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Tales of Wonder

Fairy Tales for the Disillusioned: Enchanted Stories from the French Decadent Tradition, ed Gretchen Schultz and Lewis Seifert, Princeton University Press 288 pp, ISBN: 978-0691161655 Everyone knows what a fairytale is anyway, don’t they? A story about fantastic creatures and events with a happy ending; a story about fairies. When I ask students for examples they might mention “Cinderella” – that’s correct – but are just as likely to say “Cúchulainn” or “The Children of Lír”. The folklorist’s definition of “fairytale” is a story classified in the standard index of folktales in the section “Tales of Magic”, AT 300-750. Three hundred and fifty different tale types which can be described as “fairy tales” have been documented in the world, in oral and sometimes written tradition. AT 300, “The Dragon Slayer”, is one of the most common of all. Over seven hundred versions have been collected in Ireland alone and versions are told throughout most of the world. AT 745A, the last listed in the index, is “The Predestined Treasure”, a much less common and less widespread story, although also found in Ireland, which is very rich in tales of magic, as in many other kinds of folktale. In between are “Cinderella”, “Hansel and Gretel”, “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Sleeping Beauty”, and, well, 348 other tale types, some very familiar and some not so familiar to us of the post-Gutenberg, post-Disney tradition. Folklorists writing in English have sometimes attempted to replace the word “fairytale” with “wondertale”, which is a more useful designation since the fairytales don’t usually feature fairies in the usual sense of the word. The Irish fairies, those denizens of the fairy forts or raths, keepers of fairy thorn trees, never make an appearance in a fairytale. Bengt Holbek, in his definitive study of Danish fairytales, The Interpretation of Fairytales, defines the genre rather narrowly as stories of what we can roughly call “The Dragon Slayer” or “Cinderella” type: stories about a young hero or heroine who passes tests and overcomes obstacles of a supernatural kind, to be finally rewarded with a spouse and riches. The story of the journey from childhood to adulthood is expressed in simple plots of adventure and quest, enhanced by metaphor and symbol. The texture of the fairytales is rich, magical and beautiful. Eleaser Melitinski writes simply, “The fairytale begins with the break up of one family and ends with the establishment of another.” The…



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