Enchanted Ideologies: A Collection of Rediscovered Nineteenth-Century Moral Fairy Tales

Edited by Marilyn Pemberton. 2010. Lambertville, NJ: True Bill Press. 307 pages. ISBN: 978-0-9791116-5-5 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Jeana Jorgensen, Butler University

[Review length: 870 words • Review posted on November 4, 2011]


Enchanted Ideologies is an important book for those who study the literary fairy tale, the links between oral, popular, and elite cultures, or gender ideologies of the nineteenth century. The editor is clearly well-versed in the historical and literary details of England (and Europe more generally) in the 1800s, and she also displays competence in dealing with the folkloristic aspects of these fairy-tale texts, leading to a fascinating and worthwhile read.

In the introduction, Pemberton gives an overview of the political and theoretical underpinnings of family and society in the nineteenth century, covering important topics such as industrialization, the rise of the middle class in England, and the equation of the family’s welfare with the state’s welfare. Pemberton pays special attention to the institutions of family and education, for their roles in inculcating values at the level of the developing individual. She calls these institutions “vital” for their part in “reflecting new forms of approved conduct required by new circumstances. This is particularly so during periods, such as Western society during the nineteenth century, when social change, underpinned by economic transformation, is so dramatic” (10). Pemberton especially dwells on the conditioning of gender roles, describing the multiple forces affecting women’s marriageability and happiness. Manuals and magazines for young women were particularly prevalent during this time period, and provided one of the publishing outlets for the types of fairy tales printed here.

The twenty tales collected in this volume vary in length, but share many similar themes: admonishments to be selfless, warnings that greed brings only ill, and examples of ideal feminine behavior. Various common folkloric motifs are present, ranging from magic wishes and fairies to cruel punishments worthy of Bluebeard’s murders or King Thrushbeard’s humiliation of his proud spouse (ATU 312 and ATU 900, though none of the tales in this volume are direct retellings). Interestingly, material from legends makes an appearance here: one tale, “Magnus and Morna: A Shetland Fairy Tale,” is a part-prose, part-operatic retelling of the migratory legend classified as type 4080 by Reidar Christiansen. Another tale, “The Dwarfs’ Hill,” includes an episode of type 5085, wherein a human couple struggles with the presence of a changeling.

A number of tales begin with a female protagonist who is altogether too proud, too greedy, too vain, or some combination of these traits, which in the narratives are criticized and weeded out. Enchantment plays a specific social role in the narratives of this time period: “Magic, as used by such writers, was not used so much to fire the child’s imagination but rather to be the instrument of transformation from bad to good, from damned to redeemed” (27). Thus, magic figures exist in these tales less to punish the bad (though there’s a fair bit of that) than to reform the imperfect. Vapid princesses are isolated on islands to learn that being amiable is more important than being beautiful (“Aglaë: A Fairy Tale”); defiant ladies are lectured by fairy apparitions about the proper obligations of marriage (“Lady Sybil Fancourt; Or, a Summer Day’s Fairy Dream”); and vain princesses are driven mad by hearing what their subjects actually think about them (both “Zerinda: A Fairy Tale” and “Princess Gloriana”). The emphasis is usually on reforming the errant women, though some tales feature thoughtless boys who must be taught better, as in “Humpty-Dumpty,” where a sullen boy who wishes for better and better circumstances finally learns to accept his humble life. This tale, reminiscent of ATU type 555 (“The Fisherman and His Wife”), incorporates enough elements of the plot to remind the reader of it, but whether there is a genealogical link between the folktale version and this particular literary version is unknown, as Pemberton only passingly mentions the ATU system.

Other ideas from folkloristic research appear more prominently in Pemberton’s framing of the texts. She mentions the influence of Romanticism on folktale collection, citing the Grimms as a primary example, to situate the popularity of folk narrative genres among readers. She also incorporates much of Jack Zipes’ research on the social functions of fairy tales—most importantly, their civilizing function—when discussing the relevance of fairy tales in the literary marketplace. While I thought Pemberton’s introduction would have benefited from mention of the work of feminist fairy-tale scholars, I was intrigued by the historical developments in feminism that she traced, citing primary works on the role of women in the home and society.

I would have liked to see more analysis of the tales, but as Pemberton’s primary stated purpose was to make available previously unknown texts from the nineteenth century, the book has clearly met its goal. At the end of the introduction, the author presents a chart listing information from the tales’ contexts (such as publication date, venue, and sex of author) and content (such as main themes, tropes, and sex of protagonist). It would have been nice to see some simple statistics based on this data, used in tandem with close reading and interpretive tools to provide a more detailed picture of the socioeconomic workings of the tales. But as a collection of formerly passed over tales, this is a very lovely book.

This research was supported by European Social Fund’s Doctoral Studies and Internationalisation Programme DoRa.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.