Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre

By Michel, Maggi | Marvels & Tales, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre


Michel, Maggi, Marvels & Tales


Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre. By Jack Zipes. New York: Routledge, 2006. 332 pp., bibliography, index, illustrations.

In an ambitious and interesting outing, Jack Zipes moves beyond his previous work theorizing the fairy-tale genre as "classical tales . . . consciously and subconsciously reproduced largely in print by a cultural industry that favors patriarchal and reactionary notions of gender, ethnicity, behavior, and social class" (2). In the opening chapter, Zipes asks whether there may be internal and external elements of fairy tales that account for both how and why the genre spread and persists, and how and why certain tales loom large as popular favorites.

Toward this end, Zipes postulates human reception and reproduction of fairy tales as a behavior governed by evolutionary forces. He casts the genre of fairy tales as a kind of species and individual tales as viruslike entities. He employs a theoretical construct called memetics originated by sociobiologist Richard Dawkins, who regards discrete cultural objects (such as the plots of individual fairy tales) as ideological viruses spreading through populations according to rules of contagion and varying according to rules of evolution. Further, Zipes follows the work of Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber on relevance theory in evaluating the importance of communications as related to the biological operations of information processing, a view rooted in cognitive psychology and sociobiology These schools of thought view the brain's inherent properties of reception and re-creation of communication as the elements external to fairy tales that Zipes postulates may affect the spread and popularity of the genre and/or individual tales. In applying these ideas, Zipes examines both the fairy-tale genre as a whole and exemplary tales from the canon for evidence that their development and transmission comport, with well-developed ideas drawn from a broad array of scholars and scientists in fields as diverse as linguistics and cultural evolution.

The extraordinary quality of Zipes's scholarship and his understanding of the genre of literary fairy tales make as powerful a case for these theoretical tools as can be made. He examines the transmission, development, importance, and moral strains of the fairy tale in several chapters that are a tour-de-force examination of a centuries-spanning set of instantiations of fairy tales realized in many media. His enthusiasm for the usefulness of this line of inquiry and his diligence in following it leave no question unanswered, no implication unconsidered. The excellence of Zipes's work, however, cannot disguise the basic Uaw in memetics and its related theories.

Memetics and other sociobiological and cognitive psychological theories work at a level of abstraction far removed from the actual biological occurrences that map to cultural acts such as reading or hearing, telling, or remembering a fairy tale. At that distance, distortions appear, such as the notion that women are genetically programmed as a result of evolutionary pressures to choose strong, wealthy, powerful husbands, a notion Zipes employs. This assumption conflates the action of presumed biological imperatives governing sexual pairings, which may produce progeny, with the selection of a partner for the socioeconomic institution of marriage, which may or may not include sexual relations and may or may not produce progeny fathered by the husband. …

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