Friday, September 28, 2012

Neverending Stories

Do fairy tales still have appeal? The world’s stubborn refusal to grant our wishes lies behind the sudden revival of old stories.

From a story in the Prospect...

At the same time that storytelling seems an obsolete handicraft, classic stories—the bloody, surreal folk inventions we know as fairy tales—seem to be having a revival. It’s even possible that in a time of economic uncertainty, readers are drawn to the oldest, most familiar stories. What else explains the simultaneous appearance of Grimm Tales: For Young and Old, in which Philip Pullman has translated 50 of his favourite stories from the classic German storytellers; a slimmer selection of tales, Long Ago and Far Away, that draws from French and Italian sources; and the new study The Irresistible Fairy Tale, by Jack Zipes, the dean of academic fairy-tale studies? And that’s just the books: the last few months have seen two movie versions of the Snow White story, Mirror, Mirror, starring Julia Roberts, and the darker Snow White and the Huntsman, starring Kristen Stewart. Viewers of American TV can tune in to Grimm, a show about a police detective with magic powers who is called upon to fight supernatural monsters; and Once Upon a Time, in which ordinary human beings are revealed to be the avatars of fairy-tale characters like Prince Charming and Rumpelstiltskin.

Consider it all proof of what Jack Zipes calls the irresistibility of the fairy tale. “Think of a gigantic whale soaring through the ocean, swallowing each and every fish of any size that comes across its path,” Zipes writes. The fairy tale evolved from unknown origins into a gigantic cultural juggernaut, and survives by digesting every new medium, from print to films to the internet. Like Vargas Llosa, Zipes traces the origin of storytelling back to a primal past: “the fairy tale was first a simple, imaginative oral tale containing magical and miraculous elements and was related to the belief systems, values, rites, and experiences of pagan peoples.”

The reason they survive to this day, Zipes suggests, is because the classic fairy tales—such as Snow White, Cinderella, and Rapunzel, which all have analogues in cultures throughout the world—are perfect examples of “memetic” engineering.

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