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::: Why Fairy Tales Stick (Zipes)

Zipes proposes an interesting thesis: that fairy tales are a kind of meme, and that they're still around because they have a symbiotic relationship with human minds / cultures and have over the centuries evolved along with mankind, in a kind of Darwinian "surival of the psychologically fittest".  The meme theory has some merit but the book is all over the place.  

He starts out strong, talking about Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene and relating it to memetics; I love the idea that bits of information (stories, urban legends, fashion fads, etc) can evolve, mutate, replicate themselves if they manage to connect with needs, desires, wishes, ideas, like a virus locking into place on a cell.  His discussion of the biological attitudes of humans towards offspring not their own as an explanation for the prevalance of evil step-parents echoes a fascinating article in a recent issue of The Economist, on the biological roots of many behaviours we've thought of as purely socialized.

But he doesn't stick to the meme thesis, and doesn't develop it coherently and logically.  For example, in the chapter on Bluebeard he goes wildly off course, theorizing that the story was invented out of whole cloth as part of a literary quarrel between two French authors, and that hidden in it is the one man's accusation that the other man is impotent.  Huh?  Not only is it a very bizarre charge, it's totally unrelated to his theory.  In the Hansel and Gretel chapter, he says that the story is about poverty and abandonment (well duh), rags on contemporary illustrators for not making their pictures for the story more brutal and evocative of the awfulness of these two things, and then scampers off into a discussion of the role and importance of translation in studying fairy tales.  Disappointing, because the translation discussion -- whose point is that in order to be authentic, a "translation" of a fairy tale at any given time can't be a slavish word-for-word thing but must transform it into a version that's relevant for that time and place while preserving its essence -- is brilliant, but obviously it's not just applicable to the story of H & G.  It should have had a whole chapter to itself, and he should have shown how it applies to ALL fairy tales, tied it to multiple examples.

His logic is inconsistent too.  In one chapter he'll cite dozens of versions of a story, and then say "So obviously author X must have encountered these versions and therefore [blah blah]."  Then in the Bluebeard chapter he cites dozens of versions of Bluebeard but says, "However, we have no evidence that author X ever saw these and therefore [blah blah]."  Identical situations from which he draws opposite assumptions.  His assertion that X-Men is a variation on a fairy tale is really a stretch; I don't buy it.  And I wish he'd at least acknowledged the concept of Freudian archetypes -- seems a glaring omission.

The technical problems didn't help either -- typos, too many separate bibliographies, and a truly crappy index (I could have done a better one!!) .  Routledge, Routledge, shame on you!!

On the whole, though, it was worth reading.  Zipes' core assumption -- that these stories lock onto integral human fears, needs, desires, etc., that they therefore evolve and change along with human society (or we reinvent them, depending on how you feel about memetics), and that's why they're such an endlessly vital source of entertainment and pleasure -- is sound.  It's a useful way to look at fairy tales, and probably urban legends as well.  And the bibliographies are a tremendously rich resource; I've added a bunch of books to my to-read list.


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Feb. 28th, 2009 07:47 pm (UTC)
Sorry,but I thought I would pop by and lower the tone of this post; you're just too smart for your own good.

*check your email*
Feb. 28th, 2009 07:59 pm (UTC)

"Jurors, have you reached a conclusion as to whether the defendant is, in fact, a geek?"
"Yes, Your Honor."
"And the verdict is?"
"Guilty as charged."
"Defendant, have you anything to say?"
"I can't help it, I just luuuuuurve to talk about stories and why people need them so badly."

Nice icon, BTW ;)
Feb. 28th, 2009 11:28 pm (UTC)
This sounds really interesting and plausible. I've been thinking about fanfic and medieval allegory plays, specifically how the audience and the creators react to specific, known "types." This is a more character-based reflection than a narrative-level reflection, but I think there is something to translating tools of literary reception and transmission, not to mention folklore, into the "etherrealm" of memes and viral concepts.

I'll look at this again when I have more brain and less baby shower (am in NYC on family business) :)
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