The Teller’s Tale: Lives of the Classic Fairy Tale Writers

Reviewed by Lindsay Yakimyshyn


Published by SUNY Press, 2012   |   183 pages

Snow White. Beauty and the Beast. The Little Mermaid. All are classic fairy tales that remain deeply engrained in our popular culture, and wildly popular: from Annie Leibovitz’s Disney-inspired celebrity portrait series to the popular television show “Once Upon a Time.” Fairy tales take place outside of the chronology of human history, in alternative, fantastic universes. And so it is all too easy to forget that these tales have their own storied histories, rooted, very much, in the material and social circumstances of their origins and transmissions. This history is inextricably tied to the men and women who—in writing or adapting the now well-known tales—wove their tellings at the intersection between didacticism, morality and fantastical entertainment.

The Teller’s Tale: Lives of the Classic Fairy Tale Writers focuses on these authors and popularizers of fairy tales —some famous, others obscure—investigating their biographies to historically contextualize and illuminate the seemingly timeless works they produced. The scholarship included in this collection of essays, assembled by editor Sophie Raynard, crosses temporal and geographical boundaries, though primarily examines the contributions of Continental European writers from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries.

As Ruth B. Bottigheimer rightfully acknowledges: “transferring fictional information to historical biography can be a slippery operation.” Distinguishing between the autobiographical and the purely invented can be difficult.  Nonetheless, the contributors to The Teller’s Tale often ground their speculations effectively. Importantly, they offer productive new (or re-present extant) ways to reread these classic tales and the intentions of those who created them: from foregrounding Charles Perrault’s role as politician, to the Countess de Murat’s battle “for the recognition of her sex.”

Bottigheimer’s first contribution to the collection, “Europe’s First Fairy Tales,” briefly outlines the emergence of fairy tales from the crucible of the medieval romances, and charts their course to their “regularization” from the mid-sixteenth through late-seventeenth centuries. Her second chapter examines the crucial “transformation of restoration fairy-tale plots” (in which the protagonists begin wealthy, fall from power, suffer trials and tribulations, and are ultimately returned to power, often with the aide of magic or marriage) “into rise fairy tales” (in which the protagonists are poor and rise to affluent positions thanks to the intervention of magic), two proto genre’s in the emergency of the modern fairy tale. Giovan Francesco Straparola (c. 1480 – c. 1557), an Italian fairy tale collector and author, was chiefly responsible for this crucial transition. Straparola wrote both restoration and rise tales, but, with the former largely derivative of medieval romances, the latter form looks forward towards the modern world, and are his “lasting contribution to the history of European fairy tales.” Nadine Jasmin, elsewhere, attends to the refinement of the modern fairy tale by Charles Perrault (1628 –1703) – who found most of his stories in Straparola – and the conteuses précieuses (a key circle of late seventeenth and early eighteenth century female storytellers), particularly noting the moment in which “the genre of the tale was considered a female prerogative.” Eastern culture’s influence—made manifest in the publication (in twelve volumes, between 1704 and 1717) of Antoine Galland’s The Thousand and One Nights, one of the most translated and read French books in eighteenth-century Europe—also receives due notice.

More broadly, The Teller’s Tale also sheds much light on the question of the emergence of the fairy tale as a unique formal genre. Nancy Canepa’s chapter on Giambattista Basile (1566 – 1632) positions his The Pentamerone as a culmination of “the interest in popular culture and folk traditions that existed in the early seventeenth century.” In a similar vein, Madame d’Aulnoy’s (c.1650 – 1705) Hypolitus is positioned as “mark[ing] the official birth… of the French literary fairy tale.” In hindsight, these works establish the generic form of the genre thereafter. On the other hand, a study of canonical fairy tale authors reveals that they themselves often did not self-identify as writing in the genre as we understand it today. Commentary on the best-known fairy-tale authors – the Grimm brothers, for example – often focuses on their (re)shaping of the genre, implicitly downplaying the more traditional literary qualities of their offerings that point outwards towards other, established genres. Specifically, in his chapter, “The Legacy of the Eighteenth-Century and Nineteenth-Century German Female Storytellers,” Shawn C. Jarvis contends, “not until the codification of the Grimm genre was there a one-dimensional vision of the fairy-tale genre, its writers and collectors, its intended audience, its literary agenda, and its socializing impact.”

With many of the contributors teasingly scratching the surface of the tales and their literary significance, deeper analysis of the tales’ texts themselves would have further strengthened the biographical sketches. Particularly teasing is Jarvis’ brief exploration of how women’s fairy tales are distinct from those of male writers; in this case, as in others, greater explication with textual examples is required.

In many ways, The Teller’s Tale is a revisionist project that demarks paths for future study as it affords women a prominent position in the narrative of the fairy-tale genre and further entrenches the analysis of socioeconomics in studies of the genre. As editor, Raynard productively structures the volume to reflect the progressions in the fairy-tale genre, tracing its emergence, expansion, refinement and sentimentalization. The text also includes helpful notes and a succinct bibliography at the conclusion of each chapter; these are useful tools for readers wanting to delve more deeply into the genre and the lives of its authors.

The Teller’s Tale is a vital resource for those interested not only in fairy tales, but also in comparative literature, women’s writing and didactic texts. The subject of this text will appeal to a wide audience: general readers will be drawn into the chapters on well-known writers, such as the Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Andersen, and specialists will appreciate the new light the text sheds on the contexts from which fairy tales emerged. Though it is more accessible to those with some existing knowledge of the subject matter, The Teller’s Tale will appeal to scholars at all levels and is a key text for anyone interested in the minds that brought us this compelling, even enchanting, genre.

Lindsay Yakimyshyn recently completed her PhD at the University of Alberta. Her thesis, supported by SSHRC, attends to multifaceted performances in early Stuart household theatre. Some of her scholarly publications include “Locating Chastity and Charity in Measure for Measure” and “‘My body joined with thine, my mouth with thine’: The Sur-vival of Robert Garnier’s Marc Antoine and Mary Sidney’s Antonie.” She is now primarily engaged in educational research.

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