Two Books Plumb the Hidden Depths of the Fairy Tale

From The Wall Street Journal:

Once upon a time, fairy tales were the rage in fashionable Paris. At literary salons and at the court of Louis XIV, ladies and gentlemen beguiled one another with fantastical tales of talking animals and monster-husbands; of djinns and sorcerers; of sleeping beauties and ravenous ogres. Many tales had their origins in the nscrutable past of oral storytelling, containing narrative elements that in some cases dated back to the Bronze Age and could be traced to no single creator. In time, they began making their way into print—and acquiring authors.

In 1697 the French writer Charles Perrault published the first volume of European fairy tales, “Tales of Mother Goose.” A few years later, Antoine Galland thrilled salon habitués with his translation into French of the Middle Eastern folk tales known variously as “The Thousand and One Nights” and “The Arabian Nights.” These stories, glittering with thrilling detail and told through the framing device of a princess determined to keep her homicidal husband hanging on her words, were a literary sensation.

Who told the stories first? Who knows? As Nicholas Jubber writes in “The Fairy Tellers,” “searching for the roots of fairy tales is a process of entangling oneself in mysteries. Delve into the sources and we can find, every so often, the frayed end of the line, but there are always more knots to untie.” Fiddling about with frayed story-ends and pesky authorial knots is the business of this enthusiastic and enjoyable book, in which Mr. Jubber, a British travel writer, explores the lives and work of seven storytellers who are mostly unknown outside academic circles. The exception is Hans Christian Andersen, the 19th-century Danish fabulist who remains a household name thanks to the enduring popularity of original fairy tales such as “The Little Mermaid,” “The Snow Queen” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Andersen aside, the general reader is unlikely to have met Mr. Jubber’s other subjects and may be amazed to learn the degree to which these unsung men and women have shaped the fairy-tale canon we enjoy today.

Consider, for instance, “Aladdin” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” sensational tales of wealth and trickery that are perhaps the best-known of all the rich story delights of “The Arabian Nights.” As Mr. Jubber explains, neither tale made an appearance in the first seven volumes of Galland’s translations. The Frenchman was able to add them only after his encounters in 1709 with a Maronite Syrian storyteller who was on a sojourn to Paris. The identity of that long-ago traveler remained obscure—a frayed end, we might say—until 1993, when a Ph.D. student poking through Arabic manuscripts in the Vatican archives happened upon the fellow’s memoirs. The man who brought the world the story of a shiftless youth inveigled by a magician into stealing an enchanted lamp; the storyteller who first told of a bandit chief using the words “open sesame” to enter a treasure cave—this man was a former monastery novice from Aleppo named Abd al-Qari Antoun Youssef Youhenna Dyab. Hanna, as he was known, told 16 stories to Galland, who translated them later into French. “Galland did much to colour in the details,” notes Mr. Jubber, “but it was Hanna who provided the characters, the twists in the tale, the settings and resolution.” In a charming revelation, it transpires that this earliest-known teller of “Aladdin” borrowed ideas for his character’s wonderful palace from what Mr. Jubber calls the “fairy tale seraglio” of Versailles. Thus do fairy tales ever adapt, collecting bits of color and changing shape as they travel through time and language from one person to the next.

We see this process unfurling in the stories told by Mr. Jubber’s other tellers: the Renaissance Italian Giambattista Basile, author of the earliest European versions of “Rapunzel” and “Cinderella”; Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, whose 1740 “Beauty and the Beast” was the first of its kind; Dortchen Wild, the amiable young woman who gave “Rumpelstiltskin” and “Hansel and Gretel” to the Brothers Grimm for their 1812 collection; Ivan Khudiakov, the 19th-century Russian folklorist who amassed fairy tales about princes, fools, the witch Baba Yaga and the magical Firebird; and Somadeva Bhatta, the 11th-century Kashmiri court poet and author of a tremendous, multifarious work known in English as “The Ocean of the Streams of Story.” To bring us into the realms of these men and women,, Mr. Jubber interleaves passages of quirky biography, literary history, personal anecdote and his own retellings of their fairy tales. Rosie Collins, meanwhile, supplies neat little drawings to start off each chapter. The result is a handsome book stuffed with surprise and interest.

. . . .

One of America’s most distinguished experts in fairy tales and folklore is on a reclamation mission of her own with “The Heroine With 1,001 Faces” (published last year but due in paperback in September). In this fluent, genre-spanning work, Maria Tatar, a Harvard professor who specializes in German culture, sets out to illuminate the constellation of heroines that spangle the cultural firmament. In doing so, she purposely offers a complement—and compliment—to Joseph Campbell’s model of male heroism as explored in his 1949 book “The Hero With a Thousand Faces.”

To the task of identifying heroic female qualities (not least, care and compassion), Ms. Tatar brings a virtuosic command of story and character, gliding with impressive, almost too-slippery facility from Greek mythology to Buzzfeed; from Scheherazade to Clara Barton; from Fern in “Charlotte’s Web” to Starr Carter in “The Hate U Give.” Heroes, Ms. Tatar reflects, “embark on quests and journeys that have as their goal more than a return home.” Heroines, by contrast, are “habitually bent on social missions, trying to rescue, restore, or fix things, with words as their only weapons.”

Ms. Tatar admits to having been deeply moved by the #MeToo movement, seeing in its revelations the same tensions between speech and silence (and silencing) that have affected women since antiquity. “Rarely wielding the sword and often deprived of the pen,” she writes, “women have relied on the domestic crafts and their verbal analogues—spinning tales, weaving plots, and telling yarns—to make things right, not just getting even but also securing social justice.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal