In the past two-hundred years the field of fairy tale studies has thoroughly gone to seed. It is criss-crossed with ancient paths, and the dynamic variety of readings and interpretations makes it a rewarding place to linger for a decade, or a lifetime.
As mentioned previously, Max Lüthi’s formalist approach to fairy tales has been succinctly evoked and revitalised by Kate Bernheimer. Lüthi wrote that the folktale’s secret power ‘lies not in the motifs it employs, but in the manner it uses them—that is, in its form’ (1982, 3).
The folklorist Vladimir Propp also looked to form in his work on Russian ‘magic tales’. For Propp, it was the motifs or ‘functions’ that allowed him to map the genre’s DNA. Studying about one hundred traditional stories from Afanas’ev’s 19th century collections, Propp observed ‘that one function develops out of another with logical and artistic necessity’ (2013, 64). Using his knowledge of classification in the natural sciences as the centrifuge into which he dropped the magic tale, Propp extracted its core components. Theorising and analysing structure, motifs, and narrative rules, he sought to identify the genre’s essence by examining its hard wiring, and resisting the interpretive impulse. He viewed magic tales as only superficially wild and disorderly; their form was in fact the container that gave them their potency. Like Dr Who’s TARDIS, Propp’s magic tale is bigger than it first appears. The form has a ‘two-fold quality’ which enables it to be both vast and tiny (2013, 20). Propp’s writing therefore highlights both the fairy tale’s ‘amazing multiformity, picturesqueness, and colour, and…its no less striking uniformity, its repetition’ (ibid).
Equally original is Walter Benjamin’s enquiry into the fairy tale. In his 1936 essay ‘The Storyteller’, Benjamin cited the ‘chaste compactness’ of the traditional tale as an aid to memory, and connected the genre to the oral tradition (1992, 10). Benjamin drew a link between craft – especially work with yarn, such as spinning and weaving, the ‘old co-ordination of the soul, the eye, and the hand’ – and the art of deep listening (1992, 14). The particular state of ‘boredom’ induced by manual labour was essential in the cultural assimilation and dissemination of these tales (1992, 5). Craft is activity that doesn’t hold boredom at bay but channels it through the hands. Repetition and time is the key to both stories and craft, and boredom is what unites them.
Benjamin’s was a utopian interpretation, emphasising the role of choice and intuition and sense of control as the fairy-tale character moves through narrative. The fairy-tale hero/heroine’s self-belief survives, even when the choices they make are bad ones. Describing the ‘liberating magic’ of the genre Benjamin wrote: ‘The wisest thing–so the fairy tale taught mankind in olden times and children to this day–is to meet the forces of the mythical world with cunning and with high spirits… (1992, 11). His words resonate as much in the present moment as they did in the darkness of depression-era Europe.
To be continued.
Afanas’ev. Aleksandr. Russian Fairy Tales. New York: Pantheon Books, 1975. (Trans. Norbert Guterman)
Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller.” Illuminations. London: Fontana Press, 1992, 83-107.
Propp, Vladimir Yakovlevich. Morphology of the Folktale. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2013.
Propp, Vladimir Yakovlevich. The Russian Folktale. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2012.