Sensationalist scholarship: a putative 'new' history of fairy tales.

Author:Zipes, Jack
Position:Events and Debates - Essay

In early modern Europe, then, what was a mixed-media environment characterized by talking and manuscripts became even more mixed by the addition of mass print. Again, we need to stress that mass print did not replace talking or manuscripts. Major media generally accumulate; they do not supplant one another. We also should emphasize that mass print did not at any point or in any place become the predominant mode of communications. For several centuries after the introduction of mass print, literacy rates remained low. People who can't read--and that was the majority of the European population until the late nineteenth century--do not read manuscripts or printed texts. They talk. Orality, though not primary orality, survived well into the modern era even where print and literacy spread fastest and penetrated most deeply. And even among people who were literate, talking and manuscripts hardly disappeared once printing and printed matter became widely available. For many--and perhaps even most--purposes it remained easier to talk to someone than to write a note to them, and easier to write a note to them than to print one. (Poe 2011,115)

For years now I have refrained from writing about Ruth Bottigheimer's speculative notions concerned with the so-called "new history" of the fairy tale because I believed a strong wind of sensible, well-grounded, judicious scholarship would blow them away. But I was wrong. I underestimated Bottigheimer's ambition. Somehow she has managed to make herself into a cause celebre and to draw the attention of well-meaning scholars, who mistakenly think they might be able to have a dialogue with her. Yet it seems that she mainly wants to ride her own hobby horse with blinders and to astonish academia with her notions of what constitutes cultural evolution. Her "novel ideas" are part of the sensationalist vogues that haunt all cultures. Dressed in flashy colors, they can easily become attractive commodities. Sensationalism sells well, even sensationalist claims of publicity-seeking academics. Here a little history about Bottigheimer's "rise to fame" and details about her mission to define the fairy tale in absolute terms is necessary before I deal with her most recent book, Fairy Tales: A New History.

The Incident

On July 30, 2005, Bottigheimer, evidently anxious to publicize her theses in Fairy Godfather: Straparola, Venice, and the Fairy Tale (2002) and to cause a sensation, drew the ire of many of the folklorists attending the Fourteenth Congress of the International Society for Folk Narrative Theory in Tartu, Estonia, by delivering a paper, "Fairy Tale Origins, Fairy Tale Dissemination, and Folk Narrative Theory," which dismissed the oral tradition as providing the source of literary fairy tales and proclaimed Giovan Francesco Straparola as the original inventor of the fairy-tale genre. Until Bottigheimer had promoted Straparola to the position of "god" of fairy tales, very few scholars had paid much attention to Straparola, whose collection of stories, Le piacevoli notti (The Pleasant Nights, 1550-1553), published in two volumes, contain about fourteen eclectic fairy tales and fifty-nine stories with riddles. (2) A "bestseller" in its time, its allure can be attributed to several factors, which I have pointed out in Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: "His use of erotic and obscene riddles, his mastery of polite Italian used by narrators in the frame narrative, his introduction of plain earthly language into the stories, the critical view of the power struggles in Italian society and lack of moralistic preaching, his introduction of fourteen unusual fairy tales into the collection, and his interest in magic, unpredictable events, duplicity, and the supernatural. Similar to Boccaccio, Straparola exhibited an irreverence for authorities, and the frame narrative reveals a political tension and somewhat ironic if not pessimistic outlook on the possibilities of living a harmonious happy ever after life." (3)

It must be said, however, that Straparola was not a great stylist; he plagiarized many Latin tales, translating them into the vernacular Italian, and imitated contemporary writers. The foremost Straparola scholar in Italy, Donato Pirovano, who edited the definitive contemporary edition of Le piacevoli notti, has written some very interesting remarks about Straparola's patchwork linguistics. "In this general average tone, where there are no centrifugal impulses and extremes (it has already been pointed out how Straparola tended to tone down the lexical expressionism of Morlini), the dialect expression and the Latin cast, together with the phonetic variants and frequent hyper-corrections, reveal the strong linguistic accomplishment of the author in the direction of the models of the novella tradition and are the tell-tale of a more general narrative project directed at bringing about a literary consecration of the fairy tale of the oral tradition." (4) Now, if an expert in Italian linguistics and Renaissance culture can indicate that Straparola was the mouthpiece of an Italian literary and oral tradition and wanted to consecrate the oral fairy tale, it is certainly questionable to crown Straparola as some sort of fairy godfather of a new genre. It might be best to dismiss Bottigheimer's pretensions with a shrug of the shoulder and explore the remarkable oral/literary aspects of Straparola's tales to understand how and why he replicated oral and literary tales in innovative ways.

Yet, instead of ignoring and/or critically reviewing Bottigheimer's theses, Dan Ben Amos, one of the foremost and most reasonable folklorists in the world, decided to give her book, Fairy Godfather, a fair hearing and to organize a roundtable titled "The European Fairy Tale Tradition: Between Orality and Literacy" for the 2006 fall meeting of the American Folklore Society in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Ben-Amos invited two highly qualified scholars, renowned medievalist Jan Ziolkowski and noted European anthropologist Francisco Vaz da Silva, to comment on Bottigheimer's book, which Ben-Amos also criticized at the roundtable. Bottigheimer was allowed time to respond to their papers, but the session was a fiasco because she refused to take their criticisms seriously and vaguely defended her ideas with unfounded rationalizations. All the papers of the AFS session were revised and expanded into articles published in the Journal of American Folklore in the summer of 2010. (5) The major points of contention were Bottigheimer's claims that Straparola was the founder of the fairy-tale narrative, described as a "rise tale," which reflected the rise of the mercantile and bourgeois classes; that Straparola's tales set a model for other writers, especially the French; that it was through print literature that tales were disseminated and reached the peasantry, who had not been intelligent enough to create their own wonder tales; and that Straparola lived and worked in Venice and catered to a wide circle of artisans who were literate. Though nothing is known about Straparola, where he was born, where he lived, or what his profession was, Bottigheimer wrote an imaginary biography that was also questioned by the participants at the roundtable.

The Book that Set the Folklorists on Fire

As Ziolkowski, Vaz da Silva, and BenAmos thoroughly and politely demonstrate in their lengthy essays, Bottigheimer's Fairy Godfather: Straparola, Venice, and the Fairy Tale, is one of the most narrow positivist studies of folklore and fairy tales that has ever been produced. Ziolkowski begins his essay by stating, "the book will not become a landmark in folkloristics in general, and only time will tell if it has a lasting impact even within fairy-tale studies." (6) Ziolkowski, who has published an exhaustive pioneer and comprehensive study, Fairy Tales from Before Fairy Tales: The Medieval Latin Past of Wonderful Lies (2007), chastises Bottigheimer for ignoring numerous Latin texts that have their origins in an oral tradition and were fairy tales before tales were given labels. According to him, Bottigheimer has simply ignored striking evidence that the Greeks and Romans and other European, Asian, and African people were telling tales during the pre-Christian era and early antiquity that laid the foundation for a literary genre which gradually flowered in Paris, not in Italy, during the 1690s when the socio-cultural conditions were riper in Paris than in Italy for designating certain tale types as belonging to the genre of the fairy tale. The narrative sequence of Bottigheimer's "rise tales," which she attributes to Straparola, can easily be read differently and expanded to comprehend many other tale types and narrative patterns. But by limiting just fourteen of Straparola's tales to a tight girdle-like definition, what Ziolkowski calls a "perverse agenda,"7 she does Straparola an injustice because she ignores the wide range of different kinds of oral wonder tales that he drew upon to write his tales. Aside from his own significant work, Ziolkowski cites other studies, such as Formes medievales du conte merveilleux (1989) edited by Jacques Berlioz, Claude Bremond, and Catherine Velay-Vallantin and Marchen und die mittelalterliche Tradition (1995) by Maren Clausen-Stolzenberg, which provide indisputable evidence that oral tales existed and at times informed numerous literary romances, lais, poems, and exempla. Yet, as Ziolkowski notes, "Tradition of the oral sort turns out to be a phenomenon Bottigheimer presents as being hopelessly elusive before the introduction of phonographic recording in the 1870s. A slogan, probably around fifty years old and quaint in ways that would have disconcerted its original exponents, advocates that we 'Question Authority,' but Bottigheimer follows a simpler (and possibly simplistic) principle of 'Question Orality.' In her view, not only is it pointless to conjecture about oral traditional literature...

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