Critical and Creative Perspectives on Fairy Tales: An Intertextual Dialogue between Fairy-Tale Scholarship and Postmodern Retellings

By Williams, Christy | Marvels & Tales, July 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Critical and Creative Perspectives on Fairy Tales: An Intertextual Dialogue between Fairy-Tale Scholarship and Postmodern Retellings


Williams, Christy, Marvels & Tales


Critical and Creative Perspectives on Fairy Tales: An Intertextual Dialogue Between Fairy-Tale Scholarship and Postmodern Retellings. By Vanessa Joosen. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2011.

Although there are many works that explore intertextuality among folktales, fairy tales, and retellings, few critical works examine the intertextual relationship between fairy-tale criticism and fairy-tale retellings. Vanessa Joosen deftly takes on this gap in her exceptional book Critical and Creative Perspectives on Faiiy Tales, which examines, as she puts it, "the critical impulse in literature, in the retellings" (35). Joosen begins by calling attention to an overlap in the concerns of fairy-tale criticism and retellings noted by other scholars, such as Stephen Benson and Jack Zipes. Joosen argues that retellings interpret traditional fairy tales just as criticism does, and their authors respond not just to the traditional fairy tales but to the criticism about fairy tales as well. In much the same way that criticism turns to retellings to discuss the concepts and ideology of traditional tales, retellings respond to critical concepts in remaking fairy tales. Joosen's primary argument is that "retellings and criticism participate in a continuous and dynamic dialogue about the traditional fairy tale" (3). What makes Joosen's book unique is that she centers her study on the criticism, not the retellings, and traces a complex web of intertextual references to that criticism.

Joosen's case studies focus on three well-known and influential works of fairy-tale criticism: "Some Day My Prince Will Come," by Marcia Lieberman (1972); The Uses oj Enchantment, by Bruno Bettelheim (1976); and The Madwoman in the Attic, by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar (1979). In Joosen's view writers of retellings need not have read the criticism to reference it. Some criticism is so well-known, even outside fairy-tale studies, that writers can be familiar with the critical concepts through popular versions without having read the work itself. For example, Bettelheim's psychoanalytic interpretations of fairy tales and his basic premise that fairy tales function therapeutically for children have so pervaded popular culture that it is unsurprising that many retellings incorporate similar themes. In Chapter 3 Joosen examines how several of Bettelheim's arguments appear in retellings, such as his ideas on Oedipal desire that are picked up in Denise Duhamel's "Sleeping Beauty's Dreams" and Francesca Lia Block's "Beast." In both cases Joosen shows how the writers use and challenge Bettelheim's interpretation.

Joosen also explains that this kind of intertextual dialogue can occur when writers of retellings and criticism are interested in the same issues concerning fairy tales and come to similar conclusions independently. This is particularly evident in Joosen's discussions of such retellings as Anne Sexton's Transformaüons and Robert Coover's "Dead Queen," which precede the critical texts yet come to similar conclusions about the core issues at the heart of the traditional tales. Joosen's primary focus is on these types of indirect intertextual links as opposed to direct references to criticism by the writers of retellings, although she provides notable examples from those who do allude explicitly, such as Dorothea Runow, whose retelling of "Little Red Riding Hood" is a critique of Bettelheim's interpretation of the same tale.

The retellings that Joosen analyzes span the past thirty years and are based on a small subset of popular fairy tales: "Snow White," "Cinderella," "Sleeping Beauty," "Hansel and Gretel," "Little Red Riding Hood," and "Beauty and the Beast." Because each chapter focuses on a critical work, Joosen analyzes several tales related to the critical concepts that predominate in that work. For example, in Chapter 2 she mingles analysis of retellings of "Snow White" ("A Taste for Beauty," by Priscilla Galloway), "Cinderella" ("The Ugly Stepsisters Strike Back," by Linda Kavanagh), and "Sleeping Beauty" (Sleeping Ugly, by Jane Yolen) in her discussion of the "beauty contest" (65), a concept critical to Lieberman's argument. …

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