Tales of Wonder: Retelling Fairy Tales through Picture Postcards

By Jack Zipes. 2017. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 224 pages. ISBN: 978-1-5179-0259-9 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Jeana Jorgensen, Butler University

[Review length: 753 words • Review posted on March 6, 2019]


[Cover ofTales of Wonder: Retelling Fairy Tales through Picture Postcards]

In addition to being one of the foremost fairy-tale scholars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Jack Zipes is also a postcard collector, who for over fifty years has scoured antique markets around the world for fairy-tale themed postcards. This large, hardcover, beautiful book is the result of both his collecting skills and his analytical mind, and though it’s more picture-based than analytically focused, it is a delight to hold, page through, and look over.

Folklorists will understand the draw of ephemera and the intriguing relationships between narrative and visual culture, and between cultural context and transmission, that underpin this book. Postcards came into vogue in the 1860s, Zipes tells us while providing a brief history of them, and they flourished in different parts of the world at different times (the rise of fascism in Europe and the subsequent Second World War were obviously less productive times for this art form). While postcards depict a myriad of subjects, those that show moments from, or even illustrate by means of a series, fairy tales have been around since at least the 1890s, and they cover familiar territory such as the Grimms’ tales as well as tale material known better in Russia or the Netherlands. The book is structured with a foreword by Marina Warner, an introduction providing historical context, a section on representations of storytelling in early postcards, and a series of sections detailing classic tales (from the Grimms and elsewhere), as well as regionally themed and literary postcards. A few sections focused on fairy-tale art and photographic series follow, along with an epilogue and bibliography.

Aside from the stunning visuals (over 500 postcards from Zipes’s personal collection appear in the book) fairy-tale scholars may or may not find much that is totally new to them. For instance, alongside the postcards illustrating classical tales, Zipes provides a well-known text or two in full. Thus for “Cinderella” Zipes provides versions of the tale from Charles Perrault and from the Grimms (the 1857 edition to be specific). These texts are not particularly novel, and yet Zipes’s insightful framing is always useful. Noticing which postcards illustrating “Little Red Riding Hood” Zipes selected, for instance, is made all the more significant when readers know of his impressive work on the history and meaning of the tale type as a story of sexual assault. Zipes notes that many of the depictions of this tale type “tend to be comical and make a mockery of the classical tales”; however, it is clear “that the popularity of the tale is still great, and this notoriety may be due to the endless problems that young women may have in fending off rapacious males” (14).

Further, Zipes provides a few lesser-known tale texts, such as when he pairs the Grimms’ version of “The Children of Hamelin” (better known as “The Pied Piper”) with Robert Browning’s 1842 prose poem “The Pied Piper of Hamelin: A Child’s Story,” with which I was unfamiliar, and which was certainly a delectable variant. I also learned more about the dubious publication history of “Rip Van Winkle,” as folktale-adjacent texts were included in the book so long as they had influenced postcard production. I imagine that an art historian or visual artist would get even more out of the myriad of images assembled here, with a variety of techniques and styles represented. For all that many of the images are highly contextual, they are also—like many instances of folklore— border-crossing at heart, for as Zipes writes: “They actually deny nationalistic tendencies because the images on the cards are from other worlds and unknown countries. They animate us to see the tales anew, and through their pictures, we understand how storytelling vitalizes our lives and provides a bit of hope that our lives might end happily, as most fairy tales do” (xxi).

This is a hefty book, certainly worthy of display in one’s office or on one’s coffee table. In stark contrast to the flimsy pieces of paper to which it is dedicated, the book musters not only a heavy physical presence but also a weighty countenance, as the first book-length collection of fairy-tale postcards. It is less a scholarly tome than a beautiful tribute to the art form, but there is still plenty to learn from in these pages. Zipes invites readers to explore the same enchantment he has felt captivated by in these postcards, and, true to their mission, it is hard not to get caught up in the enthusiasm they have generated for over a century.

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