contributor.author: Andrea Schutz

title.none: Davidson and Chaudhri, eds., Fairy Tale (Andrea Schutz)

identifier.other: baj9928.0411.007 04.11.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Andrea Schutz, St. Thomas University, schutz@stthomasu.ca

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Davidson, Hilda Ellis, and Anna Chaudhri, eds. A Companion to the Fairy Tale. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003. Pp. viii, 294. $85.00 0859917843. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.11.07

Davidson, Hilda Ellis, and Anna Chaudhri, eds. A Companion to the Fairy Tale. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003. Pp. viii, 294. $85.00 0859917843. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Andrea Schutz
St. Thomas University
schutz@stthomasu.ca

What is a fairy tale? An oral story with fairies in it? A mutated myth? A relic of a lost and suppressed past? Or a literary phenomenon? The 17 essays in A Companion to the Fairy Tale seek to explore some of the answers to these questions and alert the reader to other issues concerning this genre which "everyone" can identify, and no one can comfortably define. A good deal of the comfort with one's definition rests in one's particular decisions to include or exclude a given tale, tale-type or generic marker, of course, and the fairy tale as a definable entity has been subjected to more debate than most other kinds of narrative. This collection of essays therefore has an important role to play in establishing and querying the distinctions made over the history of fairy tale study. The papers offer a very good statement of major positions in the debate: many directly address the problem of perceiving the fairy tale as "essentially" oral or "essentially" literary; some part of most essays attempt to come to terms with old theories about fairy tale origin as lost mythology or evidence of "authentic" folk-life suppressed by the Church, the State, or the bourgeoisie. Still other essays concern themselves with the tellers and collectors, rather than the tales directly.

The first paper, by Derek Brewer, concerns the very interpretation of fairy tales. Why do these tales, allegedly for children, even need interpretation? The modern answer is that some suppression on the part of the tellers or their societies requires exposure. But Brewer points out that every reading is also a retelling; modern readings, therefore, partake of the same process of reflecting the societies which engender them as did the earlier tellers, preservers and transmitters.

Neil Philip's paper concerns "Creativity and Tradition in the Fairy Tale;" he begins by positing that fairy tales exist as "a kind of ultra-sensitive balance" between the life we have and the life we want. Following on Brewer's argument, Philip suggests that to tell a story is to interpret the world. But he also argues that a similar balance exists between the perduring architecture of the tale and the particular teller's ingenuity: "For the storyteller, a fairy tale is defined by what it may become" (45).

Ruth Bottigheimer challenges the common view that fairy tales are somehow "essentially" oral tales, which lose some of their authenticity (that is, become victims of the collector's interpretation and biases) by being written down. She points out that many motifs and tales in fact owe just as much to extant literary works, particularly classical texts. She therefore argues for "Oral Transmission in a Literate World."

David Blamires considers the editorial practices of the Brothers Grimm. Like Brewer and Philip, Blamires rejects the common indictment that the Grimms' editing was somehow a corruption of their storytellers' material: "The fact that the brothers imposed their own ideas and views on the material they published is no different from what happens with storytellers of any period" (82).

Graham Anderson confronts the desire to find the first version of any tale. Like Bottigheimer, he notes that a good many very early versions are to be found in classical literature, even if the particular tales are not immediately recognized in the works of Lucian, Aesop or Herodotus. He finds that the evidence suggests diffusion rather than polygenesis, even as he admits that much of the oral evidence is lost.

Hilda Ellis Davidson's paper is a tour de force compendium of helpers and adversaries in fairy tales. She notes that the helpers are often animals or humans, dolls or other inanimate objects, the dead or supernatural beings (these are not the deities or supernaturally powered figures of myth and legend, however). Adversaries, by contrast, are more likely to be ordinary humans--family members, jealous companions, tyrannical rulers--or Otherworldly powers which are destructive by nature.

Joyce Thomas examines the 'cumulative' tale. Stories like "The gingerbread man" or "The fleeing pancake," require the exercise of memory to assemble correctly the sequence of things evaded: "[T]he repetitive pattern takes precedence over the plot or, some might say, _is_ the plot" (123). Her analysis of this kind of tale ingeniously integrates reading/telling these stories aloud with the speech acts of creation and destruction operating within them. The oscillation between game and earnest of these stories is part of the dialectic between the gingerbread man who does not want to be eaten and the teller who speaks him into life, only to eat him in words. Pat Schaefer explores the contribution of Marian Roalfe Cox, whose work on Cinderella in 1893 remains the essential starting point and model for much recent work.

Bengt Holbek's paper on Hans Christian Andersen supports Philip's and Bottigheimer's essays, insofar as it considers Andersen's own engagement with folktales he had heard, and the fairy tales he invented. In his view, Andersen's differences from traditional storytellers requires further investigation. He also calls for more interaction between folklorists and literary critics: the barriers between disciplines have been too high to accomplish the work needing to be done.

Reimund Kvideland discusses "The Collecting and Study of Tales in Scandinavia." He notes that the environment of the teller influences the telling: coastal areas and inland forests colour the cultures in the tales. He also notes that the nineteenth century collectors were not particularly interested in the tellers: the tales are simply "traditional" and the tellers merely the people telling the story, unless the tellers were particularly moving performers.

Patricia Lysaght discusses the wonder tale in Ireland as caught between the shift in languages: her paper explores the tales as victims of loss, rescue and recording. That is, the tales had to be translated into English by the tellers, losing some of their particular Irish rhythms in the process, only to be collected and preserved by non-Irish collectors.

When considering Welsh material, Robin Gwyndaf challenges another 'hard and fast' distinction common to study of the fairy tale, that of rigorous separation of folk-tale and fairy tale. As he outlines in his study of the Llyn Fan Fach legend, folk- and fairy tale combine to inform the tradition; too much generic distinction is not useful. Anna Chaudri's paper similarly questions the rigorous distinction between folk- and fairy tale: in Ossetia, common fairy tale motifs are adapted into oral epics and acquire a particularly 'flavour' as a result of their Ossetic context. James Riordan focuses on the collectors of Russian fairy tales, particularly Alexander Afanas'ev, whose attempts to render the tales he collected in an authentic Russian voice were met with censorship and persecution.

David Hunt's paper follows Anna Chaudri's in exploring fairy tale motifs from the Caucasus. As one of the main land routes between Europe and the Middle East, this area is very rich in dialects and in stories. These are especially characterised by wonder and miracle, so that motifs from the rest of fairy tale tradition are given a distinctive colour.

Mary Brockington calls into question the old view that all fairy tales were of Indic origin, and suggests that the traffic in tales went in both directions. She also notes the shift in approaches to fairy tales by Indian scholars: more focus is on concepts of orality and on the techniques of performance; oral epics are receiving more attention, and women's tales are now considered a separate genre worthy of study.

Tom Shippey finally discusses modern reception and participation in current retellings of traditional material. Beginning with a look at the spoof "Politically Correct Bedtime Stories," he explores the role of modern tellers in the shaping of their tales: from Victorian/Edwardian domesticization of the fairy tale to modern feminist retellings and academic analysis, Shippey argues the fairy tale has become 'transparent' and 'suggestive.' "Such stories make their point. Indeed, if one were to offer a criticism, it is that they are all point" (259) Commentary has become as important as narrative. In this sense, the essays come full circle to Brewer's point that every reading is also a retelling: every retelling is also a reading.

This collection offers an excellent introduction to the work currently and historically being done on fairy tales by folk-lorists. That is, folklorists studying the fairy tale are concerned with cataloguing variants, with questions of origin (even if they dispute earlier methodologies' assumptions and answers), with the scholars, tellers and collectors of tales, and finally, with the transmission and preservation of tales. However, these essays therefore mostly accompany the reader in the realm of folk-lore studies. It is an excellent companion to the methods and approaches of the discipline of folklore, but does not offer many ideas which might alert non-folklorists to connections between a tale or tale-type and other works (the exception here is Derek Brewer's essay) or which give a reader a way into his or her own study of the fairy tales as narratives. There is very little literary discussion of tales with the crucial exceptions of Joyce Thomas' or Tom Shippey's paper. One has the distinct impression that this, in the end, is a book of lists: lists of tale-types, lists of variants, lists of collectors, lists of tellers. This collection does not go very far towards analysing the lists, and the book as a whole will not be helpful to anyone trying to teach fairy tales in any context but that of folklore studies: it gives the reader a great deal of evidence but little to think about. It is finally very discipline specific.