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Marvels & Tales 17.1 (2003) 164-166
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Myth and Fairy Tale in Contemporary Women's Fiction. By Susan Sellers. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave, 2001. ix + 198 pp.
This is an ambitious book. Prof. Sellers has attempted to survey the history of research on myth and on fairy tales, both old and new, and to discuss recent "rewritings" by women in a slim 139 pages of text. She is conscious that she cannot possibly look in detail at all such rewritings. But it is less clear that she realizes how sketchy and how arbitrary her discussions of theories of myth or current research on fairy tales really are. Her claim that myth and fairy tale are "currently synonymous" (16) seems misleading and over-simplified. And the first two pages of the first chapter consist primarily of one-sentence summaries of various theories of myth, from James Frazier and Jessie Weston to T. S. Eliot to more recent accounts like Marina Warner's. It's difficult for this reader, at least, to follow the trajectory of an argument through this maze of possibilities, or to see where she's headed.
This uncertainty of focus, in fact, characterizes much of the book. It's a tall order to explore women's rewritings of Western myth, Biblical stories, [End Page 164] and fairy tales, even in a fairly restricted group of texts. (Sellers focuses primarily on fiction by British and Irish women writers of the last quarter of the twentieth century, with the surprising addition of Anne Rice's vampire chronicles and pornographic "Sleeping Beauty" trilogy.) In a few pages she refers almost at random to the story of Noah, the Gospel of St. John, Pandora, Daphne and Apollo, Medusa, Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (as modern myths), and various fairy tales, moving quickly from one to the next and rarely giving herself time to explore the particularities of each redaction. In fact, since she's moving so quickly, she rarely has time to do more than sketch the plot and outline character; she pays very little attention to structure or to language, often the most interesting part of recent rewritings. (For an example, on page 98, see her one-paragraph treatment of Emma Donoghue's complex Kissing the Witch.)
Sellers also seems unaware of the recent work on fairy-tale transformations in the United States: for example, Jack Zipes's anthologies Don't Bet on the Prince (1986) and The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood (1983); Nancy Walker's The Disobedient Writer (1995), a book that is almost as inclusive as Sellers's but more convincingly organized and argued; and Cristina Bacchilega's fascinating Postmodern Fairy Tales (1997). And, though she's familiar with Marina Warner's and some of Jack Zipes's work, she has missed a lot of recent and important scholarly treatments of fairy tales. She leans heavily on Ruth Bottigheimer's 1986 collection Fairy Tales and Society, still very useful but no longer definitive. I'm less familiar with recent work on myth, but suspect that the same may be true there.
The primary theoretical context for the book, however, turns out not to be theory of myth or of fairy tale at all, but rather French feminist criticism of the 1970s and 1980s, particularly Hélène Cixous's oeuvre—the subject of most of Sellers's previous writing and editing. She gives more credence than I would to notions about the originary "mother goddess" or "matriarchal societies," linking work by Mary Daly, Monica Sjöö and Barbara Mor, Riane Eisler, and Camille Paglia to the French concern with the contrast between logos and mythos that derives from Derrida. But ultimately she argues that the strategies Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva deploy in order to question or subvert patriarchal logic provide a model for the writers of the texts she treats and for the readers of those texts. She relies in particular on their treatment of the mother: "If the feminist rewriting considered here in the main declines a return to a former...