For Zipes, the influence of the fairy tale is liberating, subversive, and especially feminist. If “fairy tales came to be contested and marked as pagan, irrelevant, and unreal,” he writes, it is because they gave voice to the powerless—children, women, the poor. Indeed, Zipes shows in The Irresistible Fairy Tale that many women writers contributed to making the fairy tale a standard genre of modern literature: the very term “fairy tale” comes from the contes de fées of Madame d’Aulnoy, published in 1697 and soon translated into English. The name stuck even though most of the stories we think of as fairy tales do not contain any actual fairies: “the term’s usage was a declaration of difference and resistance,” Zipes insists. Several of his chapters deal with the contribution of women writers and artists to the renewal of the fairy-tale form, including the French film director Catherine Breillat, whose film Bluebeard Zipes discusses at length.
In seeing the fairy tale as a mode of subaltern literature, a site of resistance to elite male power and logic, however, Zipes is not exactly swimming against the tide himself. Predictably, he rails against the Disneyfication of fairy tales, lamenting that so many of us now experience Snow White and Cinderella for the first time as bowdlerised cartoons. Tangled, the recent Disney retelling of the Rapunzel story, he describes as “banal,” “inane,” and worse: “the Disney witches are stereotypical products of the Western male gaze and mass-mediated manipulation of the images of women that date back to the Christian church’s demonisation of women.”
Yet many of the new mass-media versions of fairy tales pride themselves on taking their female heroines seriously and granting them personal and even political agency. Take Snow White and the Huntsman, in which Kristen Stewart’s Snow White is less a damsel in distress than a Che Guevara figure, leading a popular uprising against an exploitative Queen. In this film, the seven dwarfs are revolutionary bandits out of Eric Hobsbawm, who turn to violence after losing their jobs as miners, and Snow White leads a cavalry charge wearing a suit of armour. Even the evil queen, played by Charlize Theron, is not a “stereotypical product of the Western male gaze”: on the contrary, the film shows us that her concern for preserving youth and beauty, while pathological, is the only way a woman can gain power in a society ruled by violent men. Seldom has the villain of a fairy tale been a more sympathetic figure.
This way of telling the Snow White story may be tendentious; but then, the modern history of the fairy tale is one of its use and abuse for ideological purposes….
What happens, though, when we approach these tales in their original state—as we find them in Grimm Tales, or Long Ago and Far Away? What if the effect of reading these stories in bulk is actually to highlight their fundamental poverty as narratives?
In fact, fairy tales have a double relationship to poverty. They are poor themselves—in motivation, imagery, description, ambiguity, complexity, everything that makes for literary interest—and they are the products of poverty. This is clear enough from their social and economic premises: they are frequently tales of hunger and neglect and child abuse. What we remember about Hansel and Gretel is the gingerbread house and the witch in the oven, but it starts out as a portrait of starvation and infanticide: “If we don’t get rid of them, all four of us will starve,” the children’s mother says to their father. “You may as well start planing the wood for our coffins.”
The obvious object of desire, in such dire circumstances, is fabulous wealth, of the kind symbolised by and associated with royalty. That is why there is no intermediate class, in fairy tales, between paupers and kings: this is a world in which actual, gradual advancement is unthinkable, so that one can only move in imagination from the bottom of society to the top. The Grimms’ “The Fisherman and His Wife” offers a wry commentary on the insatiability of this kind of ambition. When the fisherman hooks a magic flounder and lets it go, his wife demands that he return and ask it to grant a wish. First she wishes that her shack could be a cottage, then a mansion, then a palace, then a cathedral. Finally, the wife demands to be turned into God: “I want to cause the sun and the moon to rise. I can’t bear it when I see them rising and I haven’t had anything to do with it. But if I were God, I could make it all happen.” This proves to be a wish too far, and the fish turns their cathedral back into a shack—or, as Pullman literally translates it, “a pisspot.”
More often, the fantasy of advancement works through marriage—as in Cinderella, where the abused servant wins the hand of the prince—or through the discovery of a mistaken identity—the servant turns out to be a prince in hiding. But on a more fundamental level, the object of desire in fairy tales is not just high rank, or sudden wealth, or endless food—as in Jack and the Beanstalk, which conjures a Cockaigne where “the trout, salmon, carp, and other inhabitants of the stream leaped upon the banks.”
Rather, what fairy tales obsessively conjure up is a world of mutability, in which things and people are not immured in their nature. The frog becomes a prince, the wolf becomes a grandmother, the little mermaid becomes a woman, the beast becomes a handsome man, the 12 brothers become a flock of ravens. So much of the appeal of these stories, in a preliterate, premodern culture, must have been simply in their demonstration of the power of words to defy the laws of nature. In this way, the storyteller enacts the magic powers he describes and possesses the wealth he fantasises about.
–Adam Kirsch, “Neverending stories” (ellipsing added)