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The Outspoken Princess and the Gentle Knight

By good fortune I have prevailed upon Professor Bristol Bradlee, a noted folklore scholar, to do a book review for us. The work in question is The Outspoken Princess and The Gentle Knight, A treasury of Modern Fairy Tales, edited by Jack Zipes, Illustrated by Stephane Poulin, Bantam Books, ISBN 0-553-09699-0, 1994.

The Outspoken Princess and The Gentle Knight

reviewed by
Dr. Bristol Bradlee
Asst. Professor of Folklore Studies
Fairview College

For those of us who love the fairy tale there is always the temptation and the desire to create these marvellous works on our own. This work is a warning that this desire is a temptation that should be resisted. The stories in this collection are well written, but most fail in their primary objective, the creation of “modern” fairy tales. The nature of that failure tells us, I think, something very important about the nature of fairy tales.

The introduction presents the thesis that the traditional fairy tale is flawed as a literature because many of the tales of the classical canon “may have dubious messages when it comes to the depiction of gender roles, violence, and democracy”. It suggests that the modern fairy tale, as represented here, has and should represent more contemporary social views [1]. It suggests that the function of the fairy tale is a response to a utopian urge: “No matter what their style or perspectives, the authors of these innovative fairy tales share a common utopian urge that remains at the heart of the fairy-tale genre. Long before they were written down, oral fairy tales were used to provide a sense of community and endow listeners with hope that their world could be made a better place in which to live. This is still the major purpose of literary fairy tales.”

This thesis represents a major misunderstanding of the nature of the traditional fairy tale. The traditional fairy tale is not utopian and does not reflect a utopian urge; it doubtful that they were used in any meaningful sense to provide “a sense of community”. This is so clear that one has to ask the question: How could such a misreading occur?

The answer lies in the conflict between the child and the adult, between the world that children live in and the world that adults live in. As children, if we are fortunate, we learn and love fairy tales. As adults they are dear to us as part of our nostalgia for our childhood. But as adults we have different values, a different way of understanding the world than we did when we were children. We are tempted to try to preserve our nostalgia while honoring our adult values at one and the same time by reconstructing the fairy tale.

Fairy tales are folk lore, quite literally folk lore, tales created by people who are not literary. As such they are originary, primary. The literary work is always secondary and derivative, a product of an author’s desire to tell anew tales like those already enjoyed. The literary person has in her armory the tales that she has read and an acquired body of theory, theory both about literature and the world. When she writes literature for literary people it is natural and appropriate for her to draw on this armory; the literature created by the literary person contains embedded within it her experience and the echo of the theory at her command.

Folk lore, however, is not the expression of an individual; it is the expression of the folk who have evolved it. Fairy tales may be interpreted by literary adults with using political theory [2] or psychoanalytic theory[3]. However these interpretations are secondary. Fairy tales are apolitical. That is not to say that there is no implicit political message; all narratives have political interpretations. However fairy tales, real fairy tales, are not informed by a political sense, by political interpretation as a mode of perceiving the world.

Many tales in this collection attempt this reconciliation of the child and the adult; they fail as fairy tales in the course of doing so. They fail in various ways: they introduce inappropriate incongruity, they use adult literary irony, and they are politicized.

Children can be quite savage in their demand for consistency even when accepting fantasy. The mixing of the archaic symbols[4] of the fairy tale with modern technology creates structural incongruities. The adult reader appreciates these incongruities as irony. The Wrestling Princess, for example, mixes helicopters and helicopter mechanics with princes and princesses; Little Polly Riding Hood combines modern urban transit and a big bad wolf. Other stories are littered with fearful knights, sardonic comments on thistle girls, evil capitalists, recursive examinations of the structure of the fairy tale, and the like.

The fairy tale demands more than Tolkien’s “willing suspension of belief” which is a conspiracy between the author and reader. It demands that the reader accept and revert to the child. Irony is an acid that cuts away the connection between the adult and the child. True folk lore has no authors; to create a true fairy tale the author must surrender her auctorial personae and her adult intellectual theories; she must resurrect the sense of the child and the folk.

Of the stories in this collection perhaps three have some of the sense of the true fairy tale. Hemingway’s The Faithful Bull is not, strictly speaking, a fairy tale; it is a man’s story, a story by an adult for adults. However it speaks to the man/child, the child within the man, in the essential style of the fairy tale. Above all it is short. (Most of these stories are too long; they carry too much baggage.) The White Seal Maid by Jane Yolen has the requisite tone of primitive mystery. The best of the stories may be The Enchanter’s Daughter by Antonia Barber; it would not be out of place in a collection of classical folk lore.

[1] Politically Correct Fairy Tales is a popular reductio ad absurdum of this manic urge to reconstruct the fairy tale. For adults it is an amusing book; considered as fairy tales the stories are worthless.

[2] Nathan Childer’s Proletarian Fairy Tales may be the most ambitious and bizarre of these efforts to rewrite the traditional fairy tale. Childers took Vladimir Propp’s comprehensive structural analysis of the corpus of the Russian fairy tale, Morphology of the Folklore, and translated each element into an equivalent chosen from the Communist Party dialectic of the 1930’s. The result is strange. It is hard to take seriously the translation of Baba Yaga’s house with chicken legs into “the tractor that changed its own tires”.

[3] The classical treatment of the traditional fairy tale in terms of psychoanalytic theory is Bruno Bettleheim’s The Uses of Enchantment. It is an important and insightful work that should be mastered by anyone seriously interested in the fairy tale. However it fails in capturing the essence of the fairy tale; the child reconstructed by psychoanalytic theory and the real child are not the same. The psychoanalytic interpretation is too adult to be right.

[4] The symbols and characters used in the traditional fairy tale are not a matter of happenstance; they reflect deep layers of archetypal and psychological symbology. For an example of the impact of an apparently simple change in the meaning of a fairy tale, see my Fur and Glass, the role of the slipper in Cinderella in the Journal of Traditional Folklore.

Postscript: Ms. Bradlee was kind enough to add the following note which is reprinted by permission.

Here is the review that you requested. I hope that it doesn’t have too much of that “silly academic gibble-gabble” that you so detest.



Bristol Bradlee is the protagonist in a Harlequin romance novel, Ivory Tower, currently being written. She does not exist. Fairview college does not exist.

Nathan Childers is a noted author and reviewer. He is the author of A Hero’s Death, The Gods Hate Nebraska, An Introductory Treatise on the Anchovy Pizza, A Parisian Midnight Summer’s Dream, Proletarian Fairy Tales, and The Encyclopedia of The, Vol I. His restaurant review column, Eating Out and Throwing Up is offensive. He does not exist. Never has, never will.

The book being reviewed does exist. While the comments being offered are ultimately my own, I like to think that they reflect Bristol’s opinions.

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