How Not To Be An Ass While Studying Fairy Tales

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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  1. Victoria Harkavy’s avatar

    I sympathize with your frustration and I have had similar thoughts myself every time I see a website post about “Original,” “Mysterious,” and “Undiscovered” fairy tales (or ballads. I recently saw a piece about the “Twa Sisters” that struck me as pointless). As important as it is that an amateur scholar (or blogger) not be an ass by assuming an expertise they have not earned, it is equally important for experts to be gracious in our work to expand people’s thinking. I was at the panel you reference. You were not polite to the scholar and I think she did an admirable job of maintaining her professional demeanor even while several people in the audience became aggressive and dismissive without having actually paid attention to the substance of her research. The presenter was a doctoral candidate whose specialty was illustration in children’s literature. Her paper was not about Cinderella, it was about exploring the retelling of fairy tales in children’s picture books and she talked about Cinderella scholarship as an influence on the work she was beginning to do. That is also one of purposes of presenting at a conference: to have a chance to get constructive feedback and guidance on a new research project. Her primary mistake was in underestimating how many folklorists and fairy tale scholars would be in her audience and how defensive we could get. I still regret that as a group we were not better colleagues as we discouraged her from continuing to attend ICFA and lost out on working with a colleague who was bringing a visual arts/illustration background that is underrepresented in the field.

  2. jeana’s avatar

    You’re right, Victoria, I am sometimes too sharply critical, and it’s something I’m working on. Until I get a better grip on my bluntness I am perhaps not the best person to roll out the welcome mat, especially if someone looks for all purposes like they don’t care about folklore scholarship but want to play in our sandbox anyway.

    So I guess one continuing question is, what can we do to be welcoming to outsiders, and how should our demeanor change based on the level of respect they seem willing to give us and our discipline?

  3. Erica’s avatar

    Wow! that is a lot of information Csenge. Thanks. I am just a lover of fairy tales and am coming to understand that there is a lot more than loving tales, thank you Csenge, as always. I wish i were younger and one of your students 🙂 But for anyone with interest there are a lot of tips to widen their understanding, in the peeve.



  4. jeana’s avatar

    Thank you for your comment! I suspect that Csenge, one of my Twitter friends, shared my post with you? Anyway, yes, there is a LOT to learn when it comes to studying fairy tales, and I hope that you enjoy your journey.

  5. Adam Hoffman’s avatar

    This makes me glad I don’t claim to be a scholar. I’m just a fairy tale fan who runs what I consider a fairy tale fan blog.

  6. jeana’s avatar

    Thank you for your comment, Adam. I think being a fan of something means engaging with it on a different level than when you’re a scholar. Neither’s better or worse than the other, they just mean varying degrees of appreciation, rigor, and so on. I think it’s important to have folks taking both approaches.

  7. Victoria’s avatar

    That is a very good question and my brains have been churning since you posed it. I have a few thoughts which may or may not turn out to be helpful answers.

    I think one question to ask ourselves is “Is this person trying to talk about fairy tales or are they trying to talk about [insert discipline/expertise] in conversation with fairy tales?” I think of it with the metaphor of being confused at an intersection one has just discovered (not perfect, I know).

    A second thought is one that comes from my work in customer service which is having scripted responses/phrases. Such as “I think you will find X really beneficial to your project.” Or “Your paper had me thinking about Y subject matter. Have you had the opportunity to look at that and how it might relate?” I can understand if that feels mealy-mouthed to someone as admirably straightforward as you. There might be a middle ground.

    One problem that is not unique to fairy tale scholarship is the seeing the horrible portrayal of our subject matter in the popular press/web. Would we be willing to try to bridge that gap with a regular column on HuffPost or something similar? Not scholarly but not as irresponsible as some of what we see. Related to that idea, are we willing to say something to our friends/family/colleagues in other subjects about the articles/blogs they post on our personal and group Facebook pages? Possibly even delete those posts? Might that help us reduce the reach of people who really are being assholes while studying fairy tales?

    Those are some of the things I have been thinking about. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

  8. jeana’s avatar

    I like your ideas, especially the one about an outreach blog post or column in a widely-read publication.

    Maybe we can resume this conversation in person at a conference?

  9. F. Ferris’s avatar

    Fairy tales do not belong to you.


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