The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales

24th March 2000 at 00:00

THE OXFORD COMPANION TO FAIRY TALES. Edited by Jack Zipes. Oxford University Press pound;35

Take a hundred people, of almost any age, in any Westernised country, and ask them to tell you their versions of Little Red Riding Hood or Cinderella. Very few would have a problem - and only fairy tales permeate our cultures so profoundly.

"Why do these tales have such a grip on us?" asks Jack Zipes in his introduction to this 600-page volume. There are answers for the general reader, as well as the scholar, in this fascinating and authoritative guide to the many lands of faerie.

If you have trouble telling your Aarne-Thompson Index from your Asbj?rnsen and Moe, or the Panchatantra from the Pentamerone, the Companion offers swift clarification. It is very much more than an accessible and well-organised reference work, however.

Setting the parameters is the initial challenge to an editor of such a volume. Jack Zipes is not much concerned, of course, with what Kipling dismissed as "little buzz-flies with butterfly wings and gauze petticoats". He begins by distinguishing between the oral folk tale and the literary fairy tale; his intent is to "define the socio-historical rise of the fairy tale mainly in the nation-states of Western Europe and North America that share common literary traditions". His deepest root is the oral wonder tale which first found written form in medieval times.

The history of the tales is charted in several ways. Their development in different regions (Britain and Ireland, France, Germany, Italy, North America, Portugal, Scandinavia, the Slavic and Baltic Countries, Spain) is treated in essays of several thousand words. There are extensive general and specific entries on the literary tale's evolution into opera, theatre, ballet, musicals, poetry, television and film. Pretty Woman (Gary Marshall's 1990 film starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere) appears as "a modern Cinderella story"; Sondheim's Into the Woods sits alongside Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe.

The numerous entries on cinema, mostly by Terry Staples, make for entertaining as well as informative reading; his discussion of film versions of Hans Christian Andersen's tale The Little Mermaid notes: "None of the films is interested in the metaphysical ideas of that story; instead, they concentrate on exploring the comic and tragic potential of beautiful voices, tails versus legs, cross-species relationships, and slippery sex."

There are some enjoyable and instructive lateral connections: fairy tales and advertising, stamps, postcards and greetings cards; the magical realism of Gabriel Garc!a M rquez; lengthy entries on psychology and the fairy tale, folklore, schools of folk narrative research, communist folk tale films, and so on.

The general reader will not be confronted by critical jargon or partial argument. Contributors provide clear information and balanced accounts of contrversies, though the short bibliographies which follow entries point the way to fuller debate. The 3,000 words on Walt Disney, for example, are descriptive rather than polemical, while the elegantly organised "Approaches to the Literary Fairy Tale" by the Australian scholar Robyn McCallum, maps the range of conceptual viewpoints from the 19th century to the present day, proposing six broad methodologies from the "Folklorist" to the "Feminist". The feminist perspective, which has long been a focus of Zipes' concerns, is in fact recognised in many of the entries.

There are numerous areas of overlap throughout the Companion. Only a reviewer would read the book from first page to last, so the recurrence of Giambattista Basile's Lo cunto de li cunti (The Tale of Tales) or Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment in several contexts is necessary rather than repetitious. And in this way, varying perspectives on a topic emerge.

Zipes's team of contributors is formidable, reflecting the breadth of his own work, from scholar to storyteller in schools. The contributors' biographical notes indicate the countries where fairy tales are taken seriously. More than 50 of the 67 contributors work in North America; many of these are Germanists or come from other modern language disciplines. The half-a-dozen British writers are led by Gillian Avery, the children's literature historian and novelist, as a contributing editor. The lack of Anglo-centredness is to the advantage of the British reader, not only because the scholarship is so impressive, but because much of the interest of the fairy tale lies in its movement across national boundaries.

With characteristic openness, Zipes writes of "some regrettable gaps that will be covered in future editions". It is always easy for the critic to play the "How surprising." omissions game; to do so here would be crass impertinence. Those gaps do not seem too apparent, but since illustration so shapes the reception of a tale for a child, a fuller treatment of contemporary illustrators might be considered, especially if the budget could extend to some colour plates.

This edition is attractively illustrated in older black-and-white images by the likes of George Cruikshank, Richard Doyle, Gustave Dore, Walter Crane, Kay Nielsen and Arthur Rackham. Among the moderns, there are entries for Michael Foreman, Roberto Innocenti, P J Lynch and Maurice Sendak - but no Errol Le Cain, Susan Jeffers or Anthony Browne.

The editor's frontiers enclose the secondary worlds of Lloyd Alexander, Tolkien,C S Lewis, Alan Garner and Ursula Le Guin; yet no Philip Pullman, Brian Jacques orJ K Rowling (who perhaps erupted too late for inclusion).

Jack Zipes suggests that "We want to know more about ourselves by knowing something more about fairy tales. We want to fathom their mysterious hold upon us." The Companion richly enables such exploration.

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