Fairy Tales: A New History

By Barzilai, Shuli | Marvels & Tales, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Fairy Tales: A New History


Barzilai, Shuli, Marvels & Tales


Fairy Tales: A New History. By Ruth B. Bottigheimer. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009. 152 pp.

In this short book, Ruth Bottigheimer provides an account of the theories she has developed since the early 1990s in a series of articles and in Fairy Godfather: Sti -aparóla, Venice, and the Fairy Tale Tradition (2002). These theories engage two interrelated areas: a definition of fairy tales and an alternative history of their origins and dissemination via print routes. In five efficient chapters (115 pages without back matter), Bottigheimer recapitulates her arguments concerning "what constitutes a fairy tale?" and "who first composed these stories? how did they spread?" in her characteristically direct and forceful style. The reader is informed at once: "folk invention and transmission of fairy tales has no basis in verifiable fact." Past and present perceptions of the oral history of such tales are not just "built on a flimsy foundation" but require "an absence of evidence" to sustain them (1-2). The long-held distinction between oral and literary fairy tales is both inaccurate and misleading. Since this distinction has served to promote "an unproveable theory of oral origins and transmission," Bottigheimer rejects the terms "oral" and "literary" - which are the key terms of the debate provoked by her book-based history - from the outset: "I'll therefore avoid them in what follows" (8). Even a cursory glance, however, shows that such an avoidance is not strictly adhered to throughout the book; these terms are apparently too useful to be completely discarded. Nevertheless, Bottigheimer's declared intent puts a point of objection, and contention, on record.

In Fairy Tales: A New History, Bottigheimer also restates the corollary of her replacement of an unlettered country folk with literate urban authors ("cityoriented people like ourselves" [113]) and of oral with print pathways: Europe's first modern fairy tales emerged in the sixteenth century, in Venice, with the publication of Giovan Francesco Straparola's Pleasant Nights (1551, 1553). Books were the vehicle that transported his creation from one place to another. Their diffusion over several centuries followed this route: Straparola's new fairy tales were augmented in Naples during the early seventeenth century, further developed in France during the late seventeenth century, and then exported to Germany during the second half of the eighteenth century. "In the late eighteenth century," according to Bottigheimer, "they began a triumphal march on little book feet throughout literate Europe" (23).

Between the polemical bookend chapters of Fairy Tales, Bottigheimer presents what she calls "a history in reverse," working back in time from German to French and, lastly, to Italian fairy tales (26). The title of the second chapter, "Two Accounts of the Grimms' Tales: The Folk as Creator, the Book as Source," already points to its advocacy of the book - that is, of print origins in general and Pleasant Nights in particular - as the source of all modern fairy tales. Likewise, the fourth chapter's title forthrightly announces, in reverse chronological order, "The Two Inventors of Fairy Tale Tradition: Giambattista Basile (1632-1636) and Giovan Francesco Straparola (1551, 1553)," with the epithet "inventors" serving as the red-flag word of this title.

Chapter 3 alone seems to bear a title unmarked by controversy: "The Late Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Layers: Perrault, Lhéritier, and Their Successors"; however, the word "layers" is another indicator of the battle lines drawn in this argument. Although Bottigheimer describes her book as a history arranged in reverse, suggesting a linear horizontal trajectory, the dominant chrono-trope and method used is vertical. Frequently invoking the discourse of archaeology (excavation, layers, digging beneath or below, etc.) and, by indirection, the prestige accorded to an established science with its precision instruments, Bottigheimer sifts through the printed evidence from the nineteenth century straight down to the sixteenth - and stops: "Dig where we may, no rise fairy tales can be found in layers of literary remains before Straparola" (100). …

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