A Companion to the Fairy Tale

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A Companion to the Fairy Tale. Edited by Hilda Ellis Davidson and Anna Chaudhri. London: D. S. Brewer, 2003. 294 + viii pp.

University presses have recently begun publishing "companions" at a terrific rate. As Judith Ryan suggests in Profession 2004, this may be in part a desperate effort to find profitable books to publish at a time when monographs are selling in smaller and smaller numbers. But what is a companion these days? And why should we want them? Whose companion are they supposed to be? The OED says that "companion" is used "often as a title of books of reference, a vade-mecum," but few of the recent ones are actually reference books. Often they seem loosely designed as a collection point for assorted scholarly essays on one topic or writer. While some bring readers up to date on the relevant scholarship, some are already dated when they come out. Many, in fact, remind me of old series like Prentice-Hall's Twentieth-Century Interpretations (of one work) or Views (of one author).

In any case, we now have two fairy-tale companions: The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales (2000, ed. Jack Zipes) and the newer A Companion to the Fairy Tale (2003), reviewed here. They reflect completely different approaches to the companion genre. The Oxford version is essentially in encyclopedia format, with short, alphabetized entries for individual authors, illustrators, and tales and a few longer articles on topics such as "British and Irish Fairy Tales" or "Psychology and Fairy Tales." (Full disclosure: I wrote about ten of the entries in that volume.) The new version is a collection of fairly long essays, ranging from general ones about interpretation and creativity to essays on the Grimms and Andersen to a series of pieces on traditional tales from Ireland to Ossetia. (It would have helped this reader to have brief biographies of the contributors. Only one scholar, Ruth B. Bottigheimer, contributed to both collections.) Zipes focuses on the literary fairy tale (with a slight overemphasis on material written for children), while the new one constantly shifts its focus from written materials to oral transmission and back again.

This uncertainty of focus is evident in the introduction by the editors, Hilda Ellis Davidson and Anna Chaudhri. As they say in the first paragraph, "a distinction must be made between the oral fairy tale, recorded with various degrees of accuracy, as delivered by a storyteller to an audience, and the literary fairy tale, the individual creative work of a writer. However, there is no clear-cut division between these two types, which constantly overlap." This is certainly true-but then they immediately go on to discuss Andersen and the Grimms and their roots in "popular oral tradition," as if this were the most important part of their work. Although they return to the point that the fairy tale is not "an exclusively literary or an exclusively oral phenomenon," they emphasize the now-outdated methods of the Finnish school in examining the transmission of tales. Throughout the introduction (and the essays that follow) there is no unifying critical position but rather a grab-bag effect: lets include a little of everything and see what we come up with.

The book begins with two ambitious general essays that are grab bags themselves. In "The Interpretation of Fairy Tales," Derek Brewer draws on somewhat outdated research to claim that "the defining qualities of fairy tales . . . are to be discovered in their oral roots" and that most fairy tales are about "growing up," the development of the hero or heroine following an interdiction or transgression. …