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  • Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre
  • Ruth B. Bottigheimer
Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre. By Jack Zipes. (New York: Routledge, 2006. Pp. xiv + 332, illustrations, preface, notes, bibliography, index.)

The history and nature of fairy tales is being contested with a ferocity that is new to the subject. Those who adhere to theories of millennia-old folk composition and oral transmission are weighing in against those who understand the history of fairy tales as author based and publishing enabled. Jack Zipes has long been a proponent of the former view. His new book, Why Fairy Tales Stick, offers in its opening chapter a theory that fairy tales are memes (units of information that are replicated culturally) and that these tales have coevolved with human beings' increasing powers of discernment (p. 13). Chapter 2 of the book provides a brief history of fairy tales. Drawing on Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson's Relevance (Blackwell, 1986), chapter 3 posits fairy tales' "ostensive" functions (p. 95) and adopts an epidemiological model to characterize hierarchical causal chains in fairy-tale transmission, with "Cinderella" as a case study. Chapter 4 explores what the author refers to as "moral strains" of fairy tales and fantasy. In this formulation, "strains" does not mean "tensions" but rather alludes to the evolving lineage of the moral information contained in the tales, in the way that one would speak of a strain of virus. In this discussion, "Snow White" exemplifies gene perpetuation (p. 135), while the Mulan and X-Man plots demonstrate moral challenges to male domination. The next chapter deals with tellings of "Bluebeard" and concludes that "biological and cultural factors must be studied historically if we are to learn more about serial murderers and why men are more prone to use brute force to assert their dominance over women" (p. 192). The penultimate chapter treats "Hansel and Gretel," problems of translation (in many senses of the word), and the role of publishers in codetermining the form that any newly edited "Hansel and Gretel" tale takes. Chapter 7 examines the prominence of cannibalism in fairy tales for children and concludes with a plea for scholarly engagement with what Zipes sees as destructive cultural traditions (such as child-eating in books for children).

According to Zipes, fairy tales are "a polygenetic cultural artifact," a set of similar ideas that emerge in multiple locations (p. xiv). Although they start out as similar responses to shared human experiences, these tales then go through what Zipes calls "miraculous transformations" according to the changing cultural variables of their local environs (p.xii). In terms of genre, "the literary fairy tale is similar to a special biological species" (p. 2). Zipes holds that fairy tales have "stuck" in people's minds because they have purposefully evolved in order to remain relevant. Zipes tacitly acknowledges that biological evolution exists within a historical continuum and concedes that there is no evidence for a pre-1500s existence of the kinds of wonder tales that form the core of his subject. It is, he writes, "next to impossible to know [how the literary fairy tale was formed]" (p. 2); nor can anyone "say with historical precision when the literary fairy tale began its evolution" (p. 3), except that "[t]here is no evidence that a separate oral wonder-tale tradition or literary fairy-tale tradition existed in Europe before the medieval period" (p. 4). Similar statements of the absence of foundational evidence appear repeatedly, including recurring phrases such as "we are not certain," "very few if any records," "written records provide very little information about storytelling," "difficult question to answer with precision," and "it is impossible to determine when and how certain types of tales evolved." Given Zipes's assessment of the origins and development of fairy tales as impossibly [End Page 367] murky, it is, as he observes, altogether reasonable that he must imagine certain features of fairy tales' past existence. Sometimes such an approach offers researchers the only feasible path for reconstructing past events and conditions, and when this is so, grounding can be provided by a foundation of secure fact. In this case...


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