The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre

By Jack Zipes | Go to book overview

1
The Cultural Evolution of Storytelling and Fairy
Tales: Human Communication and Memetics

Even the simplest and most static of human cultures is an engine of inven-
tive mutual influence and change. Furthermore, at least orally, human cul-
tures preserve historical record, imaginative or real, couched in a human
language. The past pervades human consciousness to some degree
even in the simplest societies, and discussions of past events—narrating,
sometimes dramatically, commenting on the narration, challenging points
of fact or logic, and co-constructing a suite of stories—occupied many an
evening for perhaps 300,000 years, but not for millions of years before
that. And while our ancestors were arguing, many ape communities not
far away in the forest were making their—yes, traditional—nests and
drifting off to sleep. The only modern apes that have learned language
learned it from human teachers, and none of their wild counterparts has
anything like it. Even if their individual minds preserve some private his-
tory, it is difficult to see how they could have a collective one without
being able to tell it to each other and to their young. All human cultures
can, do, and probably must.

—Melvin Konner, The Evolution of Childhood (2010)

Stories may not actually breathe, but they can animate. The breath
imputed by this book’s title is the breath of a god in creation stories, as
that god gives life to the lump that will become human. Stories animate
human life; that is their work. Stories work with people, for people, and
always stories work on people, affecting what people are able to see as
real, as possible, and as worth doing or best avoided. What is it about
stories—what are their particularities—that enables them to work as they
do? More than mere curiosity is at stake in this question, because human
life depends on the stories we tell: the sense of self that those stories

-1-

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