Friday, March 6, 2015

The Superheroes of Fairy Tale Writing!

Look what I got in the mail!
Yeah, I know some of you are jealous.

It’s always nice to get a new book of folk and fairy tales.  It’s also nice when much of the world gets excited about the book, too.  Sadly, I’ll have to wait to read this one because I’ve accumulated quite a number of unread books that I’m going to have to read first.

Also, though I am excited to read this book, I do have one teensy problem with the blurb on the back.  What problem?  Well, it’s the first sentence, really.  Here’s what it says:

“With this volume, the holy trinity of fairy tales- the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Hans Christian Andersen- becomes a quartet.”

First of all, I think it might be a bit presumptuous to add Franz Xaver Von Schonwerth to a list of the biggest names in fairy tale writing.  The man’s work has just been rediscovered.  He hasn’t made his reputation yet.  Heck, I myself haven’t even read the book.  Secondly, I’m a bit put off by the fact that there’s a “holy trinity” of fairy tale writers in the first place.  I could question the choices for who’s in this “trinity”.  I mean, Charles Perrault is hardly a well-known name outside of literary and folklore circles.  Sometimes I think the only reason people know the name Hans Christian Andersen is because it was the title of a Danny Kaye movie.  Though, I suppose it’s the popularity of certain stories and concepts that puts these on the list.  Perrault’s “Cinderella” and “Puss in Boots” are both fairy tale standards.  For Andersen, stories like “The Ugly Duckling” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes” have become recognized worldwide.  I won’t even bother making the argument for the Grimms.  It doesn’t need to be done.  However, I think my biggest problem is that there is just a trinity.  With all the writers and folklorists who went out there to collect stories and make the fairy tale universe bigger for us, people only acknowledge these three.

I suppose that just like comic book superhero fans, people who write about fairy tales get a little bit hung up on the idea of a “big three”.  It’s Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman for DC Comics’ Justice League.  It’s Captain America, Iron Man and Thor for Marvel Comics’ Avengers.  So, it’s Grimm, Perrault and Andersen for the world of fairy tales.

However, what if we expanded their number?  What if we made it a “big seven” instead.  I mean, it’s a perfectly suitable number.  The number seven is a symbolic number in both folklore and myth.  That’s why I use it for my “top seven” posts.  Also, it works with the metaphor I’ve got going here because the Justice League and the Avengers commonly have seven member rosters (despite the movie Avengers only having six, not counting Nick Fury).

So, we’ll assume that the list goes like this for now:

1)      Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

2)      Charles Perrault

3)      Hans Christian Andersen

4)      Franz Xaver von Schonwerth

We’ll be charitable and include Schonwerth until I’ve read the book and decide otherwise.  That leaves us with three open slots.  Here are my candidates:

5)      Joseph Jacobs- Jacobs is sort of the Grimm of England and sort of isn’t.  What I mean is that, while he did follow the Grimms’ example in creating a book of fairy tales, he actually chose to follow their later example after their books started to gain popular acclaim.  Instead of creating a scholarly work for folklorists to read and argue over, he set out to create a commercial work that was meant to entertain children.  Sometimes I wonder if this was what keeps him off of people’s lists.  Jacobs was actually an Australian writer who was moved by the same nationalistic pride as the Grimms (Australia still being part of the English disapora at the time).  One interesting thing to note is that in addition to seeking out oral sources, Jacobs also took stories from the English chapbook tradition, which was an interesting route to take.  He also was ultra-inclusive, taking stories from all over the English speaking world in such places as Scotland and as far away as his homeland of Australia.  Prior to this, many people claimed that England had no fairy tales.  Instead of accepting this supposed limitation, he widened the playing field.  However, it’s the stories that are in his book English Fairy Tales that speak for his placement on this list.  They include “Jack and the Beanstalk”, “The Story of the Three Little Pigs”, The Story of the Three Bears” (which he gives full credit to Robert Southey for writing first, classy fellow that he is), “Jack the Giant-Killer” and “The History of Tom Thumb”.  You would not believe how many people out there seem to believe these are Grimm stories.  It’s hard to imagine the world of popular fairy tales without these stories, yet the world has forgotten the name of the man who wrote them down.  Other fairy tale books he wrote include Celtic Fairy Tales, More Celtic Fairy Tales, More English Fairy Tales, Indian Fairy Tales and European Folk and Fairy Tales.  On a personal note, there’s one reason why Jacobs has to make my personal list.  I just thought English Fairy Tales was way too much fun!  It’s one of the few fairy tale books that I found to be fun from beginning to end with few dull stories if any (well “Whittington and his Cat” might be the exception).  Sometimes, that’s all you need.

6)      Peter Christen Asbornsen and Jorgen Moe- Here we have another duo act, like the Brothers Grimm (or Batman and Robin).  Peter Christen Asbjornsen and Jorgen Engebretsen Moe were a teacher and a minister who came together to write the definitive collection of Norwegian folk tales, Norske Folkeeventyr.  The publication of their book, like the Grimms’ book, was fueled in large part by some degree of nationalistic zeal.  The country of Norway had just gained partial independence from the Swedes and the Danes.  In Norway, Asbjornsen and Moe are as associated with the concept of fairy tales as the Grimms are in other countries.  Now you say, “That’s great, but why does this matter to those of us who aren’t in Norway?”  Well, okay, so maybe the majority of their tales have not become household names.  Their collections are full of great tales, but many of them just didn’t become well-known except to fairy tale fans.  However, one little tale has become a household name and in a way it has added something big to the fairy tale landscape.  That story is “The Three Billy Goats Gruff”.  With this little story about three goats crossing a bridge, they’ve added one more monster to the fairy tale creature bestiary alongside the witch, giant, ogre, dragon and big bad wolf.  That creature is the troll.  It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but can you imagine the world of the European fairy tales without the troll?  It’s become such a well-known concept that it’s become a slang term for rude people on the internet.  The great thing about all this is that it’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Open their book and suddenly you see trolls of all shapes and sizes.  Heck, the illustrations in their book even inspired the movie Troll Hunter.  So, one little thing from a fantastic book has impacted how much of the world (or at least much of the USA) sees European fairy tales.

7)      Alexander Afanasyev- To the outside world, Afanasyev may seem a more unusual choice than even the two I’ve already chosen.  After all, the canon of well-known European fairy tales rarely if ever extends to the more Central European Slavic countries, let alone all the way to Russia.  However, every super team line-up usually has at least one character that is a little more obscure but is still great in his or her own way.  As a scholar and folklorist who published nearly 600 Russian folk tales, it’s hard to argue with Afansyev’s greatness.  Afansyev was a scholar of the Mythological school, who viewed folk tales as echoes of a distant mythological past.  In the 1850s, Afansyev was asked by the Russian Geographic Society to edit and publish the large collection of folk stories they had accumulated.  This was the beginning of his collection.  Afansyev’s tales may not be household names.  They may have never inspired any Hollywood animated movies.  But to those in the know, these tales are loved and respected.  His collection introduced the world to Baba Yaga, and I have yet to meet a fairy tale geek who does not love or at least know Baba Yaga.  His stories influenced the narrative trappings of The Fairy Tale Lobby.  Afansyev’s tales have inspired the musical works of Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky.  So, Afansyev is my choice in the lineup for the hardcore fairy tale fans.  Sadly, Afansyev died at the age of 45 penniless in Moscow.  It’s nice to know his work was remembered, though.

So, there you have it.  My line-up of fairy tale writing superheroes.  A group dedicated to bringing truth, justice and folklore to all mankind!  Keep in mind, my lineup may differ from yours.  There are any number of other fairy tale writers who you might think deserve a spot on the “big seven”.  Heck, I’m reading The Pentamerone right now and Giambatista Basile is seriously growing on me.

So, let’s have it.  In the comments section, let me know what your lineup would be for your own personal Fairy Tale League of Super-Writers!


  1. I would definitely include Basile and Straparola in the League of Extraordinary Fairy Godfathers. I like your choices too. But you got me thinking, it'd be cool to find out who people's modern day fairy tale heroes are. To that, I'd answer (just for starters): Kate Bernheimer, Jack Zipes, Marina Warner, Maria Tatar, Ruth Bottigheimer, and so many others.

    1. Actually, my modern day fairy tale list would almost entirely consist of the other fairy tale bloggers I read. I find I read very few scholarly works on folk and fairy tales, choosing instead books of the tales themselves. Most of the differing viewpoints on the tales I pick up on come from the various people I've met around the internet.

    2. Right you are. Can't believe I didn't even think of that. The Sur La Lune site was the first I found, and it's a mind-bogglingly awesome resource. I only recently found this blog because I saw it recommended by Once Upon a Blog. I'm in awe of the extensive work done by fairy tale bloggers. I'd be much less knowledgable - and a lot less entertained! - without them.

  2. What a great list of Seven Magical Collectors! I was thinking about what my list would be, and it's very close to yours. Afanasyev was the one who came to mind first when you mentioned expanding the list, so I was very glad to see him. Your choice of Jacobs then trumped my second thought of Andrew Lang, who was more of second layer collector, collecting from others' collections and somehow rounding up the great illustrators to spark up the pages. I wanted to add Scheherazade, though I don't know if persons with no proper birth certificate are allowed, and a modern favorite collector team, Barbara and Warren Walker who collected Turkish folk and fairy tales for the last 30 years of the last century and published several astonishing anthologies. I'm removing Andersen, who seems more literary than folk to me and adding in Inea Bushnaq. Also, as excited as I am about von Schoenwerth (my copy just arrived in today's mail), I might be tempted to hold out for half a century or so before declaring him the new golden boy.
    But, now I've lost count by and, as in your case, others keep coming to mind whom I don't want to leave out.

    1. Okay, so your list seems to be 1) Grimm, 2) Perrault, 3)Afanasyev, 4)Jacobs, 5) Walker, 6) Bushnaq and 7)Scheherezade. :)

      Andrew Lang is one of those subjects I've planning to get to. I'll probably come up with something next week, since I'm on the subject of "writers". I read The Blue Fairy Book more than a year ago and thought it was kind of something of an odd little book. I still haven't commented on it, because I haven't had the right moment. I think that moment might be here, though.

  3. Awesome post!
    Yes, yes and yes to your additions, though I too, wouldn't be putting Schonwerth on the list just yet either. Perhaps the list is for American influence? If in Europe there's no way you could leave off Afanasyev and A&M or the UK Joseph Jacobs and Lang.
    Love your superhero analogy - especially as many collectors/writers were working against the odds or being rebellious for what they believed was a 'greater good' (ie that a society can't function healthily if it loses/forgets their fairy tales.
    My list would be:
    1) Grimms
    2) Lang (his color books can't be beat for an eclectic multicultural collection of tales and I just noticed this week: of the tales in his Blue Book, almost all of those are still in circulation in some form - either popular or performing arts/works/advertising etc - it's really interesting..)
    3) Andersen (especially since he drew from tales he heard as a child, and somehow they've lasted, despite their extreme didactic, no, "preachy" tone - everywhere)
    4) Afanasyev (seriously amazing contribution!)
    5) Ab&Moe (they might really have been Batman and Robin - collecting tales in the regions they did! Plus - so very memorable)
    6) Joseph Jacobs (I can't ascribe a particular cape - definitely super powered though)
    NOTE: I don't know which order to put Afanasyev, A&M & JJ in, frankly. Not even in a personal list. Equal love for all.
    7) Basile
    8) Straparola
    9) Madame d'Aulnoy
    (not just for the tales but also for her influence on fairy tales and storytelling in general)
    10) Perrault (because the list does feel incomplete without him and his Mother Goose Tales)
    Yeah - I have 10. My list isn't so holy but it feels more complete to me personally. ;)
    PS I really wanted to put the Aarne-Thompson duo on there too but they don't really fit the definition.

    1. I'm glad you and Amy-Elize both like my analogy. After all, part of the mission statement of Fairy Tale Fandom was to tackle fairy tales from a pop cultrure (or rather, geek culture) POV. Heck, look at my background. My intention was to make it look like a combination of storybook illustrations and comic book panels.

      I have another analogy in mind to refer to Andrew Lang's unique contribution to the fairy tale world, so keep an eye out for that.

  4. I am jealous haha, pretty excited to get this book! It will take me awhile to read it as well, though. Love your idea of fairy tale collector superheroes, and I definitely agree there should be more than 4. I second the comments that add Basile and Lang to the list, and agree with Afanasyev. Where would the world be without Baba Yaga?!

  5. The Beauty and the Beast fan in me wants to add Madames de Villeneuve/Beaumont to the list, but I'm torn; they're only famous for the one tale, so they don't qualify as collectors. But it's one of the most famous and beloved tales so I feel like it needs to be represented!

  6. One of the most wonderful collections ever -- Beautiful Angiola: The Lost Sicilian Folk and Fairy Tales of Laura Gonzenbach -- there are actually two volumes to this -- the second is The Robber with the Witches Head. Gonzenback collected these amazing stories mostly from women in the 1870s. They are simply, the best.

    1. You're the first person I've ever heard mention her. I've written her name down to seek her out. It's not the only new name I've encountered. One of my Facebook followers who seems to have trouble posting comments on the blog recommended Wilhelm Hauff who I also have never heard of. By the time I'm done with this post, I may have added far too many books to my kindle.