “somewhere” doesn’t need to have a religious explanation tacked on to it in order to be meaningful. The important thing about art is that it moves us, not where it comes from. To be sure, many artists use art therapeutically, to resolve feelings and address struggles – so in that sense, yes, it matters where art comes from. But I don’t think that the only rational or valid origin for art lies in religion.

To me, a more powerful account of art can be seen in “The Nightingale.” A nightingale that sings miraculously beautiful songs agrees to come and sing for the emperor, but it’s banished after a mechanical bird arrives and sings flawless, perfect (but ultimately boring and unchanging) music. After all this, the nightingale returns and sings for Death before Death can claim the emperor’s life. Art is so moving that is can persuade Death to leave – and it almost teaches the emperor a valuable lesson about de-commodifying art. Almost. The emperor still wants art on his terms, but relents and agrees to let the nightingale come and go as it pleases.

Perhaps there are people who will never understand how artists and art work, but as long they’re able to enjoy its beauty from time to time, this tale suggests, then our worlds will intersect and enlighten one another. Perhaps art doesn’t always provoke lasting social change, but moments of reflection are still worthwhile.

One of the enduring gifts that Andersen gave the world was his meta-art, or his art that reflects on art. I appreciate this as both an artist and a scholar, and I continue to seek it out in my engagements with others. If nothing else, connecting with others (such as collaborating) prevents me from going to the extreme of hermiting myself up all the time or becoming too proud. Encounters with others always have the potential to be humbling, and if we read into and across Andersen’s tales, we find the encouragement to engage, encounter, and transform.

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As promised, here’s my second post of the month. Hopefully I can continue to publish two posts per month, and perhaps even increase the number as time goes on.

Since I’ve spent the last few days revising a chapter of my dissertation into an article to submit for publication – which involved changing all the citations from MLA to Chicago style, and multiple other tedious rearrangements – I’m going to just write this pots in prose. No citations. Feel free to ask for them in comments if you’re curious.

While I was having a fabulous time at this year’s International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, I noticed a trend: people tend to discuss folklore (the topic) as though they know as much about it as someone who has academic training in folklore (the discipline). One of the most obvious manifestations of this was people who mixed up the names of folk narrative genres, like legend and fairy tale and myth, without regard to how they’re used in our discipline. And trust me, we use them quite precisely, distinguishing between their content, contexts, forms, and functions (among other characteristics).

I get that some of these genre terms have entered English vernacular with various meanings (“myth” being one of the most pernicious examples of this phenomenon), but I’d expect scholars to do a bit more research, and use their terminology with more intention and precision. And I get that folkloristics is a small, less-known discipline, so people don’t immediately think to look up our scholarship as examples of how to use genre terms with utmost precision. These are all factors, to be sure.

However, I think there’s something else going on too: I think that we folklorists, in our efforts to reach out to students and colleagues and the general public, have mistakenly placed an emphasis on how folklore is for everyone. If we all know folklore – which we all do, even if we don’t think of it in those terms – then we’re all, in some sense, folklore experts. We’re all the folk after all, right? (to quote my beloved mentor, Alan Dundes) So if we’re all the folk, we all know about folklore, and we all have the right to talk and write about it, right?


On the one hand, I’ve found emphasizing that everyone knows and performs folklore to be an incredibly useful strategy while  teaching folklore classes. Once my students know that folklore encompasses all the expressive culture and artistic communication of a given group, and that it’s not just myths and fairy tales, they respond enthusiastically to my in-class discussion prompts. They can rattle off jokes, folkspeech/slang, holiday customs, family stories, personal narratives, folk medicine, and more. All of which is wonderful to witness.

But on the other hand, perhaps we as professional folklorists are mistakenly giving the impression that once a person can identify folklore in her life, she automatically knows enough about it to present or publish about it. Perhaps this is related to the ethnographic impulse in our discipline, where we urge people to describe texts of folklore and  relate them to their life and cultural contexts. That’s definitely part of what we want out of folklore scholarship, and if laypeople can get that far, that’s worthwhile, right? But there’s a line between description and analysis, and perhaps that line is getting muddled somewhere.

I’m not sure how we can rectify this misunderstanding, and I suspect that there are deeper cultural forces at work here (such as the dichotomous relationship between orality and literacy and attendant values). I don’t know whether I’m willing to give up the powerful teaching tool that “everyone knows folklore!” has turned out to be, though I’m thoroughly annoyed by every instance where someone (whether a layperson or academic) doesn’t bother to look up our field’s research when referring to our field’s topics.

Suggestions or comments welcome, from folklorists as well as everyone else.

(for what it’s worth, I don’t intend this post to send a negative message to scholars who don’t have a folklore background but are actively interested in working on folklore topics… please just keep in mind that our discipline has a long history – the American Folklore Society was founded before the American Anthropological Association, for instance – and if you really want to do a good job of working with folklore materials, your research must include folkloristic approaches to the topic… and feel free to ask your local folklorist for research suggestions, most of us are happy to help!)

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