Fairy Tales

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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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I am only okay at telling stories.

However, I’m actually really good at telling stories about stories.

Me dressed in traditional Manipuri clothing for the banquet at ICFA 2012.

(seriously, ask any of my intro-to-folklore students: I try to tell jokes as examples of the genre, and usually muck up the punchline; really, ask any of my friends or family – I am not so good at telling jokes or stories, but I am fantastic at interpreting and analyzing them)

So there I was at the International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts this past March. This is where, incidentally, I’d had a life-changing conversation with China Miéville, a writer I adore beyond words. It’s also where I presented on my dissertation on gender and the body in European fairy tales, focusing on monstrous masculinity within my subset of tales. Some of my favorite people in the whole world attend this conference, so I love catching up with them. But I also get to meet new people, which is quite awesome in its own right.

One evening, after panel sessions were over, I found myself at the poolside bar with two young conference attendees who were both studying some permutation of library science and/or children’s literature/YA. They were really interested in learning more about the connections between fairy tales and fantasy, and I was more than happy to oblige them. After a drink or three, I was telling them, basically, how to not screw up this kind of scholarship. I might’ve also been referring to myself in the third person as Auntie Jeana… I can rock a donor figure role, okay?

If you wanna know how to do good scholarship on fairy tales and fantasy, I figure it helps to know what bad scholarship looks like. And oh boy, do I have some gems for you!

Earlier at this conference, I was attending a panel on, you guessed it, fairy tales and fantasy. There were two solid papers, one on illustrations in children’s books based on fairy tales, and one on a certain rather violent tale type. The third paper was… well… when I was feeling charitable before the Q&A session, I decided that it was ill-informed and poorly executed.

Despite the paper being on a folkloric topic – Cinderella – it veered off and ignored all folklore scholarship on the tale type. It tried to prove the origin of motifs from a single version of the tale based on shared historical associations which was, hm, misguided at best. I mean, searching for origins is so nineteenth-century. Contemporary folklorists don’t bother much with the quest for origins since unless someone writes it down, oral tradition is, well, oral. You’re not going to find what’s never been documented. That way lies madness (or inaccurate assumptions, or poorly-done history). However, I was willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt.

But in the Q&A session, when I politely tried to point out that the author might want to read what some folklorists have to say on the matter, I was repeatedly cut off. I mean, the author got really defensive. And I even started my comment with a compliment on one connection she’d made that had caught my interest!

So, kids, before you present a paper at a conference (or encourage your students to do so), make sure you’ve done some basic reading in the discipline that whichever topic it is happens to fall in. Also? Be open to criticism, especially when it’s politely phrased and well-intentioned.

This paper wasn’t as bad as other stuff I’ve seen, though. And by other stuff, I mean the work of Jonathan Gottschall. He’s a literary Darwinist who thinks folktales provide wonderful grist for the mill of analysis. It’s so convenient that you don’t even have to read them in order to analyze them! The computer does all the work for you! So you can prove that tales from every culture reflect basic evolutionary mating patterns!

I cannot make this shit up (though I say so in more polite terms in my dissertation).

Donald Haase (an awesome-sauce folklorist) has already done a great job of debunking Gottschall’s work on fairy tales, so I needn’t repeat it here. Though you can bet I repeated it for the benefit of my young audience at ICFA on that balmy March evening at the pool bar.

Basically, if you are going to do research on a folklore topic (which includes folktales and fairy tales), do us all the favor of reading some up-to-date scholarship from our discipline. Also, read the texts themselves (which Gottschall apparently couldn’t be bothered to do). Also, make sure you’re working with a good translation. How do you know which translations are good? See our scholarship, as indicated above. If it’s older than 50-80 years, be skeptical, since people’s morals (especially during the Victorian era) prevented them from doing authentic translations especially if the material was sexual or scatalogical in nature. Which, ya know, happens a lot in folklore.

I believe I taught my young charges a lot that night by the poolside bar. Certainly, I taught them a lot about vodka shots. But I also think that in my rambling, tipsy state, I also delivered an impassioned address about how the discipline of folklore has much to offer the study of children’s literature, YA, and fantasy. We study people doing creative things. We study storytelling in all its forms. We’ve been doing it for centuries now. Why on earth would you ignore us?!

And that, my friends, is how fairy tale story time with Auntie Jeana goes.

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This weekend, some folklore colleagues and I watched an Estonian film titled “Nukitsamees” which translates to “Little Bumpy” (the title character is a little witch child with horns). The plot begins rather like the Western fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel” with a brother and sister lost in the woods, taken to the home of a witch where they live with the constant threat of being eaten. When they escape, they take the witch’s child with them, and though he is unruly, he eventually chooses to live a human life. There is much rejoicing, singing, dancing, and valorizing of the heteronormative family.

What really struck me about the film, however, was the grim terror that the children experienced while living in the witch’s house. While it was quite graphically depicted in the film, this is a feature of many related stories as well: the despondence and despair of the children upon discovering what they’ve stumbled into. The tale plot about children living in the house of cannibals – be they giants or witches – is quite widespread throughout Europe and Asia (I could go into specifics if I wanted to nerd out about the international transmission of folklore, but I’ll spare you that rant unless someone specifically asks about it).

These tales address very real fears of abandonment and child abuse, but more than that, I believe they deal with the experience of living in an environment that is experienced as harsh, hostile, and dangerous. The children are forced to work all day and night; they know that they could be punished or killed for any arbitrary reason; they know that their bodies will sustain the bodies of their captors, giving the captors life built on death.

What is this really about? I think these stories are about patriarchy, or, more broadly, a hierarchically stratified society that thrives upon the labor of the disenfranchised, literally building the lives of the empowered upon the bodies of the disempowered. In the case of women’s experiences of patriarchy, everything I wrote in the above paragraph applies: women’s labor in the domestic sphere is endless, filling each day and night; women (and men too) are policed and punished for any number of arbitrary transgressions when they step outside their gender roles; and women’s reproductive labor is the foundation of society’s continuation. Sexual assault remains astoundingly prevalent and functions as a powerful threat to keep women in their places, while cultural rhetoric places the blame on women who are raped as though they somehow asked for it.

Much of the same could be said for the working class in a capitalist society; for people of color in a racist society; for the urban poor in a classist society; for the untouchables in a caste society; and so on. These are the people whose bodies bear the brunt of mainstream society’s desires and needs. Those who live more comfortable lives are unaware that they are simply being fattened by the witch before being shoved into the oven.

Stories like “Hansel and Gretel” and “Nukitsamees” give us an emotional vocabulary with which to articulate experiences of fear, complicity, and hostility. Those of us who study culture know that most people can’t articulate the basic principles of the culture they live in, just like they can’t articulate all of the principles of the language they speak. We’re like fish who can’t tell that we’re swimming in water. Our culture is so infused with power relations that we can’t even begin to say where they begin and end.

The setting – a terrifying house that is not a home – intensifies the cultural conflicts we all experience. The hostility is coming from inside the house (sorry, couldn’t resist the temptation to make a BSG reference) when that is the very last place that should be experienced as hostile. Fairy tales as a genre make these artistic distortions, playing with significant themes like home and family, in order to critique these very institutions.

The imagery of terror in stories holds up a mirror so that we can see what our lives are like. Some of us are living comfortably in cages or cradles; some of us are breaking our backs stoking the fire; too many of us have already been eaten, rent limb from limb, or know people who have suffered terribly.

We are all living in the house of cannibals.

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