The following is a script for a presentation I gave as part of an MI group project to create a contemporary reference article on a subject of our choice; we chose Fairy Tales. Part of the assignment was to critique modern reference articles and look for bias and ways they can be improved, since reference articles are meant to be objective and fact-based and be tailored to meet the information needs of wide audiences.
Reference Articles critiqued:
Hahn, Daniel, Humphrey Carpenter, Mari Prichard, and Michael Morpurgo. “Fairy Stories (Fairy Tales).” The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature. , 2015. Print.
Robinson, Elizabeth. “Fairy Tales.” The Literary Encyclopedia 20 Dec. 2007. Web. 17 Sept. 2015.
I began the presentation by reading a fairy tale out loud to my class, initially without providing any context; “The Story of Grandmother” Paul Delarue via Jack Zipes, from Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood.
There was a woman who had made some bread. She said to her daughter:
“Go carry this hot loaf and bottle of milk to your granny.”
So the little girl departed. At the crossway she met bzou, the werewolf, who said to her:
“Where are you going?”
“I’m taking this hot loaf and bottle of milk to my granny.”
“What path are you taking.” said the werewolf, “the path of needles or the path of pins?”
“The path of needles,” the little girl said.
“All right, then I’ll take the path of pins.”
The little girl entertained herself by gathering needles.
Meanwhile the werewolf arrived at the grandmother’s house, killed her, and put some of her meat in the cupboard and a bottle of her blood on the shelf. The little girl arrived and knocked at the door.
“Push the door,” said the werewolf, “It’s barred by a piece of wet straw.”
“Good day, granny. I’ve brought you a hot loaf of bread and a bottle of milk.”
“Put it in the cupboard, my child. Take some of the meat which is inside and the bottle of wine on the shelf.”
After she had eaten, there was a little cat which said:
“Phooey!… A slut is she who eats the flesh and drinks the blood of her granny.”
“Undress yourself, my child,” the werewolf said, “And come lie down beside me.”
“Where should I put my apron?”
“Throw it into the fire, my child, you won’t be needing it any more.”
And each time she asked where she should put all her other clothes, the bodice, the dress, the petticoat, the long stockings, the wolf responded:
“Throw them into the fire, my child, you won’t be needing them anymore.”
When she laid herself down in the bed, the little girl said:
“Oh granny, how hairy you are!”
“The better to keep myself warm, my child!”
“Oh granny, what big nails you have!”
“The better to scratch me with, my child!”
“Oh granny, what big shoulders you have!”
“The better to carry the firewood, my child!”
“Oh granny, what big ears you have!”
“The better to hear you with, my child!”
“Oh granny, what big nostrils you have!”
“The better to snuff my tobacco with, my child!”
“Oh granny, what a big mouth you have!”
“The better to eat you with, my child!”
“Oh granny, I have to go badly. Let me go outside.”
“Do it in the bed, my child!”
“Oh no, granny, I want to go outside.”
“All right, but make it quick.”
The werewolf attached a woolen rope to her foot and let her go outside.
When the little girl was outside, she tied the end of the rope to a plum tree in the courtyard. The werewolf became impatient and said: “Are you making a load out there? Are you making a load?”
When he realized that nobody was answering him, he jumped out of bed and saw that the little girl had escaped. He followed her but arrived at her house just at the moment she entered
That was a folktale from the tenth century, told out loud by the fireside in French peasant cottages; the writer is unknown, and versions of the tale are slightly tailored for a Western audience. For example, the word “Bzou” for the French werewolf is replaced by half human. As we describe in our article, fairy tales evolved from preliterate folktales, drawing from their structure, patterns, themes, archetypes, and even alliteration. We decided that in addition to writing about French peasant folktales we would also include information about preliterate narratives from other cultures around the world; those stories were told out loud before writing was accessible and popularized, harkening back to the early medieval period and even beyond in religious mythology. Themes in fairy tales have drawn from these narratives and relate to these narratives in interesting ways.
One of our concerns about the two reference articles we chose to critique is their superficial treatment of folklore narratives. The Oxford Companion article even suggests, among other generalizations, that authentic oral stories deal with “the hope of transformation and happy ending”—but this is not always the truth, fairy tales and folk tales can be grim and grotesque, like the one I began this presentation with. Robinson’s article also implies that fairy tales must fit within that same framework, and though many fairy tales do, many also do not.
Some of the first written records of fairy tales are also grotesque and disturbing, with no placating “happily ever after”; not intended for children: In Giambattista Basile’s Pentameron from 1634, there is a version of “Sleeping Beauty” where the prince climbs into bed with the sleeping princess and enjoys “the first fruits of love”, and then deserts her and then leaves her pregnant and still sleeping; eventually one of the twins she gives birth to gets hungry, sucks the enchanted flax that kept her sleeping and wakes her up (Nodelman 304-5).
Just to give you an idea of the variety of folklore and fairy tale narratives from around the world: Folklorists Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson created a scheme to classify the varieties of tale types, using a scientific folklore approach- and this covers all varieties of Indo-European folktales (Nodelman 304). In this scheme there are apx. 2,499 distinct types from oral sources around the world.
*Note: Indo-European languages relates to the family of languages spoken over the greater part of Europe and Asia as far as northern India.
One example: “Cinderella” is 510A: “a sub-type of 510: the story of a girl mistreated by members of her family who receives magical help to get out of trouble and gain the attention of marriageable male” (Nodelman 304). Tales from 510 include versions from North America, Japan, and the well-known European stories told to children.
We quickly learned that creating a reference article about fairy tales when they contain so many different themes and tale types is very difficult. However, we thought the two reference articles we chose generalized those themes and presented too narrow a view of fairy tales; this might discourage a reader from wanting to know more about the subject and limit their understanding of fairy tales and broader cultural issues intrinsic to the tales.
We believe that a contemporary researcher, be it for a high school project, or a parent debating whether or not to expose their children to fairy tales, or a teacher deciding what to include in the curriculum, should know and would want to know more about the subject than these articles can offer.
Though fairy tales can be immensely enjoyable, we wanted our article to demonstrate that they are very diverse in scope and contain so much more than the two words fairy tale suggest.
When we began the process of this assignment, we thought of possible negative concerns a parent, teacher, or researcher might have regarding fairy tales before they read the article, that perhaps lead them to want to research and consult a reference source.
- Fairy tales provoke false hope for an unrealistic Utopia and lead to a poor understanding of the world and its social structures
- Encourage female docility and patriarchal social structures
- Perpetuate ideologies such as consumerism (the attainment of wealth and things) and binary gender roles
- Can be used as tools for censoring and tailoring children’s beliefs and desires
- That children are vulnerable and should be kept away from scarier fairy tale themes such as monsters, death, pain, the body, blood, sexuality, and other dark and disturbing ideas
- Or that some of their binary ideas of good and evil might reflect prejudice and racism and perpetuate ideas of the exotic “other” or orientalist attitudes
- Or that they might impose a certain religious worldview on the reader who might then in turn be influenced by that unique view or feel alienated
- Or that their values are too outdated and modern children might be confused or adopt these bad attitudes
We thought of that, and then we realized that we had to set aside our personal opinions, because this is a reference article and our task is to present facts and other people’s ideas, and not just present our own. Immediately we wanted to argue the case of fairy tales, to convince that teacher, parent, or researcher that fairy tales are important and should be read by children and adults and investigated and even rewritten and adapted, and then we thought of questions like: can fairy tales even be rewritten to reflect contemporary ideologies or become feminist fairy tales, when in their very nature, from the bones and cells of their story structures, themes and archetypes, they are unable to escape those ideological views and experiences born into them? Can’t contemporary fairy tales then be read as historical and even romantic artifacts documenting and capturing the many shifts and changes in the dance routines of human ideologies and experiences?
We had to put aside these ideas for essay theses we might have written in previous years because this was not that kind of essay, and we had to collaborate to attempt to avoid bias and personal opinions, and although we did make a thesis of how to construct the entry to best present information and ideas, we could not present a central theme or concentrate on one unique aspect of fairy tales, and this was really hard.
Neither reference article we critiqued presents broader ideas about fairy tales that would connect a contemporary reader to the reference article. We are not suggesting that a reference article should present one specific complex argument (which can lead to bias and a narrower view of the subject), but by presenting several relevant ideas of scholars and other writers, we thought we could create a toolkit of frameworks that readers can pick and choose from in order to best understand fairy tales. Instead of doing this, the two articles we critiqued present historical events and facts, limited information and perspective, and we think too narrow a scope. We wanted our article to be able to enable its reader to reach their own conclusions about complex and difficult questions surrounding fairy tales such as: Why do fairy tales even end in happily ever after? Why should a parent allow their child to read fairy tales? What do fairy tales do? And perhaps most importantly we wanted to tackle the questions: What do fairy tales now mean? How can we best define them, filtered through our contemporary perspective, to suit the information demands and needs of people now? Shouldn’t that type of question be addressed in a modern reference article? Then, how often should reference articles be updated?
We included details about the possible moral lessons in fairy tales that we might view as problematic, but we also specify that this is a contemporary and subjective understanding. For example: Madame de Beaumont’s version of “Beauty and the Beast” was published in Magasin des enfans (in 1756) for “young ladies of quality”; the publication is set up as a dialogue between a governess who is speaking to her pupils. So, “Beauty and the Beast” might have been written as a behavioral guide to console timid young brides by reassuring them that the wealthy beasts they were forced to marry, if they were lucky enough and behaved a certain way, could be tamed and they could live happily ever after, perpetuating gender and class norms of the time (Nodelman 306).
In the two reference articles we chose, little is mentioned about how Charles Perrault in the 1700’s, or later Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the 1800’s, who were influenced by Perrault, tailored the older peasant folktales to suit their religious and moral beliefs and experiences, and to cater to popular cultural ideals. For example, Perrault’s fairy tales emphasize the dangers of ignorance, that children should already know about evil and, like the Puritans believed, needed to be educated to resist sin— and their tales were also meant to be entertaining. The Grimms considered themselves to be scholars and folklorists, but—and neither of the reference articles expand on this—they tailored their stories fit their own definition of authenticity and suit their middle class Christian values, combining the best features from different narratives; the Grimms accepted the stories they were told as authentic, though they heard them from literate middle class sources who claimed to have heard them from less literate peasants (Nodelman 307). In the Grimms original recordings of “Hansel and Gretel” and “Snow White”, the evil stepmothers were in fact the birth mothers—but quickly the Grimms disguised this detail.
In the Grimms’ versions, the child fails because they do not listen to the adult’s warnings and conform to social norms. In the Grimms “Little Red Cap” the young girl ignores her mother’s numerous warnings and because she is disobedient she gets eaten by the wolf, but in this version she also gets a second chance because her problem was her disobedience, not her lack of knowledge , and she learns her lesson (Nodelman 306-307); for the Grimms, children are naïve and only need to know how much they don’t know and accept adult wisdom, while for Perrault, and reflected in attitudes towards children of the time, children should already know about evil. For the Grimms, children are innately naïve and innocent.
We decided to write about how cultural understanding of childhood have changed throughout the development of fairy tales, from medieval times to Victorian times, to contemporary times. We mentioned industries built on the fantasy of “childhood” such as Disney, who market and tailor their products according to contemporary trends and practices of how we understand childhood. We also focused on gender roles in fairy tales, historical and contemporary; for example, we included a section about modern feminist revisions of fairy tales. We felt it was important to provide context to the way fairy tales have transformed, and to demonstrate that, contrary to popular belief, they were not always written for children.
*Note: German tales> tone of terror and fantasy; French Tales> humor and domesticity (ogres and faeries); “cunning takes the place of pietism in the German” (54)
I will bring up one more question that this assignment provoked, and that is: can it even be possible to write a reference article free from bias and subjective information? In the writing of the article, we choose whose opinions to include, and although we tried to use a variety of sources and cover a diverse range of subtopics, we still left out many possible topics. Someone could argue that we strayed too far away from fairy tales when we wrote about Indigenous mythology or medieval romances, and I have some background in those subject areas as well, which made me want to include them, but we did all agree that this range and contextualizing of fairy tales and folklore was worthwhile and that a reader would gain a better understanding, not only of fairy tales as an aesthetic style, but of social structures, cultural ideologies, and other interesting ideas that fairy tales have been built from and inspire.
I will leave you with a few sentences from British author Angela Carter’s modern feminist retelling of “little red riding hood” called “The Company of Wolves”; this is from her collection called The Bloody Chamber, originally published in 1979 and then republished in 1993. Carter also rewrote— and wrote about—many different fairy tales. Feel free to interpret it as you like, and try to recognize certain ideas that the narration inspires, and ways that her version reflects contemporary experiences.
“The Company of Wolves”:
What big teeth you have!
She saw how his jaw began to slaver and the room was full of the clamour of the forest’s Liebestod, but the wise child never flinched, even when he answered:
All the better to eat you with.
The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat. She laughed at him full in the face, ripped off his shirt for him and flung it into the fire, in the fiery wake of her own discarded clothing. The flames danced like dead souls on Walpurgisnacht and the old bones under the bed set up a terrible clattering, but she did not pay them any heed.
Carnivore incarnate, only immaculate flesh appeases him.
She will lay his fearful head on her lap and she will pick out the lice from his pelt and perhaps she will put the lice into her own mouth and eat them, as he will bid her, as she would do in a savage marriage ceremony.
The blizzard will die down.
The blizzard died down, leaving the mountains as randomly covered with snow as if a blind woman had thrown a sheet over them, the upper branches of the forest pines limed, creaking, swollen with the fall.
Sunlight, moonlight, a confusion of pawprints.
All silent, all still.
Midnight, the clock strikes. It is Christmas Day, the werewolves’ birthday; the door of the solstice stands wide open; let them all sink through.
See! Sweet and sound she sleeps in granny’s bed, between the paws of the tender wolf.
For your interest, these are the sources we consulted to write a new reference article, and research fairy tales:
Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Knopf, 1976. Print.
Brewer, D.S. “The Ideal of Feminine Beauty in Medieval Literature, Especially ‘Harley Lyrics’, Chaucer, and Some Elizabethans.” The Modern Language Review 50.3 (July1, 1955): 257-269. Print.
Darcy, Jane. “The Disneyfication of the European Fairy Tale.” Issues in Americanisation and Culture. Edinburgh University Press, 2004. 181–196. Web. 20 Sept. 2015.
Darnton, Robert. “Peasants Tell Tales: The Meaning of Mother Goose” in The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes of French Cultural History (New York: Basic Books, 1984), 8-72. Print.
DeGraff, Amy. “The Fairy Tale and Women’s Studies: An Annotated Bibliography.” Merveilles & contes 1.1 (1987):6–82. Web. 20 Sept. 2015.
Dégh, Linda. Folktales and Society: Story-telling in a Hungarian Peasant Community: Expanded Edition with a New Afterword. Indiana UP, 1989. Print.
Goldberg, Harriet. “‘Cinderella’.” The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales. Ed. Jack Zipes. : Oxford University Press, 2002.Oxford Reference. 2005. Web. 30 Sep. 2015.
Haase, Donald. “Feminist Fairy-Tale Scholarship: A Critical Survey and Bibliography.” Marvels & Tales 14.1(2000): 15–63. Web. 19 Sept. 2015.
Lewis, C. S. The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. 1964. Reprint.Cambridge: Cambridge U.P, 2012. Print.
Marzolph, Ulrich, Richard Van Leeuwen, and Hassan Wassouf. The Arabian Nights Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. ABC-CLIO, 2004. Print.
Nikolajeva, Maria. “Andersen, Hans Christian.” The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales. Ed. Jack Zipes. : Oxford University Press, 2002. Oxford Reference. 2005. Web. 30 Sep. 2015.
Nodelman, Perry, and Mavis Reimer. The Pleasures of Children’s Literature. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2003. Print.
Tatar, Maria. The Classic Fairy Tales: Texts, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999. Print.
Taylor, Drew Hayden. Me Sexy: An Exploration of Native Sex and Sexuality. Douglas & McIntyre, 2008. Print.
Zipes, Jack. Breaking the Magic Spell: Politics and the Fairy Tale. New German Critique, 1975. Print.
Zipes, Jack. Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization.2nd ed. New York: Taylor and Francis Group, 2006. Print.
Zipes, Jack. “The Contamination of the Fairy Tale, or The Changing Nature of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 11.1 (41) (2000): 77–93. Web. 18 September 2015.
Zipes, Jack. The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm: Texts, Criticism. New York:W.W. Norton, 2001. Print.