Friday, April 6, 2012

Jack Zipes: The Irresistible Fairy Tale

Jack Zipes is one of the world’s leading scholars on fairy tales and folklore, and this week marks the release of his latest book, The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre (Princeton University Press).  Already, the book has garnered high praise; Donald Haase, editor of Marvels & Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies, says that this book is “Zipes’s magnum opus, the culmination of more than thirty years of research, and his broadest consideration yet of the fairy tale.  He tackles very difficult fundamental questions, and provides credible theoretical foundations and historical evidence for the answers he proposes.  Ultimately, he redirects the conversation about the origins, nature, and appeal of the fairy tale.”

Today, we are excited and honored to be able to bring you an excerpt from the first chapter of
The Irresistible Fairy Tale, which is entitled “The Cultural Evolution of Storytelling And Fairy Tales: Human Communication and Mimetics.”  In this passage, Zipes examines the evolution of the familiar fairy tale “Puss in Boots”:

Indeed, the world of the fairy tale has always been created as a counterworld to the reality of the storyteller by the storyteller and listeners.  Together, storytellers and listeners have collaborated through intuition as well as conscious conception to form worlds filled with naïve morality.  Fundamental to the feel of a fairy tale is its moral pulse.  It tells us what we lack and how the world has to be organized differently so that we receive what we need.  As types of fairy-tale telling evolved and became crystallized, the genre of the fairy tale borrowed and used motifs, themes, characters, expressions, and styles from other narrative forms and genres—and it still does.  A good example is “Puss in Boots,” which has a close connection to the fable and legend.

As is well known, the basic plot of this tale involves an anthropomorphized cat, who helps the destitute third son in a family of peasants impress a pompous king through flattery and tricks so that the king will believe that the young peasant is a rich lord.  The peasant is often portrayed as an awkward dunce, while the supernatural cat—sometimes a fairy or fox in different European, Middle East, and Asian variants—is clever, and instructs the peasant how to speak and dress, for underlying the fairy tale is the proverb “clothes make the person.”  Once the king believes that the peasant is a nobleman, the cat leads the king, his daughter, and the peasant to the large estate of an ogre.  The cat rushes ahead of the party, outwits the ogre, and kills him.  When the king, princess, and peasant arrive, the cat tells them that the castle and grand estate belong to the peasant, and the king, of course, gives his daughter to the peasant as his bride.  They live happily ever after, and the cat is generally rewarded, for the animal is the actual hero/protagonist of the story.

Some critics interpret “Puss in Boots” as a “rise tale,” in which the peasant is elevated and becomes a nobleman.  But the peasant is not the driving force of the tale.  The cat/fox moves the action, for he/she is often threatened with death by the peasant at the beginning of the tale, and must use his/her cunning to avoid death and find a rightful position.  Quite frequently the cat/fox becomes a matchmaker, indicating a ritual role in marriage.  As Hans-Jörg Uther notes, “The fox takes on an active role in contrast to the passive hero in various tales, particularly those that originate in Asia and are of the narrative type ATU 545B: Puss in Boots.”  Whether the hero is a cat or fox, this is a tale about the use of brains by cunning “people” in adapting to a difficult situation, and the active cat/fox exposes the contradictions and pretensions of the upper-class figures.

There are three major literary versions—crystallizations of oral folk tales, if you will—that have made this tale mimetically traditional in the Western world: Giovan Francesco Straparola’s “Constantino Fortunato” in Le piacevoli notti (The Pleasant Nights, 1550/1553), Giambattista Basile’s “Cagliuso” in Lo Cunto de li cunti (The Tale of Tales, 1634), and Perrault’s “The Master Cat, or Puss in Boots” in Histoires ou Contes du temps passé (Stories or Tales of Time Past, 1697).  They are all unique and have specific cultural differences.  For instance, in Straparola’s tale, the cat is a fairy; in Basile’s story, the cat is almost killed by the ungrateful peasant, while Perrault’s cat becomes a royal messenger.  But they all have some common features that reveal how they are closely bound to European, Middle Eastern, and Asian oral storytelling traditions about animal protagonists, and circulated hundreds of years before three educated writers shaped the tale in print.  Nobody is certain when the first oral tale was created, and nobody will ever be able to determine the exact origins.  Nevertheless, there are clues, fragments, and indications that this hybrid tale type involving motifs and themes such as animal as helper, grateful recognition, the civilization of an uncouth lad, ruthless behavior for gain, and other popular themes was disseminated widely throughout the world.  Ines Köhler-Zülch reports that hundreds of versions can be found in Europe, the Middle East, North and South Asia, North Africa, and North America.


In the three books of tales written by Straparola, Basile, and Perrault, which contain mixed genres, the authors make it clear that their stories do not belong to them but instead breathe through them.  They are to be told because they were told.  Straparola and Basile set frames in which characters from different social backgrounds tell tales, riddles, fables, anecdotes, and morals, while Perrault suggests that his tales were told to him by a nanny or mother goose figure.  The tales that these authors heard were written to be told aloud because oral storytelling was the dominant mode of disseminating stories among all classes during the Renaissance.

This excerpt is just a glimpse at the fascinating connections and evolutions that Zipes traces throughout the entire book; we would highly encourage you to read the book in its entirety!

Excerpted from The Irresistible Fairy Tale by Jack Zipes, published by Princeton University Press. Copyright (c) 2012 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by Permission. To learn more about this book and the author, please visit Princeton University Press.