Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The Americanisation of Fairy Tales – A Jack Zipes talk

We each see the world - and stories - through our own window

Americanisation of anything sounds deadly to some of us. Jack Zipes is an American, but he is also a world authority on fairy tales, and as a hero of modern folklorists he might also be a little bit conservative (small c). I’m not sure about that, but I’m not about to consult Google on the matter either. Suffice to say this was one impression I got from his talk at the Warburg Institute in London this week.

He told us an interesting story in itself – that of the Grimm’s fairy tales and the changes they have undergone at the hands of translators and adaptors in British and American culture throughout the twentieth century.
The part that made me prick up my ears like a good fairytale fox was the very first stage in the life of these mรคrchen, or little tales, as the Grimms called them. They intended to preserve all kinds of folk tales from around Germany, seeing them as ancient relics under threat from progress even in the early nineteenth century. However, the versions they presented to the world were translations or adaptations themselves. Often they worked from texts sent to them in Germanic dialects, translating them into High German and making changes according to advice from other collectors, or indeed simply to satisfy their own desire to create perfect folktales that would also be suited to the tastes of an intellectual, adult readership.

This in itself sounds like a serious undertaking. Only two of the stories they collected were presented in their published collection in dialect form, and even these tidied up to make them into better folktales. What, then, are we to make of the cultural appropriation of these tales by Britain, and then North America, as they adapted, combined, edited and reinvented to fit their own value systems?

The least offensive story to be told is just that the retellings in English of Grimm’s tales in the form of children’s versions, illustrated books, then graphic novels, plays, and films were simply further steps on a path already laid down for all folk tales. There is a reason these tales stick in our culture and in us: they contain universals, they speak to all humanity, and humanity will retell them in whatever form suits it at the time.

The more sinister version is one of cultural appropriation, of an attitude that does not attempt to preserve the universals in these stories despite the globalised world we live in. 

But whilst fairytale mash-ups in films such as the Shrek series might move us away from any detectable message in the originals, folk tales have always been there for the taking when it comes to interpretation. Give the same skeleton story to ten people in a room and they will all come up with a different meaning, or moral, and that is true for ten people with a shared cultural background.

Zipes worried that the sanitisation, the sweetening, of these tales for modern American children removes the possibility of dealing with ideas of child abuse, violence, and other dark themes of life that appear to be there in the originals as a helpful way to address the facts of human existence. But those themes are only there if we go looking for them in the first place. For every reader who finds Hansel and Gretel helpful for dealing with feelings of abandonment or threat, there will be another who delights in the curiosity and hubris of the children, and another whose sense of slapstick is tickled by a mean old crone tumbling into an oven (depending on which version you get).

Indeed, the evidence of Americanisation that he showed us in the form of animated films such as BettyBoop as Snow White and Red Hot RidingHood by Tex Avery only served to illustrate that, whilst such tales can be used to send out any message we want, it is the audience who make up their own minds. Every mind is different, including those of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm; where these tales in all their forms take us will be down to our own experiences.