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Reviewed by:
  • Fairy Tales: A New History
  • Jeana Jorgensen
Fairy Tales: A New History. By Ruth B. Bottigheimer. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009. Pp. vii + 152, notes, works cited, index.)

In Fairy Tales: A New History, Ruth Bottigheimer expands her recent research on fairytale origins, including her 2002 book Fairy Godfather: Straparola, Venice, and the Fairy Tale Tradition and her presentations on the literary origins of fairy tales at the 2005 Congress of the International Society for Folk Narrative Research and the 2006 meeting of the American Folklore Society. In each of these outlets, Bottigheimer challenges conventional folkloristic wisdom about oral tradition, the transmission of fairy tales, and the role of print culture. Bottigheimer's work is as always provocative and interesting, yet although this latest book does not seem written for folklorists, its messages and methods—especially the heavy use of dichotomies—definitely ought to concern us.

In chapter 1, "Why a New History of Fairy Tales?," Bottigheimer describes the basic hypothesis of her work: that fairy tales should be defined not only by shared motifs, structures, and happy endings, but also by their overall narrative thrust, leading to her distinction between "restoration" tales and "rise" tales. In the former, a royal protagonist falls into poverty and must regain his or her standing through magical assistance, whereas [End Page 508] in the latter, a poor protagonist gains wealth and a higher social standing through the use of magic. The second important part of Bottigheimer's hypothesis is that rise tales are not only uniquely European, but also urban and fairly recent in their composition and transmission. Bottigheimer traces the development of rise tales to one particular figure, the Venetian writer Straparola, whose collection of fairy tales Pleasant Nights was first published in the 1550s. Much of this information has already appeared in Bottigheimer's book Fairy Godfather, but it must be restated to make sense to Bottigheimer's intended audience. This is one of the most contentious aspects of Bottigheimer's hypothesis, as other reviewers and discussants have noted; see Cristina Bacchilega (Review of Fairy Godfather, Western Folklore 66:383-5, 2007), Clizia Carminati (Review of Fairy Godfather, Marvels & Tales 18:317-20, 2004), Francisco Vaz da Silva ("From Tartu to Milwaukee: The Genesis of a Fairy-Tale Debate," ISFNR Newsletter 2:20-1, 2007), and Jan Ziolkowski ("The Rise and Fall of the"Rise Tale,'" ISFNR Newsletter 2:21-2, 2007).

Chapters 1, 4, and 5 of Fairy Tales: A New History are the most saturated with discussions of literacy in sixteenth-century Venice and descriptions of how book transmission must have played an inviolable role in fairy-tale evolution; chapters 2 and 3, describing the German and French fairy-tale traditions respectively, are more empirically grounded in the comparison of versions over time and space. Bottigheimer's demonstration of the borrowings from Italian tradition by the Grimms, Perrault, Mlle Lhéritier, and others is illuminating, and exemplifies the insights that close readings of classical texts, interwoven with snippets of the authors' biographies, can yield.

In other respects, however, Bottigheimer seems to be writing both for and about an idealized, imaginary public. This is the same general public that Bottigheimer writes "widely believes in fairy tales' oral composition and transmission" (p. 7); according to her, the oral origins and spread of fairy tales comprise "the history that everyone in the English-speaking world knows" (p. 28). This is a gross generalization on Bottigheimer's part, yet the "general public" and the "everyone" to whom she refers seem to be her intended audience for this book. It seems unclear why she would solely cite the contentious work of Bruno Bettelheim and the most recent, hotly debated memetics work of Jack Zipes in her first few pages. These are the fairy-tale authors with whose work the nonacademic public would most likely be familiar, and they are easy targets for Bottigheimer to position and then discredit in order to justify her own interpretation of fairy tales.

At the same time, Bottigheimer does contribute some useful distinctions to her general readers. Her discussion of tales with fairies in them as opposed to fairy tales as tales of magic...


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