Reviewed by Helen Parry
I’ve always loved the Oxford Companions, ever since I first encountered the Companion to English Literature about twenty-five years ago. They’re very easy to use and the alphabetically ordered entries are generally succinct and informative, making them a pleasure to browse and to use as a reference point. Even now, when the internet supplies so much information, this series retains its place on the bookshelf because it is authoritative, compiled by scholars who have devoted years of their lives to researching the field.
The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales is a worthy addition to the series. This is in fact the second edition, expanded to 700 pages: 130 new entries and 70 updated ones. It would probably deliver a fatal blow if used to strike any predatory wolf you might encounter walking home from the bookshop through the woods. Jack Zipes, the editor, is perhaps the best-known fairy-tale scholar in the English-speaking world, and he has assembled a list of distinguished contributors and contributing editors to compile.
Their subject is a vast one. Fairy tales are such an ancient form of storytelling, and their influence on our culture is pervasive. How to fit everything into one reference book that won’t crush the reader flat as a blanket? In his introduction, Zipes explains that he has chosen to focus on ‘the literary formation of the Western fairy-tale genre and its expansion into opera, theatre, painting, photography, and film, and other related cultural forms’. But this still leaves him with an enormous amount of material, and one of the great joys of this book is how surprising and unexpected many of the entries are (to someone who isn’t an expert on fairy tales, anyway).
There’s John Cranko, a South African choreographer and producer of fairy-tale ballets such as The Prince of the Pagodas (1957), in which Princess Belle Rose is rescued from her wicked sister by an enchanted green salamander. Cindy Sherman, someone I hadn’t previously associated with fairy tales, is included by virtue of two of her series of photographs, Fairy Tales and Disasters, which focus on the horrors within many fairy tales in order to make the real horrors of the world easier to absorb, so the Companion explains. I learnt about the Kaffeterkreis, a literary circle, at first exclusively female, set up by the von Arnim sisters in 1843, which produced many fairy tales and fantasies in a newsletter which was completely lost, along with all these works, between the two world wars. There are entries on communist folk-tale films, digital fairy tales, different approaches to the fairy tale (folklorist, structural, psychoanalytical), fairy tales and greetings cards, feminist fairy tales; on A.A. Milne, Catherine Breillat and Frederick Ashton. You can open the book at any page and find something interesting.
Since, as Jack Zipes points out in the beginning of his introduction, ‘There is no such thing as the fairy tale; however, there are hundreds and thousands of fairy tales’, the subject of this Companion is not just vast but sometimes open to interpretation. Fairy tales are always being re-invented, and often the boundaries of fairy tale with fantasy, fairy lore and oral folk tale blur. This means that some entries stretch what I thought of as fairy tale or influenced by fairy tale. I questioned the inclusion of, for example, Gustav Meyrink, Mary Norton and Suzanne Collins, all of whom seemed to stretch the boundaries too far. Meanwhile, the entry for the Dandy, the Beano and Bunty did not make much of a case for its inclusion at all, which seemed a pity when, for instance, Jane Eyre or Jan Pieńkowski were not represented in the book, presumably from lack of space. However, I think this is intentional: this welcoming capaciousness is intended to challenge us sometimes on what we categorise as a fairy tale.
This second edition of the Companion contains separate and longer articles on certain more influential national traditions of fairy tale: those of Britain and Ireland, North America, France, Germany, Portugal, Japan, Slavic countries and ‘the Orient’. Apart from this it tends to eschew dividing traditions up into countries of origin, partly because some are obscure in terms of the Western literary fairy tale, partly because tales have a habit of crossing borders and putting down roots – ‘Cinderella’, variants of which appear in European, North American, African and Asian cultures, being a case in point. The excellent bibliography includes collections of fairy tales from many lands if you want to explore particular traditions further.
The Companion as a whole draws on a wide range of traditions and is not restricted to the English language. It is nicely produced and bound, and black-and-white illustrations throughout add depth and charm. While it’s often tempting to skip introductions to reference books, you’d be ill-advised to do so here as Jack Zipes provides a wonderful potted history of the Western literary fairy tale and a discussion of why these stories are still important to us. Whether you are an academic or, like me, just curious, this book is invaluable. I can’t stop dipping into it!
Helen Parry blogs at A Gallimaufry.
Jack Zipes, ed., The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, second edition (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2015). 978-0-19-968982-8, 720pp., hardback.