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Fairy tales, cultural debris, words and transformation

December 15, 2011

In her article, ‘Why Fairy Tales Matter’, Maria Tatar argues that fairy tales share the immense power of words and ‘magical thinking’ with their readers, offering them the ability to ‘subjunctivise’. She writes:

“Magical thinking is enacted nowhere more successfully than in fairy tales, and that thinking inevitably finds its way into words. Change comes less through the force of magic wands than through spells, words that promise to create changes.” (P61)  “the transformative magic in fairy tales – their spells, curses, and charms – lead to metamorphoses that enact the consequences of magical thinking” (p57)  Such metamorphoses take many forms – as Tatar writes, “Fairy tales have long created potent cocktails of beauty, horror, marvels, violence and magic” (p55) – but it is the endless possibility for change in fairy tales that Tatar seems to be celebrating – and the effect such possibility has on the reader.

Reading oneself into someplace else…

“Both authors and readers of stories for children are in agreement about the wondrous possibilities opened by a good story. There is not a trace of cynicism in Lois Lowry’s view about the transformative experience of reading. ‘Each time a child opens a book,’ she declares, ‘he pushes open the gate that separates him from Elsewhere. It gives him choices. It gives him freedom. Those are magnificent, wonderfully unsafe things’ (Lowry 2001).  In a memoir called The Child That Books Built, Francis Spufford writes eloquently about ‘someplace else’:

‘I wanted there to be a chance to pass through a portal, and by doing so to pass from rusty reality with its scaffolding of facts and events into the freedom of story. I wanted there to be doors. If, in a story, you found the one panel in the fabric of the workaday world that was hinged, and it opened, and it turned out that behind the walls flashed the gold and peacock blue of something else… all possibilities would be renewed.’ (Spufford 2002: 85)

[Tatar continues:] Fairy tales have that capacity captured by Lowry and Spufford to serve as portals to wonder worlds, to sites that combine danger  and beauty in ways so alluring that they inspire the desire to wander into new imaginative domains. They enable us to ‘subjunctivize’, to explore the ‘might be, could have been, perhaps will be’ (Bruner 2002: 20). They open up a theater of possibilities and create an unparalleled sense of immediacy, at times producing somatic responses with nothing but words. In the enchanted world of fairy tale, anything can happen, and what happens is often so startling, magical, and unreal that it often produces a jolt.  Shapeshifting, as Marina Warner has pointed out, is one of the defining features of fairy tales, and it happens in ways that invariably contradict the laws of nature….” (p56)

Cultural Debris…

I like this term! Tatar notes that “The tales in the Grimms’ collection have been inflected in so many new ways that they have become part of a global storytelling archive drawn upon by many cultures.” (pp56-57) She then goes on to note that “what we find of Grimm and of fairy tales in the United States seems to take the form of cultural debris, fragments of once-powerful narratives that find their way into our language to produce colorful turns of phrase….” (p58) Tatar continues “Cinderella haunts the cinematic imagination in what appears as an astonishing repetition compulsion in films like Pretty Woman, Ever After, Working Girl, Two Weeks Notice, Maid in Manhattan, The Prince and Me, The Princess Diaries, and Ella Enchanted.” (p58)


Note: some texts mentioned/discussed by Tatar are ‘listed’ visually in the book covers above.

(bold, green emphasis mine) Maria Tatar (2010) ‘Why Fairy Tales Matter; the Performative and the Transformative’ Western Folklore 69(1) Winter; 55-64

NB Quoted are: Bruner, Jerome. 2002. Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Lowry, Lois. 2001. ‘The Remembered Gate and the Unopened Door.’ Sutherland Lecture, Chicago Public Library, June 2001.

Spufford, Francis. 2002. The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading. New York: Henry Holt, Metropolitan Books.


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