Misfit for the World

Jack Zipes, The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre

Princeton University Press, 248pp, £19.95, ISBN 9780691153384

reviewed by Belinda Webb

Those already familiar with Jack Zipes will know his seminal scholarly work, Fairytales and the Art of Subversion (Wildman, 1983), of which 2013 marks 30 years since publication. The only problem with creating a groundbreaking work is how to ensure that subsequent works live up to the standard of the earlier success. In The Irresistible Fairy Tale, Zipes sets out to 'demonstrate that the historical evolution of storytelling reflects struggles of human beings worldwide to adapt to their changing natural and social environments.’

An authority on the Brothers Grimm, Zipes translated The Complete Fairy Tales (Bantam, 1987); that famous volume has recently received renewed attention in light of its 200th anniversary last December. Zipes' first degree was in Political Science, followed up by an MA and PhD in Comparative Literature, perfectly explaining the premise from which he approaches his work. Zipes' raison d'être can be reduced to conflict, and where better to understand it than the oxymoronically-titled 'fairytale'?

‘Fairytales begin with conflict because we all begin our lives with conflict. We are all misfit for the world, and somehow we must fit in, fit in with other people, and thus we must invent or find the means through communication to satisfy as well as resolve conflicting desires and instincts.’

Several years ago I was much taken with the work of a photographer who had blocked off a section of the forest with police tape and photographed it as a statement on how society had come to see Shakespeare's idylls as out of bounds; the few times in my lifetime the forest had played host to murders and assaults had a far greater impact than those far many more that took place on a dark high street. This theme was explored by the Soviet formalist scholar, Vladimir Propp, in his Morphology of the Folktale (1928) and taken up again by Zipes in The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood (Bergin & Garvey, 1983).

The Irresistible Fairy Tale strikes gold in giving due attention to a number of neglected female storytellers and collectors. In truth, Zipes could have written an entire book on Laura Gonzenbach, Bozena Nemcova, Nannette Levesque, and Rachel Busk. I would have loved to learn more about them and their take on the portrayals of persecuted princesses, little girls in red and barren women as crones and witches. This business of uncovering (a more appropriate verb, surely, than ‘recovering’) overlooked women is a frustratingly slow one.

The mark of a fairytale or lore is how well it has 'gone viral', which is synonymous with ease of understanding; or, how well it also offers a degree of escape - the sweetener needed to help the social medicine on its way. It is a shame, then, that Zipes hasn't taken a lesson in ease of accessibility from his subject: I found his prose unnecessarily dense, and the book rewarding only in fits and starts.

A few years ago I rifled through a marked-down box of books at the British Library shop and purchased a collection of Icelandic fairytales. Many of the stories, deliciously quirky and without any accompanying commentary, were epigrammatic and easily digestible in one sitting; it was clear that the witches were those hardy and independent old women who would not toe the line and convert to Christianity, no doubt preferring to keep faith in trolls instead. While Zipes' latest will undoubtedly be essential reading for many a formal scholar, the interested lay reader may be better off getting any old copy of the classic fairytales and drawing their own conclusions.