Reviews 2014

Fairy Tale: The New Critical Idiom

Fairy Tale: The New Critical Idiom. Andrew Teverson. New York and London: Routledge, 2013. 167 pages. $24.95 (paperback).

Andrew Teverson’s Fairy Tale in Routledge’s New Critical Idiom series introduces the study of fairy tales from a double perspective: their production and their critical reception. These two perspectives are presented separately and diachronically, which gives coherence to the presentation of this extremely complex and heterogeneous subject. Teverson’s discussion of production merges with that of criticism at the end of the book, when his reflections on the criticism of late 20th century fairy tales are complemented with a brief, but encompassing, overview of contemporary fairy tales in all their varied literary, visual arts and film formats.

The five chapters of the book could be grouped into three themes. The first is dedicated to the folkloristic approaches to folk narratives in general and to the problems of defining and delineating fairy tales in particular. The second is focused on the production of fairy tales from the Renaissance to the consolidation of the genre and the work of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, on the one hand, and Hans Christian Andersen, on the other. The third theme is an outline of the main strands of fairy tale criticism. It starts with the discussion of Plato, Locke and others, and their passing references to popular narrative traditions which resemble fairy tales in some respects. Teverson then outlines the principles of the 19th century mythological, anthropological and historic-geographic approaches to fairy tales, and the final section takes up 20th century formalistic, psychoanalytic and socio-historical interpretations of this genre.

The Introduction convincingly debunks the Romantic, still widely accepted, belief that fairy tales are folk narratives which are oral in origin, antique in age and peasant in extraction. Teverson cuts through the myths that surround this genre to present different types of folk narratives ranging from animal tales to formula tales, as well as outlining the fairy tale genre, arguing for an approach that will overcome the conceptual division which classifies oral fairy tale traditions as more 'authentic' than written fairy tale traditions. Following Elisabeth Wanning Harries, Teverson presents two dominant - sometimes separated; sometimes intertwined - models of fairy tale writings: one compact model with Perrault and the brothers Grimm as its representatives, and the other a more complex and self-referential model that can be seen in the work of Basile, Andersen and others. Focusing on the printed realizations of fairy tales, Teverson leaves aside the vibrant research of social or performative aspects of storytelling as an oral practice by late 20th century folklorists, in order to highlight the study of written, published fairy tales.

Fairy tales have long been the objects of disputes and vigorous academic enquiry. Hence any inclusive discussion of this genre - and discussions of introductions should be inclusive - is necessarily reductive. Teverson’s Fairy Tale seeks to include different perspectives, literary and analytical traditions, but the main focus is on English language criticism or production. Teverson acknowledges the paucity of references to studies in other languages, and attempts to compensate for this shortcoming by including English translations of Russian, German, and other language studies. Nevertheless, Fairy Tale misses references to several important English language publications which were published by authors from non-English speaking traditions. These include the comprehensive overview and lucid synthesis of fairy tale scholarship offered by Bengt Holbek in his Interpretation of Fairy Tales and the cross-disciplinary interpretation of fairy tale symbolism offered by Francisco Vaz da Silva in Metamorphosis. On the other hand, given the very prominent international conception of the field of fairy tale studies, Teverson occasionally reflects on research traditions other than those mentioned above, although not without some slip-ups such as, for example, when he incorrectly dates and names the oldest Serbian folktale collection by Vuk Stefanović Karadžić. Furthermore, as terms included in the glossary of Teverson’s Fairy Tale suggest, the book is intended not only for newcomers in fairy tales studies, but also for novices to literary studies in general. Therefore it would have been appropriate that the indispensable Enzyklopädie des Märchen or relatively recently published The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales were at least mentioned in the book.

Teverson systematically refers to disputes and disagreements between different approaches or fairy tale traditions, but the general impression of the introduction is that of reconciliation, or at least coexistence, of different perspectives. This could also be seen as the outcome of the introduction genre and its inclination not to privilege one approach or tradition over another. In line with this genre's orientation toward the presentation of achievements in the field, the depth and accuracy of presented interpretations depend on the interpretation in focus. Hence some partially incongruous elaboration in Fairy Tale can be observed, as for example between the historically and literary informed presentation of Grimms' work and the for the most part biographical, sometimes romanticized way in which the work of Hans Christian Andersen is presented.

Despite my criticisms, I regard Teverson's Fairy Tale a as basically informative and, for the most part, informed introduction to the highly diverse realizations and interpretations of fairy tales. As fairy tales have taught us, the pleasure is in the quest for perfection, not only in perfection itself.

Marijana Hameršak
Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research, Croatia

Works Cited

Bausinger, Hermann. "Märchen." Enzyklopädie des Märchens. Handwörterbuch zur historischen und vergleichenden Erzählforschung. Begr. Von Kurt Ranke. Hrsg. von Rolf Wilhelm/Herman Bausinger 9 (1999): 250-274.

Haase, Donald, ed. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales. Vol. 1-3. Westport, Connecticut and London: Greenwood, 2008.

Holbek, Bengt. Interpretation of Fairy Tales: Danish Folklore in a European Perspective. (2nd edition) Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1998.

Vaz da Silva, Francisco. Metamorphosis: The Dynamics of Symbolism in European Fairy Tale. New York: Peter Lang, 2002.