Off With the Fairies

Jack Zipes. Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales. Heinemann, 1979.

In its attempt to analyse the social background to traditional fairy tales from a Marxist viewpoint, this book is handicapped in a number of ways. Besides a rather jargon-ridden style, it was first published as a series of articles, which results in its ideas being developed in a fairly haphazard manner. Additionally, many of the examples it deals with are drawn from German sources, with which the readers familiarity is assumed.

In spite of this there are some original ideas put forward. Fairy stories are seen as centring around the struggle to possess money, power and women, which are frequently all linked together in the theme of the quest for the hand of the king's daughter. In this struggle the wealthy and powerful, in the form of kings and wizards, are depicted as totally amoral, but the poor and dispossessed (youngest sons, peasants, common soldiers) may nevertheless triumph, either by low cunning on with the aid of magic. As a result they may create a vaguely defined situation in which everyone 'lives happily ever after'

When looked at in this light, fairy stories may be seen as springing from the same impulses as the apocalyptic and messianic movements discussed by John Fletcher and Peter Rogerson in Magonia 1. These also promised the dispossessed some sort of supernatural assistance and vaguely defined blissful future as indeed do modern UFO cults.

Unfortunately, this analysis is not backed up by any real discussion of the processes by which fairy tales originate and are transmitted. How is it for example that the story of a man who spends a night at a fairy feast, only to find in the morning that he had been away for many years, is found in England and Japan; or the tale of a hero who is saved by a group of friends each capable of one supernatural feat, is told in Russia and among the American Indians. Like all great myths and great literature, fairy stories ultimately resist final analysis and reduction to anyone meaning. Instead they reveal new layers of significance from whichever angle they are examined. -- Roger Sandell, Magonia 3, Spring 1980.


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