Academic journal article Western Folklore

Why Fairy Tales Matter: The Performative and the Transformative

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Why Fairy Tales Matter: The Performative and the Transformative

Article excerpt

Fairy tales made a powerful comeback in the United States after Bruno Bettelheim published The Uses of Enchantment and endorsed their therapeutic value for children. It is perhaps now time to wonder anewjust what those "uses" are today and whether fairy tales still matter to parents and children living in an era when cynicism seems to have driven out wonder and when, even in books for children, the grand narrative style has given way to postmodern pastiche. Today, children may be more familiar with Little Red Running Shorts in TL· Stinky Cheeseman and Other Fairly Stupid Fairy Tales than with the Little Red Riding Hood of the Grimms or Perrault. They may read the Harry Potter books, but they will also find themselves riveted by TM. Anderson's chilling novel Feed. Fairy tales have long created potent cocktails of beauty, horror, marvels, violence, and magic, drawing in audiences of all generations over the course of centuries, but adults and children may find them less appealing today than they did even just three decades ago, when Bettelheim 's book appeared.

Both authors and readers of stories for children are in agreement about the wondrous possibilities opened by a good story. There is not a trace of cynicism in Lois Lowry's view about the transformative experience of reading. "Each time a child opens a book," she declares, "he pushes open the gate that separates him from Elsewhere. It gives him choices. It gives him freedom. Those are magnificent, wonderfully unsafe things" (Lowry 2001). In a memoir called The Child That Books Built, Francis Spufford writes eloquently about "someplace else":

I wanted there to be a chance to pass through a portal, and by doing so to pass from rusty reality with its scaffolding of facts and events into the freedom of story. I wanted there to be doors. If, in a story, you found the one panel in the fabric of the workaday world that was hinged, and it opened, and it turned out that behind the walls flashed the gold and peacock blue of something else ... all possibilities would be renewed. (Spufford 2002:85)

Fairy tales have that very capacity captured by Lowry and Spufford to serve as portals to wonder worlds, to sites that combine danger and beauty in ways so alluring that they inspire the desire to wander into new imaginative domains. They enable us to "subjunctivize," to explore the "might be, could have been, perhaps will be" (Bruner 2002:20). They open up a theater of possibilities and create an unparalleled sense of immediacy, at times producing somatic responses with nothing but words. In the enchanted world of fairy tale, anything can happen, and what happens is often so startling, magical, and unreal that it often produces a jolt. Shape-shifting, as Marina Warner has pointed out, is one of the defining features of fairy tales, and it happens in ways that invariably contradict the laws of nature:

Hands are cut off, found and reattached, babies' throats are slit, but they are later restored to life, a rusty lamp turns into an all-powerful talisman, a humble pestle and mortar becomes the winged vehicle of the fairy enchantress Baba Yaga, the beggar changes into the powerful enchantress and the slattern in the filthy donkeyskin into a golden-haired princess. (Warner 1994:xix)

The transformative power of fairy tales can be approached from a variety of angles, and I want to propose first analyzing how the stories themselves function as shape-shifters, morphing into new versions of themselves as they are retold and as they migrate into other media. The tales in the Grimms' collection have been inflected in so many new ways that they have become part of a global storytelling archive drawn upon by many cultures. Fairy tales also have transformative effects on us, and when we read and hear them, they can produce vertiginous sensations - not just the therapeutic energy that Bettelheim identified. Finally, the transformative magic in fairy tales - their spells, curses, and charms - lead to metamorphoses that enact the consequences of magical thinking. …

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