Book Review: The Irresistible Fairy Tale, by Jack Zipes


Volume 1, Issue 1 (July 2013)
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Zipes, Jack. The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2012.

Child Prodigy for Book Review

“Child Prodigy” by C. Polkinhorn

About the Reviewer: Kelsey Wadman received her Bachelors in English from California State University, Long Beach. Before becoming an M.A. candidate at San Diego State University specializing in children’s literature, Kelsey spent a year living in a tent in Yosemite National Park, then dedicated a few years to being a foster parent at a group home in North Carolina. Her research interests include trauma narratives (particularly depictions of child abuse in YA lit), fairy tales, and interdisciplinary work.

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Jack Zipes’ call for scholars is the most inspiring aspect of The Irresistible Fairy Tale; Zipes explicitly asks others to engage with material yet to be explored in folktales and fairy tale studies.  Sometimes criticized for the reiteration of material he has published previously, Zipes’ recycling of his own material has nothing to do with a lack of groundbreaking material and everything to do with Zipes’ mission to engage future and fellow scholars in the importance of fairy tale studies.

In his quest to understand the significance of fairy tales, Zipes refuses to shy away from controversial aspects of his findings, particularly those related to religion. Making his stance clear in the first chapter, Zipes states, “Though many ancient tales might seem magical, miraculous, fanciful, superstitious, or unreal to us, people believed them, and these people were and are not much different from people today who believe in religions, miracles, cults, nations, and notions…” (2). He elaborates on connections between present day religion and ancient fairy tales in chapter four, “Witch as Fairy/Fairy as Witch: Unfathomable Baba Yagas.” In one of the few passages of the book in which he mentions Disney, Zipes writes, “Obsessed with beauty and her own desires, the Disney witches are stereotypical products of the Western male gaze and mass-mediated manipulation of the images of women that date back to the Christian church’s demonization of women” (78). In contrast to the stereotypical Western vision of a witch is Zipes’s analysis of the eastern European witch, Baba Yaga, whom Zipes believes has roots in Russian pagan goddesses. Baba Yaga’s function, Zipes argues, is as a powerful, maternal protector of Russia and not as any kind of force of evil.

Another possibly controversial aspect of The Irresistible Fairy Tale is Zipes’ outspoken rejection of certain current fairy tale-centered publications. Zipes dedicates a considerable amount of space in his book to setting the record straight about responsible and credible fairy tale scholarship. Most distinctly, he mentions in the preface that he will respond to “some deplorable scholarly endeavors that have sought to dismiss the fairy tale’s oral roots and reduce it to a genre that privileges print over orality… it is important, I believe, not to be silent when misleading ideas are circulated as fact” (xii). Zipes adds two appendixes to his book; the first he titles “Sensationalist Scholarship: a New History of Fairy Tales,” in which he details the many problems he finds with the work of Ruth Bottigheimer. His second appendix, “Reductionist Scholarship: A ‘New’ Definition of the Fairy Tale,” pinpoints the limitations Zipes finds in Willem de Blecourt’s book Tales of Magic, Tales in Print: On Geneology of Fairy Tales and the Brothers Grimm.

In keeping with Zipes’ determination to set the record straight in fairy tale scholarship, he also sets out to resituate misunderstood or misinterpreted folklorists. The sixth chapter, “Giuseppe Pitre and the Great Collectors of Folk Tales in the Nineteenth Century,” calls attention to the misinterpreted work of folklorist Giuseppe Pitre. Zipes does the same for folklorist Vladmir Propp in the fourth chapter, and for disregarded female folklorists in the fifth, “The Tales of Innocent Persecuted Heroines and Their Neglected Female Storytellers and Collectors.” Zipes’ assertion of the validity of these folklorists is well-grounded in the works that they collected and published, in the biographical information of the individuals, and in the social and historical climate of the time. In fact, his detailed consideration of these areas surpasses the expectation that scholars know their source; Zipes knows the folklore, the folklorist, the folklorist’s “narrative habitus” (45), and the folklorist’s mom. For example, in the case of Pitre, Zipes iterates, “his mother, Maria Stabile, was the daughter of a seafaring family… as a young boy, he began collecting proverbs, maritime expressions, and songs” (114).

Not surprising to anyone familiar with the work of Jack Zipes is his commitment to the assertion of a feminist perspective in fairy tales, the retellings of fairy tales, and the field of fairy tale studies. In his second chapter, “The Meaning of the Fairy Tale within the Evolution of Culture,” Zipes names Catherine d’Aulnoy as the individual who coined the term ‘fairy tale’ in the first place, and maintains that her stories were protests of the misogyny of the times as well as disguised commentary on class and religious discrepancies. Perhaps most encouraging is Zipes’ final chapter of The Irresistible Fairy Tale, “Fairy-Tale collisions, or the Explosion of a Genre,” in which Zipes commends several female artists for their visual reinterpretations of popular fairy tales. Although we get a dose of Zipes’ close readings of feminist remakings in the third chapter, “Remaking ‘Bluebeard,’ or Good-bye to Perrault,” his final chapter is a commendation of current groundbreaking, controversial, and exciting work being done today in the field of feminism and fairy tales. For a generation largely socialized by Disney, the ample positive attention to artists challenging the constructs of male-slanted fairy tales is refreshing.

Zipes says of Pitre, “His knowledge of international folklore and scholarship was extraordinary – literally breathtaking. He was familiar with all the most recent debates, discoveries, and publications in several different languages” (119).  At this point in the book the reader can’t help but view Zipes in the same light. After reading The Irresistible Fairy Tale, those with a serious interest in fairy tales and folklore can depend on Zipes to tell us exactly how much we don’t yet know, and those that either don’t have an interest in fairy tale and folktale studies or don’t take the study seriously, will.

*For more about The Irresistible Fairy Tale, see Elizabeth Rose Gruner’s review published in Children’s Literature, Volume 41, p 251-5. Gruner focuses on Zipes’ perspective of the fairy tale as a cultural meme and subversive form.

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One thought on “Book Review: The Irresistible Fairy Tale, by Jack Zipes

  1. Pingback: The Unjournal of Children’s Literature | educating alice

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