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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An illustration from a 1912 publication of the Grimms’ tales in English.

A conversation with speculative fiction authors Max Gladstone and Michael Underwood got me thinking about the importance of the “original” version of stories and other expressive culture to people. Gladstone wrote this blog post about how the Star Wars Expanded Universe is essentially a folkloric variation on a narrative, in the same way that the Greek classics displayed variation even when they were written up into plays and other literary (hence fixed) forms. Underwood, who also has folklore training, leapt in, and the discussion veered into intriguing territory, such as wondering how a version of a text becomes associated with concept of the “original” in someone’s mind.

However, as a folklore instructor, I’ve grown to loathe the concept of the “original” when it comes up in my college classes. This is due to two conflated meanings that I’ll unpack here.

The first – and incorrect – way that references to the “original” crop up in my classes is as an assertion of origin. As in, a student saying that the “original” Cinderella was dark and gory.

Um, no. First, that’s usually a reference to the Grimms’ version of Cinderella, in which the stepsisters cut off toes and/or heels to try to fit into the shoe, and get their eyes pecked out by birds at Cinderella’s wedding to the prince. But even then, are we talking about the 1812 version of Cinderella, from when the Grimms first published their collection of tales, Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales), or from the 7th and final revision which appeared in 1857, or any of the intervening revisions? And then what about translations? We know from various folklore studies that Victorian-era English translators changed bunches based on social norms and ideas about acceptability for child audiences.

Between publication and translation issues, it’s difficult to talk about the “original” version of a fairy tale, even when someone has a specific version in mind. Then you throw in the fact that it’s incredibly difficult to determine when the first existing version of something from oral tradition came into being, and yeah… it’s hardly worth talking about. (for what it’s worth, though, the oldest written version of something resembling Cinderella comes from 9th century China, which means it was likely circulating in oral tradition well before that)

See, I’m not drawn to the pursuit of the origins of older folklore. It might be an intriguing research question, for some people, some of the time… but it’s not why I’m here. I’m in folklore studies because we have our scholarly fingers on the pulse of what people (consciously or not) find relevant enough to transmit, perform, and enact.

Anyway, in folklore studies the question of the “original” is essentially a meaningless one, unless you’re working with a phenomenon that is so recent or so thoroughly documented that you can, in fact, point at the first instance of something. But usually it comes together from a swirl of existing cultural material that get remixed in just the right way to cohere and resonate with people.

The second meaning that the “original” can have in folklore studies (and one that bugs me far less, though I wish we had better language for it) is meaning the first version that stuck with you. So it’s a more subjective meaning, and therefore can’t really be debated in the same way as the first meaning. Which is fine – but people need to realize that the first version they were exposed to isn’t necessarily going to be the same for everyone.

In Fairy Tales and Feminism: New ApproachesDonald Haase covers reception and reader response approaches to fairy tales in his introductory essay. One of the scholars he mentions, Kay Stone, has done pioneering work with women’s and children’s memories of and responses to gender roles in fairy tales. Among Stone’s findings is the impressive insight that women selectively remembered the heroines of fairy tales, sometimes making them more active and heroic than passive, even when their roles in the text seem largely passive. Otherwise, there hasn’t been a ton of work in this area that I know of (at one point I was going to do a study, but the IRB permissions were complicated, given that I wanted to work with children).

For fairy tales specifically, yes, we can blame Disney and their aggressive copyright laws for a lot of the hype around the “original” version of something, down to the color and cut of a princess’s dress. But we should also take into account the intellectual fascination with morphologies and genealogies dating back to the Romantic era and the philological foundations of modern literary, historical, linguistic, and anthropological studies. I’ve got a rant about authenticity, and how every cultural tradition is invented, that I’ll get around to writing up eventually, which would tie in nicely here.

If we each have our own personal first-exposure version of a text – whether a tale type, or a custom, or a proper way of preparing a holiday food – then that can be a potentially interesting avenue of study. When was someone first exposed to the text? By whom? Which facets of it stuck with them (motifs and themes; structure; context) and which are more malleable? How does this color their interactions with other versions of the same plot, text, or tale type?

The personal-first-exposure meaning (we need to find a better term than your original version) is intriguing and grants that our unique life experiences shape our interactions with cultural materials. This is more empowering – and more accurate – than trying to determine which version of something came first, since that’s often a question that leads back to historically privileged individuals and groups (e.g. those with literacy, the power to record their lives, and so on).

So please remove the “original” from your vocabulary when in a folklore context. And check out my other folklore pet peeves, too, such as when people assume we write children’s books, or that all folklorists are obsessed with origins, or that everybody already knows everything there is to know about folklore.

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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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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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"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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“Something” illustrated by Oscar Klever

As both an academic and an artist (wow, how many blog posts have I written/will I write that start off like this?), I’ve noticed that having a fine-tuned critical gaze is very important and useful, but it also has its downsides.

On the academic side, my ability to critique works and ideas has been a great help. Having a critical gaze helps me sift through scholarship when I’m doing background research for a new project or syllabus. I’m a thorough editor, and I actually enjoy proof-reading papers (excepting my own). While I’m not a specialist in rhetoric, I’ve gotten better at identifying the various types of arguments that one can make in an academic paper or book, as well as the sorts of evidence that are appropriate and compelling to present.

In terms of the arts, I’ve become excellent at identifying technical flaws in dance performances. I suspect this is partly because I’ve taught dance for a number of years so I’m proficient at picking out typical beginner mistakes (such as not having proper posture, which is the foundation of everything we do in American Tribal Style® belly dance), and partly because I’ve simply watched a ton of dance performances. I mean, I’ve been dancing for almost half my life, and most of that at a semi-professional if not professional level. I’d be a little worried if my eyes weren’t catching mistakes and spotting places where a dancer could improve.

But being good at critiquing someone or something, and then actually implementing the critique, are two separate things. Few people like to be told that they’re doing something wrong, and those that do, tend to need to be in the right context to hear it. If someone sets foot in a dance classroom or a conference presentation, then yes, they’re probably open to hearing what could be improved. But even then, it’s a bit of a gamble as to how a critique will be received. Even well-intention critiques (and I like to think that mine always are) can feel devastating.

And then there’s this issue: critiquing something is not the same as creating something. The latter is frequently more involved and time-consuming, and one tends to put pieces of one’s heart or oneself into a creation, whether a choreography for a performance or an academic article.

I’ve written about Hans Christian Andersen’s views on art here, and I’d like to return to Andersen to explore his views on critics. As you might guess about an egotistical artist who was also largely unhappy with his life, he wasn’t a fan of critics. He made his views known in his stories, including two that I’ll mention here.

In a story titled “‘Something,'” five brothers set out to do something useful in the world. One becomes a builder, another an architect, and so on. However, the fifth brother declares: “I see that none of you will ever become something, even though you all think you will….I want to stand apart. I will contemplate and criticize what you do. There is always something wrong with anything man makes. I shall point it out so all can see it. That is something!” (Hans Christian Andersen: The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories, trans. Erik Christian Haugaard, 540).

And indeed, people began to praise the fifth brother: “He is really something. He has got a good head on his shoulders and can make something into nothing.” (ibid 540). However, when the fifth brother tries to get into heaven, he can’t produce evidence that he’s done a single good deed in his lifetime. In fact, the best thing he can do is keep his mouth shut instead of offering his opinion – and that, we’re told, is “something.”

In another story, “A Question of Imagination,” a young man who wants to be a writer goes to ask an old woman for help coming up with ideas for what to write about (because everything has already been written about – and goodness, if people were thinking that in the 1800s, imagine how dire the situation must be now!). However, no matter how much inspiration the old woman tries to feed the boy, he remains oblivious to the wonders of the world around him. Finally, the woman tells him to become a critic. He “followed her advice. He became an expert at looking down his nose at poets because he couldn’t become one himself.” (Hans Christian Andersen: The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories, trans. Erik Christian Haugaard, 974).

There’s something tragic, Andersen implies, about the person who cannot create but can only critique. However, I’d argue instead that critique doesn’t in and of itself signal a lack; instead, I think it’s critique without compassion that’s the problem. If the critic is also a creator, then hopefully she will have some understanding what goes on in the artistic process, and won’t be snide or cruel in her critique. I’d hope that critics who aren’t also creators, but are simply quite good at what they do, would also have some compassion for artists and not be unduly destructive or negative.

I’m not implying that we’d suddenly live in a utopian world without hurtful negative feedback if everyone made an effort to be a little more compassionate. Haters gonna hate, and all that. I do think, however, the critics should evaluate their relationships with the materials they critique, and be honest with themselves (and the world) about their reasons for doing so. That’d be a start, anyway.

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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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For the non-folklorists out there, we use the term “tale type” to refer to a folktale or fairy tale plot that has shown stability throughout time and space. “Cinderella” and “Little Red Riding Hood” are great examples of tale plots that are transmitted in different languages, countries, and time periods. But here you run into the problem of tale title; “Cinderella” doesn’t bear that name in every telling, so how are we scholars supposed to keep track of them all?

The tale type system, pioneered by Finn Antti Aarne in the early 1900s and revised by American Stith Thompson in the mid-20th century and updated by German Hans-Jorg Uther in 2004, assigns numbers to tale plots. So “Cinderella” is Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) 510A, “Little Red Riding Hood” is ATU 333, and so on.

However, there are problems with the system. As fairy-tale scholar Donald Haase writes on his Facebook:

I am happy to announce a new project for folk-narrative and fairy-tale scholars. For decades we have relied on the Aarne-Thompson tale-type index to understand the essence of a tale, but its skeletal description of each type’s essential plot prevents us from seeing other possibilities. The recent revision of the AaTh index was an important first step in rethinking and revising those descriptions. The Internet, however, now makes possible a new way of thinking. Devoted to breaking the magic spell of Aarne-Thompson, I propose a communal catalog of #TwitterTypes. What are #TwitterTypes? Posted on Twitter, #TwitterTypes are new summaries of traditional tales in 140 characters or less (including some version of the tale’s title). Why Twitter? Because the discipline of 140 characters composed on a computer or smartphone forces creative choices about a tale’s “essence,” and those choices reveal, to the Tweeter, the alternatives — the “Tweets-not-taken.”


The cool thing is that Haase basically wants to crowd-source this, a technique noted by digital humanities scholars and which I’m really curious about for fairy-tale studies:

Why a communal catalog? Imagine not a SINGLE effort to capture the SINGLE essence a tale but MANY efforts to express its MANY possibilities. Besides, I don’t want to do this all myself. So this is a CFT — a Call for #TwitterTypes. A call for contributions to the omnipresent, cloud-based #TwitterType Catalog, an endless project that exists everywhere and nowhere, a catalog that grows every time a fairy-tale scholar tweets. The first two #TwitterTypes–for “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Frog King or Iron Henry”–follow soon on Twitter, with simultaneous postings on my Facebook page. (Thanks, Gary, for having inspired this project.)


Examples of Haase’s include Blue Beard: (he-said-she-said) I do.–DON’T!–I won’t.–YOU DID!–I didn’t.–YOU’RE DONE FOR!–DON’T THINK SO!! (He didn’t; done in.)

I’m going to start posting some of my own, and I encourage fairy-tale enthusiasts to do the same, and please share this link! In an update, Haase announced that we’ll go with the hashtag #TwTy since it’s shorter, allowing for more creativity within Twitter’s character limits (though I think starting with the #TwitterTypes hashtag to let searchers know that you’re participating might be helpful). Looking for inspiration? Folklorist D. L. Ashliman runs a great site of electronic folklore & mythology texts, many of which include tale type numbers. His Grimms’ tale listing is here. Another great fairy-tale site online is Sur La Lune. If you can’t find the tale type numbers, that’s fine, I think using the title will work too.

So, have at, and pass it on!

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