Fairy Tales: A New History

By Ruth B. Bottigheimer. 2009. Albany: State University of New York Press. 128 pages. ISBN: 978-1-4384-2523-8 (hard cover), 978-1-4384-2524-5 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Donald Haase, Wayne State University

[Review length: 2232 words • Review posted on September 21, 2011]

In his address on the Arabian Nights at the 2010 Meeting of the American Folklore Society, where the theme was “Lay and Expert Knowledge,” Ulrich Marzolph emphasized the scholar’s responsibility to claim authority and to embrace the role of expert, thereby serving as the voice that eschews oversimplification and takes responsibility for documenting complexity. Marzolph recognized that efforts to communicate nuanced specialized knowledge to a broader public can easily be dismissed with responses like: “Who wants to know what scholars think about fairy tales?” “Who cares?” Marzolph’s reflections on scholarly expertise prompt us to ask ourselves how experts can communicate their work to so-called general readers when complexity is perceived as annoying.

One strategy would be to abandon complexity altogether. Such is the case with Fairy Tales: A New History, which truncates the history of the fairy tale to the point that it abdicates its claim to being a history at all. The book was issued under the Excelsior Editions imprint of the State University Press of New York, which—the publisher’s website tells us—“aims to enrich the cultural lives and historical understanding of all New Yorkers . . . [but whose books] will appeal to general readers across the country and around the world.”[1] Indeed, the volume must have been written for “general readers” since it could not have been written for an audience who knows anything about the complex and richly populated history of the fairy tale, or who is aware of the course of fairy-tale scholarship over the last forty years. When read from inside fairy-tale scholarship—that is, when read from an expert’s perspective—Fairy Tales: A New History says little that is actually new. Moreover, this history of a genre discusses tales by a mere eleven authors (151-52), all from before 1857 and representing almost exclusively Italy (sixteenth-seventeenth centuries), France (seventeenth-eighteenth centuries), and Germany (nineteenth century). It does not even mention, let alone seriously consider, any number of fundamentally important writers, such as Antoine Galland, whose Les Mille et une Nuits had a profound impact on the history of the fairy tale in the West, or Ludwig Tieck and Novalis, to name only two innovative German authors of literary fairy tales who preceded the Grimms. Consequently, this book does not constitute a history of fairy tales, let alone a new history of fairy tales.

A book that proclaims itself as a new history of fairy tales could only become one by specifically engaging the existing history and the scholarship that embodies it. This is fundamental to scholarly method. Yet Fairy Tales: A New History does no such thing. It never explicitly documents the failures it ascribes to contemporary scholarship and scholars; it merely asserts their existence. The book’s introduction, for example, goes on and on about the “current understanding of the history of fairy tales” (2) on the part of scholars; but by the end of the chapter—indeed, by the end of the book—there is no evidence presented to substantiate Ruth Bottigheimer’s claims about these for the most part unnamed contemporary scholars, whose works are never cited.

To be sure, the works of Bruno Bettelheim and Jack Zipes are invoked on the second page of the book. But no fairy-tale scholar would cite Bettelheim’s work as representative of contemporary fairy-tale scholarship. And the innocuous discussion of Zipes consists of two sentences that do nothing to implicate him in the history that the book is purporting to disprove. Two brief sentences concerning Zipes appear a few pages later in a discussion of definitions of the fairy tale, but beyond these brief references and two endnotes, the book does not engage or specifically refute either Zipes, whose continuously emerging work is not easily summarized with reductive characterizations, or any other of the supposedly “many fairy tale scholars in the United States, England, France, and Germany” (2-3) who subscribe to oralist views built on what the book calls a “flimsy foundation” (2). Nearly all we know about the “other” and the “other side” in this volume is what the author tells us in very broad generalities and without documentation: “Most traditional histories . . .”; “It has been said . . .” (1); “people who subscribe to . . .” (2); “many fairy-tale scholars . . .” (2-3); “many scholars . . .” (3); “it is often said . . .”; “the widespread belief . . .” (6); and so on. This mode of argumentation and the absence of specific evidence and refutation do not reflect a book of peer-reviewed scholarship, but one in which scholarly method has broken down or been abandoned.

The book also minimizes or overlooks the contributions of important scholars who have actually helped pioneer the print history of the fairy tale that Ruth Bottigheimer privileges. I think, for example, of Nancy Canepa, whose brilliant translation of Basile is cited, but whose two profoundly important books on the genesis of the literary fairy tale are cited nowhere in the volume. How can Canepa’s groundbreaking 1998 compendium, Out of the Woods: The Origins of the Literary Fairy Tale in Italy and France, and her 1999 monograph, From Court to Forest: Giambattista Basile's Lo Cunto de li Cunti and the Birth of the Literary Fairy Tale, not be invoked as volumes central to the development (notice, over a decade ago) of the “new” history Bottigheimer is claiming to write? Twenty of Bottigheimer’s own works are represented in the bibliography (including a slew of encyclopedia and dictionary entries), but Canepa’s major and truly relevant works apparently do not merit being brought to the reader’s attention.

There is at least one additional publication missing from the bibliography whose inclusion and discussion could have documented the orality-based history that Bottigheimer wants to debunk and which could have helped her explain to the reader how and why that allegedly fallacious history is so seductive and persistent. The publication in question—an article published in New German Critique in 1982—contains numerous statements that reveal the author’s reliance on an orality-based history of the fairy tale, despite the expert knowledge, already then in circulation among scholars, that the Grimms had edited their tales after collecting them from literate sources. Take, for example, the following:

“Unlike the tales produced for polite society such as Contes nouvelles ou les Fées à la mode by Madame d'Aulnoy (1698), German folk tales were assumed to have originated in or to have passed through in many cases the Spinnstube, for it was there that women gathered in the evening and told tales to keep themselves and their company awake as they spun. And it was from informants privy to this oral tradition that Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm gathered many of their folk tales. Thus, we can assume a personal relationship between the tales that follow and spinners themselves.”

By citing statements such as this, Bottigheimer could have demonstrated quite authoritatively that there are indeed actual identifiable scholars who subscribe to what she considers a thoroughly fallacious and, as she suggests on page 2 of her book, embarrassing view of the fairy tale’s history. Now, whether she decided not to cite this text or not to include it in her bibliography because she herself is the author of this article, I do not know (above quotation from Bottigheimer 1982:143). To be sure, it is a piece of scholarship from 1982; but if Bottigheimer can cite Bettelheim’s book of 1976 as an example of “recent” scholarship (2), why not an article of 1982? Of course, we all have the right to change our minds. Still, given that views of this kind now lead her to write a counter-narrative—a re-purposed history of the fairy tale—and to make a claim for it on the basis of singularly-held expert knowledge, one might expect the book to offer something by way of truth in advertising, a brief mea culpa to let us know that even the experts can be wrong, or—better—a candid and critical self-reflection to demonstrate how intellectual positions develop, take hold, lose their grip, and change. This could be an excellent example of how we re-purpose ourselves in a sobering cycle of self-assurance and humility, a repeating, never-ending restoration tale, if you will. This is the kind of candid work that Jack Zipes does—if anyone cares to read his books, especially the introductions, very carefully—in his ceaseless efforts be self-critical, to be open to diversity, dissent, and complexity, and to help build a discipline on expert knowledge, which is not necessarily the same as authority.[2]

There is more to say about Fairy Tales: A New History—about why it is not a history, not new, its oversimplifications and stifling focus on print history, its tendency to throw out the folk with the fallacy, and its problematic discussion of the fairy tale as genre. And there is a telling problem with the promotional materials on the publisher’s website, which I mention in the spirit of book history. Not recognizing its own pitch for the book, the publisher unwittingly quotes its own back-cover blurb as if it were the excerpt of a book review from Fabula,[3] which in this case is not the prestigious journal of folk-narrative research published in Germany, but actually the French website Fabula.org, which had merely posted information about the book along with the publisher’s own promotional text.[4] What appears at first to be authoritative confirmation of the book’s scholarly value turns out to be a case of the publisher’s failure to recognize its own publicity.

While this is revealing in the context of scholarly publishing and marketing, such an oversight is certainly fixable. The other problems in this volume and the implications they have for a new generation of students and scholars threaten to be long term. What, in particular, will be the consequences for the sociohistorical study of narrative if new readers buy into the guiding notion of the book? And by “the guiding notion of the book” I do not mean the idea that print culture plays a significant role in the history of the fairy tale. Of course it does; I do not know of a single recognized scholar of the fairy tale who would deny that. And Zipes, for one, had noted nearly thirty years ago the debt of French writers to Basile and Straparola (1983:14, 27). I mean, instead, the simplistic and universalizing notion that tales produced in sixteenth-century Venice by Straparola and by the authors that came in his wake are, as the book’s final sentence proclaims, “stories about people like us.” We may be, as Alan Dundes told us, the folk; but I am not convinced that “we” are always and in all circumstances “us.” Who, after all, is the implied reader that Bottigheimer is addressing here, especially in an era of intensely global scholarly communication? Are New York readers, as the Excelsior Editions website implies, the same as readers “across the country and around the world”? And after decades of sociohistorical and sociocultural criticism, do we really want to abandon all nuance and complexity by implying that social, cultural, historical, and political contexts make no difference in the production and reception of fairy tales? “They are stories about people like us” is not even an oversimplification. It is an ahistorical, feel-good assertion that does no justice to the nuance, complexity, and diversity that make fairy-tale studies or any form of literary, media, and cultural studies so rich and, yes, so difficult.

It is important that these matters be recognized because—as we know from Marzolph’s AFS lecture—readers without expert knowledge will tend to shy away from the complexity that comes with the best, most exemplary scholarship. “Who needs it?” “Who cares?” For those who feel that way or for those seeking a quick, slick, uncomplicated entry into fairy-tale scholarship or a volume their students can digest as easily as a tweet, this book fits the bill. Caveat emptor. Caveat lector.

[1] http://www.sunypress.edu/l-25-excelsior-editions-trade-books.aspx. Accessed 22 June 2011.

[2] For examples of Zipes’s self-critical, self-reflective approach, see Zipes, 2002:x; 2006:x-xi; 2009:xi-xii. For his dislike of the term “authority,” see Bannerman 2002.

[3] http://www.sunypress.edu/p-4772-fairy-tales.aspx. Accessed 22 June 2011.

[4] http://www.fabula.org/actualites/rb-bottigheimer-fairy-tales-a-new-history_31139.php. Accessed 22 June 2011.


Bottigheimer, Ruth B. 1982. “Tale Spinners: Submerged Voices in Grimms' Fairy Tales.” New German Critique 27:141-50.

Bannerman, Kenn. 2002. “A Short Interview with Jack Zipes.” http://www.bitingdogpress.com/zipes/zipes.html

Canepa, Nancy L, ed. 1997. Out of the Woods: The Origins of the Literary Fairy Tales in Italy and France. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

—. 1999. From Court to Forest: Giambattista Basile's Lo Cunto de li Cunti and the Birth of the Literary Fairy Tale. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Zipes, Jack. 1983. Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization. New York: Wildman Press.

—. 2002. Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales. Revised edition. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

—. 2006. Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre. New York: Routledge.

—. 2009. Relentless Progress: The Reconfiguration of Children’s Literature, Fairy Tales, and Storytelling. New York: Routledge.

To read a response to this review by Ruth B. Bottigheimer, Department of Cultural Analysis and Theory, Stony Brook University (11/04/11), click here.

[Editor’s Note: In response to Ruth Bottigheimer’s respectful request that we attach to the original review a summary of the book’s contents, we refer our readers to the SUNY Press website, which does contain such a description.]

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