Reviews 2010

Fairy Tales Reimagined: Essays on New Retellings

Fairy Tales Reimagined: Essays on New Retellings. Susan Redington Bobby (ed.). Foreword by Kate Bernheimer. Jefferson, NC; McFarland, 2009. 260 pages. $35 (paperback).

What can be said about fairy tales that has not been said before? Just as fairy tales themselves are constantly retold, reworked and recycled, so is fairy-tale criticism a thriving and dynamic area of inquiry. This essay collection is a response to the avalanche of newly written fairy tales, both in prose, verse and multimedia, short-story and novel length, by famous and less famous male and female writers, revealing the endless ways of twisting, fracturing, and queering the fairy tale that contemporary writers employ. The only limitation of the volume seems to be that the English-language texts clearly dominate, even though the contributors represent a wide international range.

Like many publications that grow out of conferences, the volume has its organisational problems. The editor has to select from available papers, and even though they are grouped into four parts with neat headings, there is no real coherence or continuity in the volume. This does not affect its value, but merely reflects the recurrent dilemma of academic collections. A foreword written by one of the subjects of a subsequent chapter adds a nice flavour. Yet regrettably, the editor has not taken the opportunity to undertake a broader discussion in the introduction, beyond the brief background for the volume. A general theoretical framework for the volume would have been invaluable. For instance, the discussion of the different intertextual types from Mathilda Slabbert’s essay (73) could have been utilized. Such an extensive introduction would have precluded the unavoidable repetitions between chapters on the general premises for fractured fairy tales, postmodern aesthetics, gender studies and other relevant matters. As it is, each chapter contains a longish preamble including well-known facts, for instance, that the majority of the Grimms’ informants were women or that they reworked their retellings between editions. This poses the question of the implied audience of the volume: how uninformed do the authors expect their readers to be? One would assume that a volume on a limited and delineated topic would address a sophisticated audience who does not need reiteration of basics.

A possible explanation is that most of the contributors are early-career scholars, which brings freshness and enthusiasm into their research, but also compels them to provide an unnecessary amount of background information and address general scholarly issues. In fact, some of the authors are so fascinated by the texts that they primarily focus on the content. In terms of the development of criticism the collection perhaps does nothing radically new; but it certainly offers fascinating close readings of a single or several texts, which is laudatory enough.

For many readers the volume will be both a reminder of old favourites and new acquaintances. It highlights a wide range of authors and demonstrates many approaches to contemporary fairy tales. Aspects such as metafiction and narrative strategies, autobiographical elements, allegory and political commentary are scrutinised. Not unexpectedly, several essays have a feminist thrust, since so many new fairy tales deconstruct gender and play with blurred sexuality. Still less unexpectedly, most of the essays employ some kind of intertextual approach, exploring the underlying texts or comparing versions.

The most appealing contribution theoretically is Helen Pilinovsky’s on Kate Bernheimer, in which she considers traditional and modern fairy tales in terms of utopia/pseudo-utopia/dystopia and thus goes beyond the discussion of a specific text. This kind of theorization would have been welcome in other chapters. In fact, Pilinovsky’s essay could have been placed first in the volume as an excellent gateway to the subject. Among the inspiring essays is Vanessa Joosen’s on I Was A Rat! by Philip Pullman, showing both breadth and depth in its orientation in the field, as well as an interesting and original approach to the text itself and its social context. Equally stimulating is Christopher Roman’s contribution on Gregory McGuire’s Wicked, which, like Joosen’s, appears in the section titled “Revolutionizing Culture and Politics.” This is hardly accidental, since feminist and narrative analyses, presented elsewhere in the volume, feel quite predictable, while cultural approaches seem to provide scholars with tools that truly open new dimensions.

The essays do not address the question of audience, although it can be inferred that the readership of most of the discussed texts is not young people, while some are at least marketed as children’s literature. Yet fairy tales have always been, whether rightly or not, associated with children’s reading, and the essential intertexts, such as Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Wild Swans’, J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice on Wonderland, are, although not indisputably, counted as children’s books. Even though the volume does not advertise itself as a study of children’s literature, it is regretful that, except for Joosen, none of the authors has considered the transformation of the audience, or perhaps the dual audience, of the new tales. Further, some major relevant studies of children’s literature are neglected; the volume clearly preserves the tight watersheds between fairy-tale studies and children’s literature studies, ignoring the scholars who have successfully bridged this gap, such as the recurrently cited authority on both areas, Jack Zipes.

The most perplexing omission is that Lauren Choplin’s chapter does not even mention the Andersen intertext in The Little Girl Who was Too Fond of Matches. Less conspicuous, but still rather puzzling is Mark C. Hill’s chapter that places Pinocchio among folktale characters without further comment. Such inaccuracies undermine the general credibility of the volume. Has it been subjected to peer reviewing at all? That said, the volume certainly has its merits. It is not a book to read right through, but one to keep in mind for specific writers and topics. The comprehensive bibliography at the end of the book is highly valuable.

Maria Nikolajeva
University of Cambridge, England