Panel discussion featuring Jack Zipes, Marina Warner, Phillip Pullman, chaired by Hamish Fyfe
“Fairy tales since the beginning of recorded time, and perhaps earlier, have been a means to conquer the terrors of humanity through metaphor.” (Jack Zipes)
This quote was used on the Hay Festival website to introduce and promote the event. It is a thought-provoking observation of Jack Zipes’, who is an incredibly influential scholar of folklore, fairy tales and children’s literature. Since attending the event, I’ve looked again at this quote and come to realise how powerful the assertion it carries is: that ‘wonder tales’ have a function and an audience much greater than is automatically recognised. Yes, they are primarily told to children, but their history as part of an oral storytelling tradition shows that they originate through and for entire communities.
Alongside Jack was:
Marina Warner, writer, mythographer, scholar and author of Stranger Magic, Once Upon A Time and Forms of Enchantment
Philip Pullman, celebrated writer of speculative fiction, the His Dark Materials trilogy, La Belle Sauvage and Daemon Voices
I tried my best during the event to capture the key aspects of what was discussed and have done my best to present them coherently here. It was a fascinating exploration of this form of storytelling that has increased my enthusiasm for learning more about wonder tales even further.
Tell me, what are your most treasured or memorable fairytales, historical ones or those published more recently? I personally love Jen Campbell’s The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night!
I hope you enjoy reading this summary!
Hamish Fyfe opened with an anecdote to introduce the idea that for many of us, especially children, we must test the things we know to make sure we know it
Jack Zipes: repeated the above quoted observation that fairy tales are a means to conquer terrors of humanity through metaphor, which is why they have a wider significance than people are willing to recognise.
Marina Warner: Jack Zipes’ work details the promise that enchantment can bring to change lives. It shows that imaginative fiction can be emancipator. She was brought up to think they were girly and frivolous, which continued with growing commercialisation e.g. Disney. This has created homogenous visions of gender and social aspirations. Zipes’ work of retrieval, editing and translating has been so important, especially with avant garde writers’ work. This work has explored the utopian dimension of fairy tales and shown the power of cracking conventional perspectives through speculation.
Philip Pullman: Didn’t start considering significance of fairy tales until teaching a course. Zipes’ work has shown how grounded wonder tales are in social reality e.g. in Hansel and Gretel, famine was a reality and children were abandoned. Placing emphasis on power of metaphor, Zipes has also demonstrated how these stories can be understood literally or metaphorically depending on age/circumstance (doubly powerful). This is a liberating idea.
JZ: There used to be stigma against adults reading fairy tales, yet we absorb fairy tales every day and they inform our values and ideologies. Through work, he has tried to develop methodologies in these traditions. There’s a joy in discovering forgotten writers and exploring the ongoing significance of fairy tales because they can teach us things about today. We are always seeking compassion and radical changes, which are both present in these stories. There’s also the important role of enabling children to become storytellers of their own lives – they have to fight so many messages especially commercial ones and it could destroy world.
Hamish Fyfe: Will fairytales survive, change and adapt to society?
PP: Language itself is a form of resistance. Non-native languages can be challenging because they resist immediate comprehension which affects our understanding. Fairytales are often simple and avoid us having to consider psychological depth (characters flat rather than round) which again makes them powerful for children. With each new ‘revolution’ of storytelling (now in Internet/digital age), there will always be new possibilities to adapt and refine our ways of telling each other stories.
MW: resistance in fairy tales is often centred on knowledge. There’s so much significance in and around them about storytellers and languages. Imagine if folk tales did not exist: some ideas might not seem possible such as the overthrowing of tyrants (One Thousand and One Nights – young woman saves herself through telling stories). Fairy tales form part of the lexicon of imagination and can become parables of our existence.. There are spirited and courageous girls in originals that are often muted by commercialisation.
JZ: The best fairy tales are the ones that are critical of socio-political ideas through metaphor to show us our possibilities.
PP: The moral of story must come from through the process of imagination and creation – you should not think of a moral and craft a story to fit it because it loses its power and wonder.
Hamish Fyfe: Asked Philip Pullman about an instance in which he claimed that without story, people wouldn’t be human.
PP: There are lots of things we need to survive – food, water, shelter – but we’d also be lost without stories.
JZ: We often see in society how the lack of personal story has heartbreaking consequences.
MW: We are all bearers of culture implicitly so we are always carrying stories within us. Stories are contained in imagery as well as language.
PP: Part of the fairy tale’s success is the physical contact that often comes with parents and children – it becomes part of the secure and comforting experience associated with these stories. Children understand metaphor – that there’s a story world and real world, which are slightly different from one another.
JZ: Children must be disconnected from internet reality and its damaging messages. That’s not to say that fairy tales are always positive – often sexist as they were often created in medieval times (and later periods). Work with children involves producing counter stories. Example: Riding Hood is a story of violation. Telling children the original and presenting a counter story (where she escapes wolf by breaking the fourth wall). Stories should not be censored but should be worked with knowing context and possible effect on children.
MW: Story tradition has been doing that. Academia has been working to challenge raw material and change it.
PP: It’s important to note again that fairy tales originated in the oral tradition of storytelling, which meant that they constantly adapted, meanings and perspectives shifted. On the other hand, when you print a book, there’s a lack of malleability in the story and meaning.
JZ: The spoken word has been othered and devalued as for children, yet there are literal voices to be heard
HF: At the Grenfell inquiry, the judge opened proceedings with ‘let’s hear the stories of the people.’
MW: Instances like that prove that stories are the witness and testimony of real life. In many ways, fairy tale patterns experience and then gives you keys to alternatives.
Audience question concerning narrative voice in fairy tales:
PP: There are lots of invisible characters in books – real author and who reader imagines author to be; each real, individual reader and the host of readers that the author imagines. The most intriguing figure is the ‘narrator’ who is omniscient i.e. not an explicit character but the uniting force that connects events, can read minds of characters. No person involved inside the book or in the production of it holds such power to understand the thoughts of others.
MW: It’s interesting that books and stories now tend to have a single narrative voice, but when the original folktales did not, because they were passed down and through the community, with people adding and altering as they saw fit. The community was the narrative voice. Yet at the same time, there was this association with the ‘wise older woman’ who was a significant authority in communities centred on folktales. Often, it was the elder figures who would be the ones telling these stories. Therefore, it’s interesting that many female writers of fairy tales today are using them to create and express a female narrative voice of experience.
Thanks so much for reading!