Jack Zipes, Director of the Center for German and European Studies at the University of Minnesota, teaches courses and conducts research about the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, folklore and fairy tales, romanticism, theater, and contemporary German literature with a focus on German-Jewish topics.
In addition to his scholarly work on children's literature, he is an active storyteller in public schools and has worked with various children's theaters. He is currently developing two book projects, one dealing with German-Jewish cultural and political relations since 1945, and the other with a social history of the origins of the fairy tale as a genre.
This interview was conducted via e-mail over the month of April, 2002 by Kenn Bannerman
I began the interview just after Jack had returned from a trip to Cairo. I asked him how his trip went...
"Aside from being tear gassed and having rocks and stones thrown at me during a political demonstration on the campus of the University of Cairo, aside from almost being killed a thousand times driving with mad drivers through the pot-marked and unpaved streets of Cairo, aside from having the stench of putrid polluted air soak into my clothes and skin, aside from trying to halt a runaway camel with me sitting on its hump, my trip went well!"
KB) What or who, brought you into the fantasy field?
JZ) "Ever since I was eight-years-old I began writing stories and sitting on floors in libraries and reading myself into other realms. There was no major writer or book that brought me into the fantasy field. I think, like many people, I find our reality so disturbing, so unfulfilling, so corrupt, and so barbaric that I began conceiving alternatives to our social condition. All good literature provides hope, but the best of fantasy literature provides extraordinary hope, and I guess that is what I am after -- extraordinary hope."
KB) You are considered an authority on fairy tales; do you take the title willingly?
JZ) "I dislike the term "authority". So I don't take the term willingly. I think I am very knowledgeable about fairy tales. I think I have a deep interest in fairy tales and I may even be obsessed by them. I feel driven to uncover tales that few people know and to share this knowledge and pleasure with other readers. I do a lot of storytelling with young people and try to animate them to become storytellers of their own lives. So, perhaps animator would be a better term to describe what I do - or mediator."
KB) How do you think fairy tales reflect the society in which they were created?
JZ) I definitely believe (and can demonstrate and have demonstrated) that fairy tales reflect the conditions, ideas, tastes, and values of the societies in which they were created. Due to their symbolism, it is quite often very difficult to see how remarkably they comment on reality. One has to do a lot of scholarly detective work to draw parallels and to interpret their social significance. This is what makes studying fairy tales so challenging and fascinating. Once you begin to grasp the metaphors, the tales become enlightening.
KB) Within the last half century televised mythology has been supplanting the written and oral tradition of story-telling. Do you think this shows a society in decline or one in metamorphosis?
JZ) I think that the written word and the spoken word will never die out, nor will storytelling, for even on television, people are telling live stories. There is obviously a danger that technology will foster more and more alienation and destroy communities. It has already happened. On the other hand, television and the internet have created new forms of communication. Perhaps the question should be rephrased. Perhaps we should ask whether we would be better off if more and more people controlled the mass media instead of corporate conglommerates. Without sounding corny, I think if technology served the people, instead of people serving technolgy, we would not have to worry about social decadence and decline. (Incidentally, fairy tales measure to what extend we are losing the struggle against alienation and exploitation.)
KB) Over the past half century, fairy tales have slowly been sanitised and even censored by "family values" zealots. If you look at fairy tales past, someone usually dies or gets baked in an oven or turned into butter or meets their end in some horrible way. What do you think of today's "politically correct" stories like Care Bears or that purple dinosaur?
JZ) Personally there is something perverse about Care Bears and the inane Barney. They are so sweet and clean and antiseptic that I want to throw up. On the other hand, I find a show like Mr. Rogers very compelling because he is gentle and kind and has a subtle sense of humor. So, for the very young, ages 1 - 6 or so, I do think we should take care about what stories we tell without overprotecting the children or censoring material. The sanitization process and political correctness can be very dangerous because they lead to censorship, police states, radical fundamentalism, etc. I have raised my own daughter on all sorts of stories without censorship, with curse words and violent scenes, where appropriate in the plot. Depending on the relationship a child has to the storyteller, and depending on the context, I think it is important that the child be able to listen to any story imaginable. In fact, the children imagine stories more gruesome and more violent than we can imagine. So it all boils down to honesty -- how honest is the story or storyteller. Fairy tales, the best of fairy tales, are very honest, never mince words, and challenge everyone's imagination. They should never be sanitized.
KB) Reading Joseph Campbell's "The Power Of Myth", I was struck by the similarities in the creation myths throughout vastly differing cultures and ages. Despite our differences, it seems we're all asking the same questions: where do we come from; and how do we keep doing it. In your experience, do non-religious based stories share these similarities? That is (barring cultural and environment differences) are people from Reykjavik telling the same stories as those from Johannesburg?
JZ) It is uncanny how similar tales -- let's focus on oral wonder tales or fairy tales -- are throughout the world. I am presently translating Sicilian fairy tales told in the 19th century, and they are remarkably similar to many French, German, and British tales that circulated about the same time, and the peasant women who told these marvelous tales would not have known of the French, German, and British versions. How has this come about? How did it come about? How does it still occur? Campbell would probably use Jung and the collective unconscious to explain their origin. However, I am very skeptical of Jung's theories, and Campbell's as well. I have recently been exploring Darwin, social Darwinism, sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology, and I am gradually coming to the conclusion that there are basic instincts in the human species that are the same throughout the world. The instincts and dispositions have evolved genetically and are articulated through mental and public representations in response to a civilizing process. Given that the instincts and dispositions that evolve genetically are the same but altered by the environment, we are bound to feel the world and respond to the world in very similar ways and to record our responses in similar but different ways. So, on the island of Sicily, there will be peasant women telling the same tale with some different twists that women on some Hawaiian island are telling at the same time. This is my take on the subject, and I am trying to sort out these ideas in a book that I am working on.
KB) Let's talk a bit about new fairy tales. Undeniably Vampires are a hot commodity. No longer, though, are they pitiable, doomed souls destined to live out eternity hiding their hideous faces from society; NO! today's Vampire is a hip, happenin' dude; a pop star to be envied and worshipped by young urban trendies. If Bram Stoker invented the "modern" vampire based on Victorian ideals of good (purity, holiness, celibacy, virtue) and evil (lust, physical pleasure, power, eroticism) then was it inevitable that Anne Rice's "post-modern" vampires - while representing the same attributes - should be considered heroes?
JZ) Actually, vampires, draculas, and ghosts play a negligible role on fairy tales. Strictly speaking, they form another type of genre -- ghost stories, horror stories, etc. They appear more often in legends than in fairy tales. It is only in contemporary times, with the rise of fantasy, which nobody has ever defined satisfactorily, to my mind, that you have writers mixing genres so that anything is possible in a fantasy work. Fantasy, of course, is a market definition. The vamp, witch, dracula, etc. have all been redefined by feminists and other subversive writers who want to question what the good religious and proper people have condemned as evil. The relativity of values is the central theme of many writers of fantasy. You see that especially in the writings of Angela Carter, who even promotes the Sadeian Woman. It is difficult to definite what evil is today. Is evil banal in the form of George Bush and thus much more dangerous than the axis of evil incarnated by the clearly sadistic and brutal Hussein? The traditional definitions and categories do not work in our postmodern world, and this sets writers dangerously free to concoct their worlds of good and evil. I say dangerously because the writer has a huge responsibility and if he/she has a large following or readership, the influence can be dangerous. However, what is more dangerous is the power of the mass corporations that control the distribution and reception of news, stories, etc. The mass corporations are, to my mind, the vamps of today.
KB) And speaking of new fairy tales: how did you first become aware of Neil Gaiman?
JZ) How does any professor become aware of the best writers??? Through their undergraduate students. I have often been inspired by my students' curiosity and reading passions. Whenever I teach a course on fairy tales and fantasy literature, I become engaged with my students, and we exchange ideas about different authors, their works, etc. Well, it must have been about ten years or so ago when a student tipped me off to Neil's graphic novels. Since then I have read many of Neil's works with relish.
KB) What do you think sets him apart from other writers of that genre?
JZ) It depends on what you mean by genre. Neil is obviously very versatile -- fairy tales, horror, gothic tales, science fiction, utopian literature. So, it is his versatility that strikes me and his willingness to experiment. Not all of his works are "successful," but he is a serious artist with a subtle sense of humour.
KB) Neil's work is somewhat deeper in scope and darker in tone than the "horror-lite" of Stephen King or Anne Rice. Are there any other writers you feel are looking beyond the "suburban goth" stereotype and drawing from, and building on, historical precedents?
JZ) To tell you the truth, I do not read in one particular genre. I read all over the place. Most of all I read theory and folk tales. For instance, right now I am working on three huge folk-tale projects that are connected to Sicily. At the same time I am reading books on social Darwinism, evolutionary psychology, and bio-poetics to try to develop a new theory of the folk tale (oral tales). So, I am not conversant with the latest developments in dark fantasy, though there are some works I have read for pleasure.
KB) You've written many academic works on fantasy and fairy tales, do you ever feel the urge to write a straight out, blockbuster work of "fantasy/horror" fiction?
JZ) I don't have an urge to write "blockbuster" fantasy or horror. But I have written several small pieces of fiction under a pseudonym, and I prefer to keep it that way. I have also written some fairy tales under my own name that have appeared in my book Creative Storytelling, and I have just completed several fairy tales which I shall either publish under a pseudonym or my own name. Not sure yet. Right now I am so excited about two Sicilian writers whose works I am translating that I push my own creative work aside. As I write this, however, I must put in a good word for translating. As you probably know, I have translated the Grimms, Perrault, Hesse, and a host of other writers (German, French, Italian). I take great pleasure out of the creative work of translating, especially because it is an act of sharing stories that are not accessible to English-speaking readers. I love to discover unusual writers and translate their works. In some cases, I have taken folk tales and adapted them to create my own. I shall probably continue writing and translating along these lines, crossing lines, mixing up lines, trying to produce stories with new lines.
KB) Perhaps we should have set the ground rules at the beginning: How does one define or distinguish a "Fairy Tale"? Is a moral or allegory necessary or can they simply be stories? Is it as simple as Wittgenstein makes it out: "But the fairy tale only invents what is not the case: it does not talk nonsense."?
JZ) The following is a passage from my book The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm (NY: Norton: 2002). It sums up my most recent position on what a fairy tale is or is not:
For the past three hundred years or more scholars and critics have sought to define and classify the oral folk tale and the literary fairy tale, as though they could be clearly distinguished from one another, and as though we could trace their origins to some primeval source. This is an impossible task because there are very few if any records with the exception of paintings, drawings, etchings, inscriptions and other cultural artefacts that reveal how tales were told and received thousands of years ago. In fact, even when written records came into existence, we have very little information about storytelling among the majority of people, except for bits and pieces that highly educated writers gathered and presented in their works. It is really not until the late 18th century and the early 19th century that scholars began studying and paying close attention to folk tales and fairy tales, and it was also at this time that the Brothers Grimm, and many others to follow, sought to establish national cultural identities by uncovering the “pure” tales of their so-called people, the folk, and their imagined nations.
From a contemporary perspective, the efforts of the Brothers Grimm – and the numerous efforts that they helped to inspire by Peter Christen Asbjornsen and Jorgen Moe, Norwegian Folktales (1841), George Stephens Swedish Folktales and Folk Stories (1844-49), Ludwig Bechstein German Fairy Tale Book (1845), Friedrich Wolf German Popular Tales and Legends (1845), Ignaz Vinzenz and Joseph Zingerle Children and Household Tales from Tyrol (1852), Aleksandr Afanasyev (Russian Fairy Tales, 1855-1863), Otto Sutermeister German and Household Tales (Switzerland, 1869), Vittorio Imbriani, Florentine Tales (1871), Giuseppe Pitré, Popular Sicilian Tales, Novellas, and Stories (1875), Jerome Curtin, Myths and Folk-Lore of Ireland (1890), and Joseph Jacobs, English Fairy Tales (1890) to name but a few – have led to a misconception about the nature of folk tales and fairy tales: there is no such thing as pure national folk tale or literary fairy tale, and neither genre, the oral folk tale and the literary fairy tale – if one can call them genres – is a “purebreed”; in fact, they are both very much mixed breeds, and it is in the very way that they “contaminated” one another historically through cross-cultural exchange that has produced fruitful and multiple versions of similar social and personal experiences.
Naturally, the oral folk tales that were told in many different ways thousands of years ago preceded the literary narratives, but we are not certain who told the tales, why, and how. We do know, however, that scribes began writing down different kinds of tales that reflected an occupation with rituals, historical anecdotes, customs, startling events, miraculous transformations, and religious beliefs. The recording of these various tales was extremely important because the writers preserved an oral tradition for future generations, and in the act of recording, they changed the tales to a greater or lesser degree, depending on what their purpose was in recording them. Albert Wesselski has clearly demonstrated in his Theorie des Märchens that the literary fairy tale has deep roots in the oral tradition and that it was shaped in the Christian era through the repeated transmission of tales that were written down and retold and mutually influenced one another. There is no evidence that a separate oral wonder tale tradition or literary fairy tale tradition existed in Europe before the Medieval period. But we do have evidence that people told all kinds of tales about gods, animals, catastrophes, wars, heroic deeds, rituals, customs, and simple daily incidents. What we call folk-tale or fairy-tale motifs are indeed ancient and appear in many pre-Christian epics, poems, myths, fables, histories, and religious narratives. However, the formation of the narrative structure that is common to the oral wonder tale and the literary fairy tale does not begin to take shape in Europe until some time during the early Medieval period. How this occurred, where it occurred, and exactly when it occurred – these are questions that are practically impossible to answer because the tales developed as a process largely through talk, conversations, and performances that caught the imagination of many different people and were gradually written down first in Latin and then in different vernacular languages, when they became more acceptable in the late Middle Ages. Clearly, the literary fairy tale developed as an appropriation of a particular oral storytelling tradition that gave birth to the wonder folk tale, often called the Zaubermärchen (magic tale) or the conte merveilleux (marvelous tale). As more and more wonder tales were written down from the 12th to the 15th centuries, they constituted the genre of the literary fairy tale, and writers began establishing its own conventions, motifs, topoi, characters, and plots, based to a large extent on those developed in the oral tradition but altered to address a reading public formed largely by the aristocracy and the middle classes. Though the peasants were excluded in the formation of this literary tradition, their material, tone, style, and beliefs were also incorporated into the new genre, and their experiences were recorded, albeit from the perspective of the literate scribe or writer. The wonder tales were always considered somewhat suspect by the ruling and educated classes. The threatening aspect of wondrous change, turning the world upside down, was something that ruling classes always tried to channel through codified celebrations like Carnival and religious holidays. Writers staked out political and property claims to wonder tales as they recorded and created them, and official cultural authorities sought to judge and control the new genre as it sought to legitimate itself.
It is extremely difficult to describe what the oral wonder tale was because our evidence is based on written documents. In Vladimir Propp's now famous study, The Morphology of the Folk Tale, he outlined thirty-one basic functions that constitute the formation of a paradigm, which was and still is common in Europe and North America. Though I have some reservations with Propp’s categories because he does not discuss the social function of the wonder tale or its diverse aspects, his structuralist approach can be helpful in understanding plot formation and the reasons why certain tales have become so memorable. By functions, Propp meant the fundamental and constant components of a tale that are the acts of a character and necessary for driving the action forward. The plot generally involves a protagonist who is confronted with an interdiction or prohibition which he or she violates in some way. Therefore, there is generally a departure or banishment and the protagonist is either given a task or assumes a task related to the interdiction of prohibition. The protagonist is as-signed a task, and the task is a sign. That is, his or her character will be stereotyped and marked by the task that is his or her sign. Names are rarely used in a folk tale. Characters function according to their social class or profession, and they often cross boundaries or transform themselves. Inevitably there will be a significant or signifying encounter. Depending on the situation, the protagonist will meet either enemies or friends. The antagonist often takes the form of a witch, monster, or evil fairy; the friend is a mysterious individual or creature, who gives the protagonist gifts. Sometimes there are three different animals or creatures who are helped by the protagonist and promise to repay him or her. Whatever the occasion, the protagonist somehow acquires gifts that are often magical agents, which bring about a miraculous or marvelous change or transformation. Soon after the protagonist, endowed with gifts, is tested and overcomes inimical forces. However, this is not the end because there is generally a peripety or sudden fall in the protagonist's fortunes that is only a temporary setback. A miracle or marvelous intervention is needed to reverse the wheel of fortune. Frequently, the protagonist makes use of endowed gifts (and this includes magical agents and cunning) to achieve his or her goal. The success of the protagonist usually leads to marriage; the acquisition of money; survival and wisdom; or any combination of the first three. Whatever the case may be, the protagonist is transformed in the end. The functions form a transformation.
The significance of the paradigmatic functions of the wonder tale is that they facilitate recall for teller and listeners. Over hundreds of years they have enabled people to store, remember, and reproduce the plot of the tale and to change it to fit their experiences and desires due to the easily identifiable characters who are associated with particular social classes, professions, and assignments. The characters, settings, and motifs are combined and varied according to specific functions to induce wonder and hope for change in the audience of listeners/readers, who are to marvel or admire the magical changes that occur in the course of events. It is this earthy, sensual, and secular sense of wonder and hope that distinguished the wonder tales from other oral tales as the legend, the fable, the anecdote, and the myth; it is clearly the sense of wonder that distinguishes the literary fairy tale from the moral story, novella, sentimental tale, and other modern short literary genres. Wonder causes astonishment, and as marvelous object or phenomenon, it is often regarded as a supernatural occurrence and can be an omen or portent. It gives rise to admiration, fear, awe, and reverence. In the oral wonder tale, we are to marvel about the workings of the universe where anything can happen at any time, and these fortunate and unfortunate events are never to be explained. Nor do the characters demand an explanation -- they are opportunistic and hopeful. They are encouraged to be so, and if they do not take advantage of the opportunity that will benefit them in their relations with others, they are either dumb or mean-spirited. The tales seek to awaken our regard for the miraculous condition of life and to evoke profound feelings of awe and respect for life as a miraculous process, which can be altered and changed to compensate for the lack of power, wealth, and pleasure that most people experience. Lack, deprivation, prohibition, and interdiction motivate people to look for signs of fulfillment and emancipation. In the wonder tales, those who are naive and simple are able to succeed because they are untainted and can recognize the wondrous signs. They have retained their belief in the miraculous condition of nature, revere nature in all its aspects. They have not been spoiled by conventionalism, power, or rationalism. In contrast to the humble characters, the villains are those who use words and power intentionally to exploit, control, transfix, incarcerate, and destroy for their benefit. They have no respect or consideration for nature and other human beings, and they actually seek to abuse magic by preventing change and causing everything to be transfixed according to their interests. The marvelous protagonist wants to keep the process of natural change flowing and indicates possibilities for overcoming the obstacles that prevent other characters or creatures from living in a peaceful and pleasurable way.
The focus on the marvelous and hope for change in the oral folk tale does not mean that all wonder tales, and later the literary fairy tales, served and serve a radical transforming purpose. The nature and meaning of folk tales have depended on the stage of development of a tribe, community, or society. Oral tales have served to stabilize, conserve, or challenge the common beliefs, laws, values, and norms of a group. The ideology expressed in wonder tales always stemmed from the position that the narrator assumed with regard to the relations and developments in his or her community, and the narrative plot and changes made in it depended on the sense of wonder, marvel, admiration, or awe that the narrator wanted to evoke. In other words, the sense of the miraculous in the tale and the intended emotion sought by the narrator is ideological.
Since these wonder tales have been with us for thousands of years and have undergone so many different changes in the oral tradition, it is difficult to determine the ideological intention of the narrator, and when we disregard the narrator's intention, it is often difficult to reconstruct (and/or deconstruct) the ideological meaning of a tale. In the last analysis, however, even if we cannot establish whether a wonder tale is ideologically conservative, radical, sexist, progressive, etc., it is the celebration of miraculous or fabulous transformation in the name of hope that accounts its major appeal. People have always wanted to improve and or change their personal status or have sought magical intervention on their behalf. The emergence of the literary fairy tale during the latter part of the Medieval period bears witness to the persistent human quest for an existence without oppression and constraints. It is a utopian quest that we continue to mark down or record through the metaphors of the fairy tale.
KB) Are we writing new Fairy Tales or are we re-hashing and re-inventing old ones (discounting, of course, those we hear every day coming from the White House, the Pentagon or CNN)?
JZ) No tale or fairy tale is ever new. We are always retelling and building on experience and wisdom to navigate our way through a world not of our making. What makes a fairy tale new is predicated on new insights in a complex world that baffles and frustrates us. Fairy tales provide us with the tools, aesthetic tools, to cope with a rapidly changing world. Because of its utopian potential, it can provide us metaphorically with the distance we need to contemplate our situation and then to act. However, sometimes the fairy tale (and fantasy literature in general) can become an escape, and we read to escape dreadful and uncomfortable situations. The best of fairy tales, however, provoke us to act and help us understand the lies and deceit that emanate from the White House and other dirty corners of the world.
KB) What's the last book you read for pleasure?
JZ) The last great book I read for pleasure was Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. It is a brilliant narrative about our dysfunctional society and dysfunctional families within our corroded society.
KB) Is there anything you like to read that may be considered a "guilty pleasure" - cheesy thrillers, romances... Anne Rice!?
JZ) Guilty pleasures -- hmmm, I don't feel too guilty when I read pornographic or erotic literature which I occasionally do. I'm more interested in enjoying the titillation or seduction or lure. Anne Rice's "Sleeping Beauty" did turn me on for a bit, but then, after a while, I got bored, but I never felt guilty. I felt let down when I no longer felt pleasure. But, to tell the truth, I feel let down also when I am reading a good non-erotic novel or story, and it breaks down.
KB) I'd like to close off the interview by thanking you very much for your well-written and very interesting answers. One last question: Can you suggest any books to those wanting to explore the realm of Fairy Tales further - for both novices and experts?
JZ) I enjoyed the dialogue. Made me think and rethink positions. Here is a longish bibliography that might be helpful to novices and experts. There are a lot of foreign language references. So I'll also send a second bibliography that I use in my feminist fairy tales course.
Long Bibliography | Short Bibliography
Neil Gaiman Interview