The Purpose of Fairy Tales.

Mar 25, 2018

Oh, writers of fairy tales, and fantasy you may well be the Light Brigade! It falls upon your shoulders to consider nation-building that is not nation-building. And here’s is your leader, the Gandalf to a new alliance of dwarves, elves and writers: Jack Zipes.

His latest work is ‘Fairy Tales & Fables from Weimar Days, Collected Utopian Tales, edited and translated by Jack Zipes.’ 

The era told in this collection of tales is chosen with prescient purpose, an era close to the precipice.

Mr Zipes, Jack, is the gentle giant of fairytale literary theory and it has been his life’s work to head straight to the punchline and explain why fairy tales work the way they do and why we are what we read.

Jack Zipes is Professor Emeritus at the University of Minnesota and he has given us fifteen classic books most latterly ‘Literature and Literary Theory: Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion’ (2011) ‘The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre’ (2012) Grimm Legacies: ‘The Magic Spell of the Grimms’ Folk and Fairy Tales’ (2014) and edited over 20 important collections including The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales.

We are storytelling animals. Our latest greatest organizational monomyth - the cult of Jesus Christ - is failing in the fast-paced world where technology rules, though still at work in other places.

For those of us - where the multimedia device is strapped to our heads - our reading content is broadly organized into the format of stories via ‘fake news’ and so on but we are adrift without a myth, drowning in an absence of meaning in this, the Age of Impatience.

And yet, the tales we tell, have a consistent structure, and we see the formula which Tolkien called the ‘eucatastrophe’ at work in Game of Thrones and heavy-hitting cinematic box sets, which remind us of our most pious communal aspiration that something cosmically healing will come from disaster.

Even in the dark, you can discern the shape of the monomyth first spelt out by Joseph Campbell.

Find even a narrow well, drop a line and a lead down it, and you will find the big story again, always there, always shaping and organizing us since the time of 3000BCE when the Egyptian sage and God, Thoth, known by the Greeks as ‘Thrice Great Hermes’ first explained the notion of the ‘great mind’, the mind of all minds, the mind we share, the mind which is the God, and told us that the first thing God did after sorting light from dark, was to spill the ‘word’ or logos into the cosmos. For the marvellous word-spinning mortal human being, the word was to the great mind, what speech is to thought.

Enter Jack Zipes, with his sword flashing in the dark, to bring light to the Age of Impatience. 

‘Why, all of sudden, so it seems, did highly political men and women, completely committed to furthering class struggle in Germany during the Weimar period, begin in 1920 to write and illustrate fairy tales and fables for children?’

Now, that’s a punchy start to a book and what a great book this is, beautifully evidenced with the collection Jack has translated from German to English.

We look from the light into the dark and we discern the shapes of a similar era to the Weimar Republic in ours. A more dramatic version, perhaps as reeling from the cost in human terms and the ongoing impoverishment, those living in Germany turned about themselves seeking to apportion blame and create ‘others’ out of brothers, to give form to their angry shadow selves. 

Things haven’t worked out so well, who is to blame? Yet our excuses in our time are perhaps thinner. We have experience and the evidence of what happens when you alienate your own miseries by creating another ’kind’ and our recent history has been not of mass genocide of our own 'kinds' but of contraction of capital, and an increasing covetousness driven by our own addiction to peeping at the lifestyles of the wealthy through the kaleidoscope of Instagram and so on.

So why did the politically active class, then, during the Weimar take up the form of the fairy tale, and why now do our politically -minded thinkers remain the dunces in Jack’s class, retweeting, unstructured fragments of tall tales which fail to make the grade of anything close to a story?

Tell us a story, tell us a story with justice as its backbone. What about a renaissance of decency? Our intellectuals are snapchatting, and our storytellers are writing stories about ‘girls’ being bad.

And yet, there is fantasy afoot, and the good people of the Age of Impatience convene before the smaller screen to watch the big box set and see mythical creatures fly and heroes defend all that is just to the death.

Noting the parallels between the Weimar period and our own, Jack Zipes offers this collection of fairy tales from that time and place as a means of ‘recovering their utopian spirit for the present.’

This, then, is Jack Zipes' gift to us. He has long been a prophet, bringing the power of our tales in the past, to the service of present and future, the never-ending story of hope, the transaction between our apparent debasement and defeat and possibly victory.

‘Fairytales reveal the gaps between truth and falsehood in our immediate society.’ He is unabashedly and unrelentingly ‘utopian’ in spirit, ‘despite the perversity of the world.’

It is his view that the Nazi party perverted the utopian dreams of those who sought at first to revolutionise Germany after the war, but whose noble spirit of compromise, ran the gamut of all sorts of appeasements until division after division wrought bloodshed.

Jack draws together the history of children and youth movements from the thirty years preceding the end of the Weimar Republic and Hitler’s ascent to power. The youth of Germany lived in particularly grim and hard circumstances with a great disparity of education and opportunity according to their class. He shows how the various new extreme political parties offered membership movements to salve and harness this discontent including the Rote Falkengruppen (Red Falcon Groups), and the Kinderfreunde (the Friends of Children) which appealed to children aged 8 - 12 with its published journals 'Der Kinderfreund' and 'Kinderland'.

Left, right and centre, political parties fought to acquire the hearts and minds of the young, and in 1931 almost 40% of the membership of the Nazi party was under 30. But why Jack asks,  did the most radical of the youth group leaders and writers wish to develop special fairy tales and fables at this time?

Fairy tales in the German culture have according to Jack a long tradition of political and utopian purpose, by the Twentieth century it had ‘virtually become the German genre.’

‘Indeed, if one were to scan the works of the most famous German authors, from Goethe to Gunter Grass, one would find very few who had not written at least one fairy tale.’

This intrigued me. Is work in the fairytale form the hallmark of a great writer?

Most of the authors of our classic bestsellers of all time (Tolkien, CS Lewis, JK Rowling et al) were close students of fairy tales and their form. As Zipes has written elsewhere, the fairy tale is the form ‘that sticks’. It packs a mighty moral punch.

Many of our well-known writers have written fairy tales. Oscar Wilde, Chekhov, Ford Madox Ford, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Cunningham, Salman Rushdie…. Tolstoy wrote over 100 fairy tales for children. Of his novel ‘Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights’ Salman Rushdie said:

'Like most fairy tales, it is about reality.'

Most telling, when one considers the rise of the ‘messianic’ figure of Hitler, is the consistent theme of the German fairytale in which the male protagonist is the adventurer (the female ‘passive if not comatose’) conserving a medieval notion of ‘might makes right’ alongside ‘the bourgeois myths’ of industrious, cleanliness, truthfulness and holiness. This material, a key part of the German child’s formative education, would not allow for the figure of an Angela Merkel to be received like bread and wine at the communion plate in the way Adolf Hitler was in 1933.

The elitist feature is beneficial to the child’s psychology, according to Mr Zipes, reinforcing a developing ego and sense of individual potential. Redemptive tales were the trend pre-Weimar with the success of the young person aligned to social values of goodness and harmony.

‘Generally speaking, the fairy-tale garb was used to cloak an ideology that rationalised the use of power in authoritarian ways.’

And you thought religion was to blame for all of our social inequalities! The Bible and the fairytale worked hand in glove, but the fairytale was the lead in the boxing glove.

But, in the Weimar years some interesting politically-motivated revisions crept into the tale bending media to the message, and setting aside the consoling message of magic resolving chaos, the tales dramatised the threats to the old ‘peace and order’ of the possibly mythical German communal life, both sides of the spectrum claiming ownership of the good old days of once upon a time.

Particularly poignant in the collection is 'The Boy Who Wanted to Fight with a Dragon' by Berta Lask (1921).

Two schoolchildren discuss their aspirations. The boy tells how he will kill the French when he is older, or dragons, and rescue a Princess. The girl doesn't know what she will do. He reminds her that she is a girl and can't do anything heroic. Many years later when the boy is grown he sets about realizing his ambitions, but the war with the French is over. He finds sad, beautiful women, at the mercy of modern dragons - a seamstress with her iron  sewing machine that 'neither sleeps nor dies.' He proposes he slay it, and she rebukes him and scorns him; 'You foolish thing, if you destroy my sewing machine, my mother and I will starve.'

Then he comes to a factory and sees women and children running from its smoke. He considers it a dragon and the women and children laugh.

‘He drags me away from my children every day.[…] Every day, from early morning until late at night.’

He suggests he destroy the factory, which makes coats like his, and ventures to forego his coat, but the woman reminds him they would starve without the work.

‘But if you’re a smart, brave, lad, think of a way you can help us.’

The mothers go to work and the children cry, left behind, and his old schoolfriend comes onto the scene.

‘Upon catching sight of the young woman, the children stopped crying and ran towards her. She began telling them beautiful stories, and she played with them.’

She gives them bread and milk. The young man puts down his sword. She asks him if he has killed all of the dragons and he admits not one single one.

‘The real dragon that causes evil keeps on hiding. But I’ll find him one day, and then I’ll fight it out with him.’

Here then is Rushdie's reality. This story lays bare the macabre dance between our genders and their respective duties. It makes plain the relentless grinding duel between sustaining life and meaningful life. And besides giving us the purpose of stories per se, it explains how the idea of evil, is in itself, a sustaining delusion. Evil, as Hannah Arendt surmised, is banal and commonplace and passive, but in our stories we offer the consolation that it can be overcome.

I never read a more true story than this fairy tale.

So what does this mean for us? What political ambitions do we see in our box sets? The continued elitist agenda? The possibilities for communal co-operation? What’s the agenda? And where the dickens are our fiction writers now?

If great writers are amongst us, how shall we know them? By their fairy tales.

From 100 years on, a different time and place, I salute Berta Lask, and I say I'm with you, Berta. Let's do this.

Looking for help with your next venture? Why not try one of our online creative writing courses?

‘Fairy Tales & Fables from Weimar Days, Collected Utopian Tales, edited and translated by Jack Zipes.’ Jan 2018. Published by Palgrave Macmillan.

 The picture used in the poster for this blog is by Thomas Cooper Gotch (British, 1854-1931), 'The Child in the World'.


Members' Stories.

Kirstine McDermid has joined us to write her novel, inspired by fairy tales.

Before I could read I danced around the house and roamed the garden conjuring people, places, events. Mam once said that I spent the majority of my childhood “somewhere else”, playing out adventures inside worlds only I could see. The story with which I was so engrossed in would end, but new stories would immediately start to grow around me. I wasn’t one of those kids who had the same imaginary friend for ten years – they were fleeting. And they weren’t really talking to me. I was just watching them talk to each other, clarifying to myself what was going on.

When I could read, it was like having my own ready-made portal to someplace sacred. Somewhere I didn’t need to travel to by hopping and skipping around the house and garden, talking to myself. (Although I don’t think that reading entirely cured me of this affliction for a good few more years of childhood).

When it was time to go to bed, Mam tucked me in and left the light on, dimmed low. I’d get up, haul my duvet off the bed and arrange it neatly on the floor. I’d lug a brick of a book of fairy tales down from my pine bookshelf and climb into a sleeping bag, repurposing the duvet as a sort of mattress. I used to lie there, on my front, in the low light and the silence. The carpet was green, and I imagined I was lying down in a meadow a long way away.

The book contained fairy tales from all around the world. I remember the words coiling around the illustrations. One of the tales I recall was “The Maiden Wiser Than the Tsar”. It’s a Russian folk tale about a Tsar who feels threatened by an intelligent poor girl. The Tsar assigns the girl impossible tasks, such as asking her to empty the sea using only a wine glass. If she fails to solve his idiotic riddles, she and her father face the threat of torture. She negotiates his absurd requests by making equally ludicrous duties he must complete for her to be able to execute her assignments. For example, she insists that to be able to empty the sea with a glass, he must first build dams across all the rivers, for if the sea were empty, then the rivers would only replenish it. I remember feeling sick when the Tsar proposes marriage – and she accepts. (He threatens to torture her and her father!) But the story isn’t about love; it's about something else. Something about people in power not always being right. Something about injustice and women being underestimated.

I wasn’t the girl who wanted a fairy tale ending, dressing up and playing princess. Fairy tales were warnings to me. There were many dark tales in that tome – even some of the lighter ones presented something that kept me up late, checking myself for answers. No way was I ever going to end up a Princess or a Tsarina!

When I was older, I dabbled in a bit of magic with Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway books and the anarchistic Peter Pan. I turned to Roald Dahl; his wonderfully horrific books affirmed my childhood wasn’t all bad. I would never complain about my parents or school again! Well, not until I became a teenager at least. I think I read my first ‘proper’ book – as I proudly categorised it at the time – when I was about ten or eleven: Jane Eyre. From then on, I went on to read the works of Charlotte Bronte and her sisters and fell in love with Wuthering Heights. In my teens I admired (and still do) Kazuo Ishiguro, Sylvia Plath, James Joyce. I loved reading plays: William Shakespeare, Henrik Ibsen, Arthur Miller and Tennesee Williams.

As a kid, I wrote here and there. I once wrote a weekly newspaper called “The Moon” which I created with felt tip and biro; Dad would photocopy it at work and bring home copies for me to distribute to my brothers. I think they might still owe me money for their subscriptions. I wrote short scribbles of stories, poems. This continued into adulthood, although the scribbles became more drawn out. Fuller, yet more unwieldy and incoherent. I completed a few short stories and poems. Many novels were started but ran out of steam. There was no consistency to my work. I’d go weeks, months, without writing. University didn’t help. I did my degree in English Literature. Studying books. Great! I thought. But it wasn’t. It was as though I was performing autopsies on books the class had over-analysed and talked to death. I loved reading books, not dissecting them piece by piece, stripping their pages away until there was nothing. After University, reading became pure again. I read a lot of American modern and postmodern fiction: DeLillio, Ellis, Kesey, Fitzgerald, Burroughs, Coupland, Pynchon, Auster, Vonnegut. My relationship with books was healed, and I was lucky enough to land a job in a library. Unfortunately, you don’t get to read books all day if you are a librarian. Though every time I carried an arm full of books to shelves, I felt like I was some sort of guardian of knowledge. I still work in a library. Though the job I have now is less about books and more about finding information for academics and helping them to disseminate their research. I’ve co-authored a few scholarly papers, and conduct freelance research about clinical trials, and write blog posts, but I’ve never thought of myself as a writer.

Since starting this course with The Novelry, I’ve learned that there are different styles and mediums to hold our words - it’s still writing. Our different experiences of writing, whether published or unpublished, can guide us to write a novel. And that’s what I’m here to do. Write a novel. There, I’ve said it. No more excuses. I am committed.

The other day I caught up with a friend who has lost a commendable amount of weight. She told me about how she achieved dropping three dress sizes. She said that she started to think of herself as a slender person. That didn’t mean that she simply sat around on the sofa, munching Pringles believing she was thin! She adopted the habits of a slender person: eating healthy, not snacking, exercising. All the time, even at the start of her journey when she was large, she still thought of herself as a slender woman. And guess what, now she is! So, I’m following suit. I added “writer” to occupations on my Linkedin profile. I set my alarm every day for 6 am and turn into a writing Ninja, so I don’t wake everyone up. I eavesdrop on conversations in coffee shops. I’m writing down any ‘gold’ observations or anecdotes straight away - when no one I’m homing in on is looking, of course. I do try not to sit at someone’s table, poking notes into my Moleskine in front of them.

I find the guidance and support at The Novelry remarkable. I am thrilled to be writing. I feel as though I’m that girl again, dancing through the lives of others. I only hope I can clarify the story on the page and make it come alive for readers. I suppose it’s a little like my day job – trying to deliver the right information so that what people get what it is they need. Let’s wait and see if I can deliver the goods my way, like the Maiden who took on the Tsar.


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