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  • Family Conflicts and Emancipation in Fairy Tales*
  • Walter Scherf (bio)

Perhaps no other chapter dealing with children's literature is so burdened with misunderstandings as the one dealing with fairy tales. In most discussions even the initial preconceptions are wrong. Many misuse the term "fairy tale," treating everything alike, putting into one pot, as we say, whatever looks like folk tradition or originates from the influence of folk tradition.1 But because the various kinds of folk tales have absolutely different functions and because they are accordingly absorbed in very different ways, we must study them separately.2 As to their retelling and adaptation by modern authors, we must analyze the new versions in an additional dimension. They reflect their authors' regressive resumptions and psychical fixations, and often enough they demonstrate that these authors took the wrong vehicle for their intentions.3

Going back to the original narrative situation

To separate the various kinds of oral tradition is not so difficult as it seems to be if we ourselves are acquainted with story-telling and if we know the various expectations of our listeners. In other words, if we really will understand the texts, we must go back to the original situation of their telling. Only there the function becomes apparent. Looking only at the final fixed texts in print leads one astray.

Let us simplify story-telling to a model. There is on the one side the public, the expectation of the listeners, and on the other the narrator with his repertoire, his ability, and his sympathetic understanding of the listener's expectation. If we consider the results of current folktale recording in Europe, then we see that Sage and Schwank predominate: the "numinous" or the demonic tale on the one hand, the jest on the other. The function of the jest is to take aim at human instinct and the dependent inclinations: at avarice, jealousy, stupidity, folly, sexual addiction, voraciousness. The rigid patterns of comportment are depicted in a very realistic, in a drastic, way. Man is portrayed in his dependencies, in his subjugations—and these dependencies and subjugations are conveyed ad absurdum in releasing laughter. By realistic I mean that the dependencies are unmasked realistically, but he who is dependent is shown only as a type of one so inclined. He is led out on the scene only as a figure without any profile or depth, onto which every spectator is allowed to project his own image. If the spectator's personal conflicts were not so strong and similar, he would not listen to such tales; and, what is more, they would not have been handed down from generation to generation for millennia. These tales have changed only their circumstantial requisites.

It is remarkable that among all kinds of folktales the requisite change in the jests is most evident. The content has not changed and the type of the story is internationally spread over the world.4 Only what is conditioned by the historically, sociologically, politically [End Page 77] different settings has changed. Jests are realistical observers.5

Naturally a good jest narrator is not obliged to stick to traditional jests. He can adapt even actual happenings in the jest way, and he can even adapt a magical tale—substituting a jest figure for the hero in order to bring his listeners to laughter: e. g. , at a boaster, as in the case of the tale of the brave tailor, "Seven with one Stroke."6 This is the way of the jest narrator. His listeners are expecting a magic tale of a dragon slayer, but he is cheating them: he switches to another wavelength and makes a jester from the originally expected hero. Bert Brecht called such an unexpected substitution a Verfremdung.

But let us continue our review of differing expectations. It is obvious that an animal fable or an example story replies to the listeners' desire to be instructed about the right patterns of behavior.7 We all hurt ourselves when we behave in conflict with the rules and ways of life of our society. It depends on our positive or negative attitude how we intend to make our way in the given social environment. But...


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pp. 77-93
Launched on MUSE
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