- Tales of Magic, Tales in Print: On the Genealogy of Fairy Tales and the Brothers Grimm by Willem de Blécourt, and: The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre by Jack D. Zipes
In contemporary discussions of European fairy tales, de Blécourt’s and Zipes’s books present polar opposite positions. For de Blécourt, eighteenth-century oral tradition mainly concerned “genres such as legends and anecdotes” (p. 1) because fairy tales, only a few centuries old, didn’t constitute a continuous oral tradition. He argues furthermore that in the nineteenth century, “only a very small part of … European oral tradition consisted of fairy tales and that these were “disseminated by an enormous flood of printed material” (p. 2). For Zipes, fairy tales emerged together with the development of human language 300,000 years ago. They spread irresistibly and have become undefinable. It is worthwhile to compare the two books’ contents and significance together, due to their related topics, and because Zipes’s work includes pointed critiques of de Blécourt’s book. De Blécourt and Zipes’s different positions are worth a fair consideration when paired together in a review.
De Blécourt’s prologue outlines the central role played by the Grimms’ collecting and publication. Their multifarious brief tales—gathered from personal acquaintances and from books—were first published as the Kinder- und Hausmärchen (KHM) in 1812 and 1815. They were subsequently expanded and edited 18191857 and widely translated, and their compilation shaped the content and understanding of later national collections and the Märchen genre itself. When individual tales were reworked and translated for chapbook publication and dissemination all over Europe, their collection spread even further. In each of his book’s seven chapters, de Blécourt explores the documented history of a single tale from the Grimm collection, examining its prior history, route to the Grimms, and subsequent narrative life.
Chapter 1 of Tales of Magic, Tales in Print examines incarnations of “The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs” (No. 29) in the medieval Gesta Romanorum and the eighteenth-century Bibliothèque Universelle des Romans (1777). De Blécourt argues that Marie Hassenpflug’s orally told tale derived from the latter. Chapter 2, “A Quest for Rejuvenation,” explores relationships between the Russian “Firebird” fairy tale and several tales in the Grimm collection, observing that the “19th-century distribution pattern, basically formed by a dozen, more or less, similar texts … also points to a dependence on prints: oral communication would have taken much longer to traverse the enormous distances involved and have resulted in a far greater variety” (p. 60).
Chapter 3, which focuses on the KHM’s magic flight stories (ATU 313), argues against the idea that oral tradition carried the Magic Flight tales from antiquity to the nineteenth century. The author demonstrates that “medieval French and in their wake German authors reworked classical material … [which then] formed the basis of Renaissance Italian stories with a similar topic and tale pattern. In their turn these latter inspired the late seventeenth-and eighteenth-century French writers” (p. 86), [End Page 333] which meant that the German magic flight stories collected by the Grimms incorporated French and Italian texts conditioned by translation processes.
Chapter 4, “Magic and Metamorphosis,” reexamines “The Magician and his Pupil” (ATU 325), a tale not found in early Persian and Indian collections (p. 113). In chapter 5, “The Substitute Storyteller,” de Blécourt concludes that the Grimms’ “Zwehrn” tales are not derived solely from Dorothea Viehmann. “Journeys to the Other World,” chapter 6, examines a 1960s Hungarian tale that was initially believed to have originated independent of published precursors, but de Bl...