Thursday, September 7, 2017

Fairy Tale Fandom Book Report: The Sorcerer's Apprentice.

Okay, so this one might be more confession than review, but stick with me.

First, there are some things you should know about me and if you’ve been following me on this blog or on Twitter, you’ve probably had some inkling of for a while.  First of all, I am not a professional critic.  Second, I’m also not really a “fairy tale scholar”.  When people have called me such online, I’ve generally rejected it and replied that I’m “just a fan”.  This is for a variety of reasons.  Lastly, I’m not particularly fond of reading the works of people who are considered fairy tale scholars.  I’m really more of a fiction reader.  Also, when I have tried to read the works of scholars, I felt like they were trying to tell me what to think about a story when I’d rather read the story myself and come to my own conclusions.  I’ve tried, but I’ve never really enjoyed reading them.  Really, I’m just a guy with a library school degree, a pastime telling stories, a lot of opinions and a platform on which to express them.  Just thought you should keep these things in mind as you read forward.

So, a few months ago, I get contacted by a PR person at Princeton University Press asking me if I want to read and review the new book by Jack Zipes: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  Now, at first glance this book doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that I would go for.  For one, it’s by Jack Zipes.  I’ve already said I don’t care much for reading scholarly works.  But also because Zipes has become the face of the scholarly, anti-Hollywood view of fairy tales.  If you have “OMG!  Disney!” on one side, then you have Zipes on the other.  And though I haven’t brought it up much, I have just as much of an issue with the anti-Disney contingent as I do with the Mouse itself.  Mainly in the sense that Hollywood is what’s been keeping many of these tales alive and that whether we like it or not, a Hollywood movie getting adapted from a story is often a mark of a story or property gaining legitimacy in our current culture.  The other issue is that it was a collection based around stories of a certain tale type, and I usually don’t read those.  Most of the collections I read are regional (Japanese Tales, Folk Tales of the British Isles, Latin American Folktales, etc).

But still, this was Princeton University Press!   Most of the people who actually ask me to review books for them are either small publishers or people who self-publish.  Some stuff, like the stuff made by World Weaver Press, isn’t bad.  But so much other stuff is.  I’ve read so many stories where people think “fairy tale” just means throwing any fantasy concept in there or that it’s an excuse to write stories about cotillions and petticoats.  But Princeton University Press felt like something major and serious.  It felt like I had hit the big time.  So, I agreed to it.  Should I have?  I’m not sure.
The book starts off with a piece by Zipes.  He lays out that the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” concept is split into two different concepts.  There’s the “Humiliated Apprentice” as immortalized in Goethe’s poem, Paul Dukas’s music and a certain Fantasia short.  The other is the “Rebellious Apprentice” in which a boy goes to learn from a sorcerer and rebels against him leading to a situation in which the sorcerer and his apprentice chase each other while changing forms (note: I have encountered this type of story before in the form of a Yiddish folk tale and have even told it.  Though, I can’t say I love the tale).  The overarching idea that Zipes brings up is that the stories represent a “master/slave dialectic”.  The idea being that apprentice work was pretty much equivalent to slavery centuries ago.  To Zipes, the “Humiliated Apprentice” story represents a type of story meant to keep slaves down and depict rebelling against slavery as bad.  The “Rebellious Apprentice” stories represent stories of a clever slave rebelling against his master and gaining a higher position.  To be honest though, I’m not sure how much I buy all that.  For one thing, it just seems much more likely and reasonable to me that the “Humiliated Apprentice” is more likely a story warning against hubris.  The apprentice isn’t a slave rebelling against his master.  He’s a little kid who thinks he can drive a car because he saw his dad do it and proceeds to get into a car wreck.  As for the “Rebellious Apprentice” stories, while it makes a little more sense for it to be a master/slave thing, I just kind of wonder why so many of these stories bother with the apprenticeship stuff at all.  A good number of these stories involve the character studying the sorcerer’s books while he’s not around.  Why not just make it a slave who studies the books and then rebels using magic?  This makes me think that maybe the tutelage aspect is a lot more important than Zipes is giving it credit for.  Zipes talks about some other things.  He touches on the subject of childism, which is prejudice against children.  He gets in a couple digs at Disney, as he usually does.  He even talks about the Harry Potter franchise and I’ll be honest, I’m not sure whether he likes it or not.  He seems impressed at some points, but calls it banal at another.  If anyone else has read this book and gets what he was going for, more power to you.  But now this brings us to the tales themselves.

The book is separated into two parts, “Humiliated Apprentice Tales” and “Rebellious Apprentice Tales”.  From there, each part is separated into sections by time period: “Early Tales”, “19th Century Tales”, “20th Century Tales” and the like.  It’s pretty much what you’d expect.  All the tales fit the archetype the book is focused on.  I’m going to be honest with you, though.  I started to lose interest in the stories after a while.  Though there were differences between them, I started to feel like I was still just reading the same story over and over and over again.  Some did deviate a fair bit and those were a pleasant surprise.  For example, there’s an E. Nesbit story in there that I really like (I should really read more of her stuff).  Such tales are few and far between, though.  I should note that I was also getting burnt out on fairy tales at the time too, so that could be it.

I didn’t even finish the book yet.  If you look at the picture below, you’ll see I got very close to the end but didn’t quite finish and it took me a good long while too.  I’m posting this now because I was afraid it would take me a whole year to get through that last little bit.
But here’s the thing with this book and I want everyone to pay extra attention to this next paragraph before getting angry at me in the comments.

From as objective a standpoint as I can manage, there is nothing wrong with this book.  It is not a bad book.  It does not have any serious problems or red flags.  All the chosen stories are appropriate to the topic of the book.  Jack Zipes’s analysis is pretty much what you’d expect from Jack Zipes.  It’s organized well.  The thing is that it’s just not the kind of book I like.  That doesn’t make it bad.  We all have tastes and we all have opinions.  If you like Jack Zipes and you like anthologies that focus on one specific tale type, you will probably like this book. 

And now that that’s out there, I’m not sure when I’ll post again.  I’m thinking about taking a hiatus from Fairy Tale Fandom (though, I’ll still post occasionally on my other blog Universes Beckon).  I’m still a bit burned out on fairy tales.  Also, I think I’ve hit a bit of a wall in terms of what to do with this blog.  So, I've got some things to think about.



  1. First of all, even though the only version of Sorcerer's Apprentice I'm familiar with is the Disney, I never thought of it as slave verses master either-but fitting in to the large category of stories that cautions against getting in too deep with forces you're not in control over. But maybe that's more of a modern notion?

    And thank you for your honesty! I will miss your posts but totally understand. Even though I love fairy tales it's hard to keep up regular posting and not eventually view it as more of a chore. Some time off might bring back that spark.

    And although I do enjoy a book full of versions of the same tale I would also be exhausted reading most of them cover to cover! I usually read a few tales here and there, or look through to compare and contrast a certain element of the tale.

    Good luck to you-

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