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  • The Changing Function of the Fairy Tale
  • Jack Zipes (bio)

It is nearly impossible to define the fairy tale as a literary genre because it has become more of a cultural institution than anything else. Not only are there thousands of literary fairy tales produced for children and adults each year throughout the world, but there are also fairy-tale films, plays, ballets, operas, tapes, records, calendars, illustrations, and advertisements. Furthermore, hundreds of thousands of folk tales continue to be told and come and go as easily as the wind whisks leaves into the air, lets them flutter, and eventually disperses them on the ground until they settle and die. But the best of our tales do not die.

Tales are marks that leave traces of the human struggle for immortality. Tales are human marks invested with desire. They are formed like musical compositions except that the letters constitute words and are chosen individually to enunciate the speaker/writer's position in the world, including his or her dreams, needs, wishes, and experience. The speaker/ writer posits the self against language to establish identity and to test the self with and against language, and each word marks a way toward a future different from what may have already been decreed, certainly different from what is being experienced in the present: the words that are selected in the process of creating the tale allow the speaker/writer freedom to play with options that no one has ever glimpsed. The marks are magical.

The fairy tale celebrates the marks as magical: marks as letters, words, sentences, signs. More than any other literary genre, the fairy tale has persisted in emphasizing transformation of the marks with spells, enchantments, disenchantments, resurrections, recreations. During its inception, the fairy tale distinguished itself as genre both by appropriating the oral folk tale and expanding it, for it became gradually necessary in the modern world to adapt the oral tale to standards of literacy and make it acceptable for diffusion in the public sphere. The fairy tale is only one type of appropriation of a particular oral storytelling tradition: the wonder folk tale, often called the Zaubermärchen or the magic tale. As more and more wonder tales were written down in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, they constituted the genre of the literary fairy tale that began establishing its own conventions, motifs, topoi, characters, [End Page 7] and plots, based to a large extent on those developed in the oral tradition but altered to address a reading public formed by the aristocracy and the middle classes. Though the peasants were excluded in the formation of this literary tradition, it was their material, tone, style, and beliefs that were incorporated into the new genre in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries.

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Grimm's Fairy Tales. Illustrator: Charles Folkard. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1911.

What exactly is the oral wonder tale?

Vladimir Propp's now famous study, The Morphology of the Folk Tale, based on a study of the Russian wonder tale, outlined the 31 basic functions that constitute the formation of the model narrative. As he remarked (99-101), not all the functions need to be present in a wonder tale for it to be considered one.

Function is understood as an act of character, defined from the point of view of its significance for the course of the action. . . . [End Page 8]

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Household Stories Collected by the Brothers Grimm. Illustrator: E. H. Wehnert. London: Routledge, 1853.

[End Page 9]

1. Functions of characters serve as stable, constant elements in a tale, independent of how and by whom they are fulfilled. They constitute the fundamental components of a tale.

2. The number of functions known to the tale is limited.


Essentially—and here I am summarizing and reducing the functions with a different emphasis—we are talking about the following:

  1. 1. The protagonist is confronted with an interdiction or prohibition which he or she violates in some way.

  2. 2. Departure or banishment of the protagonist, who is either given a task or assumes a task related to the interdiction or prohibition. The...


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