Rapunzel’s transformation from sex-positive slattern to pious wife actually reveals one of the greatest virtues of the fairy tale: The form is so radically open that it can absorb new traditions and values quite easily. This essential porousness makes the fairy tale amenable to multiple versions, ornamentations, analyses, and theories. (Pullman, in the introduction to his book, lists the varieties of fairy tale criticism he came across: “Jungian, Freudian, Christian, Marxist, structuralist, post-structuralist, feminist, post-modernist ...” Sara Maitland’s charming new book, From the Forest, which pairs fairy-tale retellings with essays on ecological history and “the anthropology of woodland,” is something else again.) Fairy tales can be imitated, innovated, and “fractured” without losing that thing that makes them what they are.
Some of this, maybe, is because this kind of story emerged from the intersection of oral storytelling and literature. The repetitive structure—which would have been a boon to storytellers—allows, in writing, for a great deal of elaboration. Pullman, for instance, can have some fun with Rumpelstiltskin’s names, and even throw in an extended ending without its bothering anyone much. It’s easy to impose over the simple structure of the story a layer of art, as the Grimm brothers began to do in subsequent editions of their book. The story “The Goose Girl at the Spring,” for one, layers literary technique—differing points of view, delayed resolution, the slow reveal, and so on—over a simple narrative base—as in King Lear, a girl is punished for telling her father the truth, is lost until he repents, and comes to inherit his kingdom.
Pullman’s comfy retellings aren’t a far cry from the Grimms’ originals. In fact, he writes in his introduction, he wanted them to be as clear and clean as possible, the way he would tell them himself having heard them before. While Pullman’s name may well reinvigorate the genre, his additions, where there are any, are minimal and unobtrusive. It almost doesn’t matter that it’s Pullman who’s written them. Of course, a fairy tale is by nature a shared thing—when someone retells it, it doesn’t become a picture of their mind but rather a vessel for that mind to fill. “Just as the sequence of chords in a song is there ready for the jazz musician,” Pullman writes, “our task is to step from chord to chord, from event to event, with all the lightness and swing we can.” But Pullman isn’t going for John Coltrane here; he’s Stan Getz, mostly playing the changes. That the result might be called “classic” is as much a testament to the power of the material at hand as to his (nontrivial) skill as a storyteller. The ultimate lesson for would be retellers is that fairy tales, as the sociologist Arthur Frank put it, “are not theirs but there, as realities.”
The Irresistible Fairy Tale, the latest book by fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes, traces the history of the genre through this dialog with social reality. Zipes describes fairy tales as “memes,” a term that’s overused and near meaningless in our cat-video-addled age but which was actually coined by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. The meme, to Dawkins, is a unit of cultural transmission as basic as a gene. Like a gene, the meme is passed on, mutates, and recombines, becoming the basis of an evolving culture. And so fairy tales, as memes, are “to be told because they were told” much the same as cat videos are to be watched because they were seen. Thinking of them in this way helps explain their openness to addition and change, as well as their agnosticism to national differences or literary trends. It also goes some way toward describing their magnetic appeal: There is always something relevant to be found in them.
Ginnifer Goodwin for one, star of the series Once Upon a Time, contended that the resurgent appeal of fairy tales is due, in part, to the economy. It’s true that, beyond the promise of escapism, many of these stories do confront real, regrettably apropos social ills—rural poverty, for one—along with more eternal concerns like death, puberty, abandonment, and the dark. Fairy tales begin “once upon a time,” in a troubled past that stands in for the present, and provide an imagined path to an “ever after” where problems are solved by luck, magic, morality, or skill. At base, they’re a description of the conditions in which one might be happy. Of course there are rules: You have to be good, charitable, home by midnight. All 12 fairy godmothers must be invited to the party; you mustn’t renege on your deal with Godfather Death. There’s a very fine line, the fairy tale teaches, between happiness and doom.
Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version by Philip Pullman. Viking.