Category: Narrative/Verbal Art — Folk/Fairy Tale

Magic Tales and Fairy Tale Magic: From Ancient Egypt to the Italian Renaissance (Palgrave Historical Studies in Witchcraft and Magic)

By Ruth B. Bottigheimer. 2014. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 224 pages. ISBN: 9781137380876 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Jeana Jorgensen, Butler University

[Review length: 1068 words • Review posted on October 24, 2017]


[Cover ofMagic Tales and Fairy Tale Magic: From Ancient Egypt to the Italian Renaissance]

The role of magic and the supernatural within narrative genres remains a pertinent topic to folklorists, and thus Ruth Bottigheimer’s meticulously researched Magic Tales and Fairy Tale Magic is an important contribution to the field. As is often the case with Bottigheimer’s work, I have some terminological and theoretical disagreements, but her research is sound enough to serve as a vaulting point into future discussions of the material.

After the introduction (to which I shall return) Bottigheimer guides readers through the forms that magic takes in premodern folk and literary narratives in chapters 2 through 6, before advancing her arguments about Straparola and the early modern evolution of the fairy tale in chapters 7 and 8. Among the materials Bottigheimer covers in early chapters are: the ancient Egyptian tale “The Two Brothers” and a Ptolemaic tale involving the brewing of magical book beer; magic tales from various Greek and Roman sources (including Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Apuleius’s The Golden Ass); Jewish biblical and medieval tales; medieval European tales (from romances, exemplary tales, novellas, and Marian legends, through the Dolopathos collection and Asinarius); the Thousand and One Nights and its antecedents and relatives in the medieval Muslim world; and the courtly narratives the Lai of Lanval and Liombruno. These chapters are full of rich historical and textual data, and I especially recommend them to scholars looking for an overview of the appearance of magic in these texts. Bottigheimer’s scrupulous rendering of print history is spot on and illuminating as always; when I quibble with her conclusions, it’s largely a matter of interpretation, not thoroughness.

Bottigheimer’s overall argument is that in these early texts, magic tales in the ancient and medieval world show magic as an effect of supernatural and/or suprahuman powers that impact humans in ways that underline the lack of human agency in such affairs, unless to attempt to gain favor through piety. Actual magic practices have been documented in all these eras to varying degrees, and narrative traditions certainly engage with them, but Bottigheimer argues that the type of magic we recognize in early modern and modern fairy tales is unique for granting humans an unprecedented amount of access to magically mediated happy endings brought by beneficent helper figures.

Bottigheimer’s attention to her chosen texts is detailed and bound to be of interest to scholars working on them, whether for research or teaching purposes. I find her attention to issues of gender and sexuality especially laudable, as she does not shy away from discussing the power dynamics of, for instance, incest or rape by deity. Other useful portions of the book include Bottigheimer’s distinction between learned magic, popular magic practice, and perceived magic, “in the particular sense of what the stories’ characters and sometimes the stories’ authors perceive to break natural law or exist above natural law and therefore to belong to the realm of what they understand as the supernatural” (7). Throughout the book, Bottigheimer sprinkles fascinating textual tidbits that even folk narrative scholars might not have encountered elsewhere, such as the thirteenth-century Jewish tale about a ravenous scorpion in a box that rewards its owner with knowledge of the languages of all the creatures in the world (58-59), as well as the presence of a “devouring lion-shaped automaton” and a “sword-wielding human-shaped automaton” (116) in a manuscript titled Hundred and One Nights dating from circa 1235 that was only recently discovered and introduced to the scholarly world.

However, starting in the introduction, Bottigheimer picks a bone with folklorists without appearing to actually do so. As with her recent work, Bottigheimer advances a distinction between fairy tales proper and fairyland fictions, which she defines as generally and generically complex, “which means that they are structurally and syntactically complex, lengthy, and stylistically rich…often existentially doubled, with a fairy world paralleling the human world, into and out of which both fairies and humans move” (7). In writing off fairyland fictions as not the book’s subject, Bottigheimer conveniently ignores a large body of work that many scholars consider contiguous with the fairy-tale genre and worthy of analysis in the same context as fairy tales that are more typically compact (like those of Charles Perrault and the Grimms). Bottigheimer also clings to her distinction between rise tales and restoration tales and her argument that tales with poor protagonists rising to fortune and comfort simply did not exist until Straparola’s day.

However, I remain unconvinced that the distinctions between fairy tales and fairyland fictions, and between magic tales and fairy tales, are as clear-cut in terms of genre or historical evolution as Bottigheimer makes them out to be. For one thing, if the incorporation of non-backstoried benevolent magical figures over time is the result of larger social, economic, and religious changes, how to explain the Chinese version of ATU 510A, “Yeh-hsien,” that Bottigheimer ignores in this book, or the arguments of Vladimir Propp, among others, that donor figures are and always have been part of the protagonist’s backstory? And given that Bottigheimer argues that fairy tales grew out of Straparola’s innovations upon the Italian novellas which relied on verisimilitude, what are we to make of those later fairy-tale versions that are sparse on magic? For instance, the version of ATU 510B in Thomas Frederick Crane’s Italian Popular Tales (1885), “Fair Maria Wood,” contains very little magic at all, similar to how Straparola’s version, “Tebaldo,” has little magic apart from a potion that keeps the heroine in good health while she is stowed away in a wooden chest. Bottigheimer acknowledges, of course, that “magic can move into or out of a narrative over time and from place to place” (170), but she bases her major argument in this book on the notion that magical creep can distinguish one genre from another. So what does it mean that there are later tales with less magic or no magic? Are those no longer fairy tales, or once magic has crept into a genre, is it considered a unidirectional evolution?

The fact that I am left with more questions than answers after reading this book is partly a result of the ambitious arguments Bottigheimer is trying to advance, and partly a result of the inherently mysterious nature of many of these historical texts. We may never ultimately know the relationship between magic, belief, and narrative genre in many of these cases, but Bottigheimer’s book is well worth reading for scholars intrigued by such issues.

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