Decolonizing Fairy-Tale Studies

By Haase, Donald | Marvels & Tales, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Decolonizing Fairy-Tale Studies


Haase, Donald, Marvels & Tales


I take little comfort in the qualifying phrase "not quite" when Jonathan Gottschall says in a 2008 interview about the state of literary and cultural studies, "I'm not quite calling for total disciplinary annihilation and genocide" (Peterson B9, emphasis mine). Now, I'm not sure whether annihilation comes in degrees less than total, but if it does, even a little bit of annihilation and genocide goes a long way - metaphorically or not. Gottschall, who frequently trains his sights on folktale and fairy-tale studies, does not approve of what passes for literary and cultural scholarship. "It's not such a good time to be a literary scholar," he writes in an article published in 2008 in the Ideas section of the Boston Globe ("Measure"). It's not a good time for us, Gottschall asserts, because "over the last decade or so, more and more literary scholars have agreed that the field has become moribund, aimless, and increasingly irrelevant to the concerns not only of the 'outside world,' but also to the world inside the ivory tower" ("Measure"). Perhaps I have spent too many years in the company of the Brothers Grimm, but the fairy-tale allusion embedded in this description demands attention - literary scholarship as a Sleeping Beauty lying moribund and forgotten in her room in the castle's old tower, waiting for the kiss of a prince to bring her back to life. As Gottschall asserts in concluding his Boston Globe manifesto, "If we literary scholars can summon the courage and humility" to walk through the imagined "wall dividing the two cultures of the sciences and the humanities," "we can reawaken a long-dormant spirit of intellectual adventure" ("Measure").1

The fact is that over the past three to four decades, literary scholarship - at least in the case of fairy-tale studies - has been anything but "moribund, aimless, and increasingly irrelevant to the concerns ... of the Outside world'" and the concerns of those of us who occupy the so-called ivory tower. So it is particularly perplexing that Gottschall should turn repeatedly to the folktale and fairy tale in order to offer a model for resurrecting what he considers to be a slumbering discipline. This very conference on "The Fairy Tale after Angela Carter" - which is the immediate occasion for this article2 - is based on the recognition that the last thirty years and more have been a period of extraordinarily fruitful creative and critical engagement with the fairy tale - indeed, that fairy-tale production has been provoked and nourished by fairy-tale studies precisely because scholars from many disciplines have related the genre to social, political, cultural, educational, and other human concerns in what is called, in contrast to the "ivory tower" of academe, the real world. Far from kissing fairy-tale studies awake, this conference recognizes that it is time to step back from the sleeping maiden, who is by now very wide awake, take a deep breath, and examine what all this activity means and where it is leading us. This is not to say that the newer legacy of fairy-tale scholarship ajter Angela Carter has completely overtaken the legacy of fairy-tale scholarship bejore Angela Carter - that the burden of nineteenth-century folktale studies as it took shape in the wake of the Brothers Grimm has been completely lifted. Despite the progress we have made in understanding the fairy tale, some deeply entrenched ideas remain problematic. So in setting out "to assess the state of current critical and creative practice, as well as to pinpoint future directions for writing and research," as the conference Website proposes we do ("Fairy Tale"), it makes sense to think not only about the legacy of Angela Carter and her generation of scholars and creative artists, but also about the older legacy of folklore scholarship. This brings me back, then, to the fairy-tale scholarship of Jonathan Gottschall.

A prolific, polemic, and engaging advocate of literary Darwinism who has been featured in articles in the New York Times Magazine (Max) and the Chronicle oj Higher Education (Peterson),3 Gottschall advocates that "Literary studies should become more like the sciences. …

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