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  • Preface to the Special Issue on Erotic Tales
  • Cristina Bacchilega

This was a strange story, one I would have to learn a new language to read, a language I could not learn except by trying to read the story.

—Emma Donoghue, Kissing the Witch

Folktales and fairy tales are stories about and of desire: at the very least, within the world of the tale, they act narratively on a perceived “lack”; and within the world of the telling, by inviting us to dwell in wonder, they seek to produce pleasure. And yet the erotic is not readily associated with folktales, and with fairy tales even less.

This disassociation may very well be an effect of the infantilization of these genres in modern times, which has resulted in the censorship of images that conjure unwholesome thoughts—like the wolf in bed with Red Riding Hood. At the same time, in contemporary culture these narratives clearly have continued to exercise powers on us that escape the confines of the nursery. How we as individuals or cultures remain “hooked” on fairy-tale plots or images, reaching for them without any resolution beyond their repetition, demonstrates this in everyday life. As several scholars in this issue of Marvels & Tales point out, another reason for the disassociation between folktales and fairy tales and eroticism has been the reluctance of folklorists to accept “stories that are concerned explicitly with sex and sexuality”—the definition of “erotic tales” given by Jeana Jorgensen in the new Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales (1: 305)—as a “proper” object of study. Bawdy folktales with sexual themes are part of every culture, but with the exception of the Arabian Nights and other Orientalist projects, such tales have not been the focus of collection or analysis in Euro-American folkloristics. As Jorgensen mentions, collections of “erotic tales” such [End Page 13] as Aleksandr Afanas’ev’s and Vance Randolph’s were marginalized as crossing dangerously into obscenity, and for this reason they remain untranslated or excluded from educational curricula.1

Partly in reaction against this history of cultural infantilization and institutional reluctance, critics reading fairy tales that do not explicitly deal with sex have often interpreted their imagery, conflicts, and resolutions sexually. Alan Dundes’s analysis of “The Maiden without Hands” and Jack Zipes’s reading of “Red Riding Hood” serve as two influential examples of different critical approaches, both—whether psychoanalytically or sociohistorically—corroborating Catherine Orenstein’s assertion: “Fairy Tales are at their core about sexuality—about the codes and manners and qualities and behaviors that society deems desirable, and thus which make us desirable to each other” (211). More than sex, as Lewis C. Seifert notes, sexuality as “the (conscious and unconscious) manifestations of human beings’ erotic dispositions” (“Sex, Sexuality” 849) is a central theme for folktales and fairy tales.2 Just as Rapunzel’s hair spilled out and down from the tower, it appears that the sexual and erotic energies of fairy tales cannot be contained by a narrow or didactic definition of the genre, or for that matter confined to the subgenre of “erotic tales.”

The essays in this special issue of Marvels & Tales consider how specific writers have harnessed the libidinal power of fairy tales to different projects. In the process, these analyses cumulatively also invite us to consider questions about gendered power dynamics, sex and violence, the (re)production of desire, and the uses of the erotic.

“Fairy tales are dedicated to the pleasure principle, although there is no such thing as pure pleasure, there is always more going on than meets the eye,” wrote Angela Carter in her introduction to The Virago Book of Fairy Tales, a collection she “put together with the intention of giving pleasure, and with a good deal of pleasure on [her] own part” (xii, xiii). That’s exactly it: “there is always more going on than meets the eye” when it comes to pleasure. In a Swahili tale Carter chose for the collection—and later Marina Warner selected as a starting point for her influential discussion of fairy tales and their tellers, From the Beast to the Blonde—the sultan is puzzled to hear that the wife of...


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