Jack Zipes – Are fairy tales still useful to Children?

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Jack Zipes master of fairytales and author of a many books no fairytales
Jack Zipes in the Flesh.

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Fairy Tales are still relevant to the children of today.

Jack Zipes writes…
At their best, the storytelling of fairy tales constitute the most profound articulation of the human struggle to form and maintain a civilizing process. They depict metaphorically the opportunities for human adaptation to our environment and reflect the conflicts that arise when we fail to establish civilizing codes commensurate with the self-interests of large groups within the human population. The more we give into base instincts – base in the sense of basic and depraved – the more criminal and destructive we become. The more we learn to relate to other groups of people and realize that their survival and the fulfillment of their interests is related to ours, the more we might construct social codes that guarantee humane relationships. Fairy tales are uncanny because they tell us what we need and they unsettle us by showing what we lack and how we might compensate for lack.

Fairy tales hint of happiness. This hint, what Ernst Bloch has called the anticipatory illumination, has constituted their utopian appeal that has a strong moral component to it. We do not know happiness, but we instinctually know and feel that it can be created and perhaps even defined. Fairy tales map out possible ways to attain happiness, to expose and resolve moral conflicts that have deep roots in our species. The effectiveness of fairy tales and other forms of fantastic literature depends on the innovative manner in which we make the information of the tales relevant for the listeners and receivers of the tales. As our environment changes and evolves, so we change the media or modes of the tales to enable us to adapt to new conditions and shape instincts that were not necessarily generated for the world that we have created out of nature. This is perhaps one of the lessons that the best of fairy tales and teach us: we are all misfit for the world, and yet, somehow we must all fit together. Fairy tales have an extraordinary, uncanny power over us, and Georges Jean locates this power on the conscious level in the way all good fairy tales aesthetically structure and use fantastic and miraculous elements to prepare us for our everyday life. Magic is used paradoxically not to deceive us but to enlighten us. On an unconscious level, Jean believes that the best fairy tales bring together subjective and assimilatory impulses with objective intimations of a social setting that intrigue readers and allow for different interpretations according to one’s ideology and belief. Ultimately, Jean argues that the fantastic power of fairy tales consists in the uncanny way they provide a conduit into social reality. Yet, given the proscription of fairy-tale discourse within a historically prescribed civilizing process, a more careful distinction must be made between regressive and progressive aspects of the power of fairy tales in general to understand the liberating potential of contemporary tales for all human beings. Sigmund Freud’s concept of the œuncanny and Ernst Bloch’s concept of “home” can enable us to grasp the constitutive elements of the liberating impulse behind the fantastic and uncanny projections in fairy tales, whether they be classical or experimental. In his essay on the uncanny, Freud remarks that the word heimlich means that which is familiar and agreeable and also that which is concealed and kept out of sight, and he concludes that heimlich is a word the meaning of which develops in the direction of ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite, unheimlich or uncanny. Through a close study of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s fairy tale The Sandman, Freud argues that the uncanny or unfamiliar (unheimlich) brings us in closer touch with the familiar (heimlich) because it touches on emotional disturbances and returns us to repressed phases in our evolution: If psychoanalytic theory is correct in maintaining that every effect belonging to an emotional impulse, whatever its kind, is transformed, if it is repressed, into anxiety, then among instances of frightening things there must be one class in which the frightening element can be shown to be something repressed which recurs. This class of frightening things would then constitute the uncanny; and it must be a matter of indifference whether what is uncanny was itself originally frightening or whether it carried some other affect. In the second place, if this is indeed the secret nature of the uncanny, we can understand why linguistic usage has extended das Heimliche (”homely”) into its opposite, das Unheimliche; for this uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression. This reference to the factor of repression enables us, furthermore, to understand Schelling’s definition of the uncanny as something which ought to have remained hidden but has come to light. Freud insists that one must be extremely careful in using the category of the uncanny since not everything which recalls repressed desires and surmounted modes of thinking belongs to the prehistory of the individual and the race and can be considered uncanny. In particular, Freud mentions fairy tales as excluding the uncanny. In fairy tales, for instance, the world of reality is left behind from the very start, and the animistic system of beliefs is frankly adopted. Wish-fulfillments, secret powers, omnipotence of thoughts, animation of inanimate objects, all the elements so common in fairy stories, can exert no uncanny influence here; for, as we have learnt, that feeling cannot arise unless there is a conflict of judgment as to whether things which have been “surmounted” and are regarded as incredible may not, after all, be possible; and this problem is eliminated from the outset by the postulates of the world of fairy tales.

Although it is true that the uncanny becomes the familiar and the norm in the fairy tale because the narrative perspective accepts it so totally, there is still room for another kind of uncanny experience within the postulates and constructs of the fairy tale. That is, Freud’s argument must be qualified regarding the machinations of the fairy tale. However, I do not want to concern myself with this point at the moment but would simply like to suggest that the uncanny plays a significant role in the act of reading or listening to a fairy tale. Using and modifying Freud’s category of the uncanny, I want to argue that the very act of reading a fairy tale is an uncanny experience in that it separates the reader from the restrictions of reality from the onset and makes the repressed unfamiliar familiar once again. Bruno Bettelheim has noted that the fairy tale estranges the child from the real world and allows him or her to deal with deep-rooted psychological problems and anxiety-provoking incidents to achieve autonomy. Whether this is true or not, that is, whether a fairy tale can actually provide the means for coping with ego disturbance, as Bettelheim argues, remains to be seen. It is true, however, that once we begin listening to or reading a fairy tale, there is estrangement or separation from a familiar world inducing an uncanny feeling which can be both frightening and comforting.

Actually the complete reversal of the real world has already taken place before we begin reading a fairy tale on the part of the writer, and the writer invites the reader to repeat this uncanny experience. The process of reading involves dislocating the reader from his/her familiar setting and then identifying with the dislocated protagonist so that a quest for the Heimische or real home can begin. The fairy tale ignites a double quest for home: one occurs in the reader’s mind and is psychological and difficult to interpret, since the reception of an individual tale varies according to the background and experience of the reader. The second occurs within the tale itself and indicates a socialization process and acquisition of values for participation in a society where the protagonist has more power of determination. This second quest for home can be regressive or progressive depending on the narrator’s stance vis-A-vis society. In both quests the notion of home or Heimat, which is closely related etymologically to heimlich and unheimlich, retains a powerful progressive attraction for readers of fairy tales. While the uncanny setting and motifs of the fairy tale already open us up to the recurrence of primal experiences, we can move forward at the same time because it opens us up to what Freud calls “unfulfilled but possible futures to which we still like to cling in fantasy, all the strivings of the ego which adverse external circumstances have crushed, and all our suppressed acts of volition which nourish in us the illusion of Free Will.”

Obviously, Freud would not condone clinging to our fantasies in reality. Yet, Ernst Bloch would argue that some are important to cultivate and defend since they represent our radical or revolutionary urge to restructure society so that we can finally achieve home. Dreaming which stands still bodes no good. But if it becomes a dreaming ahead, then its cause appears quite differently and excitingly alive. The dim and weakening features, which may be characteristic of mere yearning, disappear; and then yearning can show what it really is able to accomplish. It is the way of the world to counsel men to adjust to the world’s pressures, and they have learned this lesson; only their wishes and dreams will not hearken to it. In this respect virtually all human beings are futuristic; they transcend their past life, and to the degree that they are satisfied, they think they deserve a better life (even though this may be pictured in a banal and egotistic way), and regard the inadequacy of their lot as a barrier, and not just as the way of the world. To this extent, the most private and ignorant wishful thinking is to be preferred to any mindless goose-stepping; for wishful thinking is capable of revolutionary awareness, and can enter the chariot of history without necessarily abandoning in the process the good content of dreams.

What Bloch means by the good content of dreams is often the projected fantasy and action of fairy tales with a forward and liberating look: human beings in an upright posture who strive for an autonomous existence and non-alienating setting which allows for democratic cooperation and humane consideration. Real history which involves independent human self-determination cannot begin as long as there is exploitation and enslavement of humans by other humans. The active struggle against unjust and barbaric conditions in the world leads to home, or utopia, a place nobody has known but which represents humankind coming into its own: The true genesis is not at the beginning, but at the end, and it starts to begin only when society and existence become radical: that is, comprehend their own roots. But the root of history is the working, creating man, who rebuilds and transforms the given circumstances of the world. Once man has comprehended himself and has established his own domain in real democracy, without depersonalization and alienation, something arises in the world which all men have glimpsed in childhood: a place and a state in which no one has yet been. And the name of this something is home or homeland.[x] Philosophically speaking, then, the real return home or recurrence of the uncanny is a move forward to what has been repressed and never fulfilled. The pattern in most fairy tales involves the reconstitution of home on a new plane, and this accounts for the power of its appeal to both children and adults.

In Bloch’s two major essays on fairy tales, “Das Marchen geht selber in Zeit” (”The Fairy Tale Moves on its Own in Time”) and Bessere LuftschlÃsser in Jahrmarkt und Zirkus, in MÃrchen und Kolportage” (”Better Castles in the Air in Fair and Circus, in the Fairy Tale and Popular Books”), Bloch is concerned with the manner in which the hero and the aesthetic constructs of the tale illuminate the way to overcome oppression. He focuses on the way the underdog, the small person, uses his or her wits not only to survive but to live a better life. Bloch insists that there is good reason for the timelessness of traditional fairy tales, “Not only does the fairy tale remain as fresh as longing and love, but the demonically evil, which is abundant in the fairy tale, is still seen at work here in the present, and the happiness of – once upon a time, which is even more abundant, still affects our visions of the future.”

It is not only the timeless aspect of traditional fairy tales that interests Bloch, but also the way they are modernized and appeal to all classes and age groups in society. Instead of demeaning popular culture and common appeal, Bloch endeavors to explore the adventure novels, modern romances, comics, circuses, country fairs, and the like. He refuses to make simplistic qualitative judgments of high and low art forms, rather he seeks to grasp the driving utopian impulse in the production and reception of art-works for mass audiences. Time and again he focuses on fairy tales as indications of paths to be taken in reality. What is significant about such kinds of “modern fairy tales” is that it is reason itself which leads to the wish projections of the old fairy tale and serves them. Again what proves itself is a harmony with courage and cunning, as that earliest kind of enlightenment which already characterizes “Hansel and Gretel”: consider yourself as born free and entitled to be totally happy, dare to make use of your power of reasoning, look upon the outcome of things as friendly. These are the genuine maxims of fairy tales, and fortunately for us they not only appear in the past but in the now.

Bloch and Freud set the general parameters for helping us understand how our longing for home, which is discomforting and comforting, draws us to folk and fairy tales. They provide clues and reveal why we continue to be attracted to the uncanny.

Learn more about Jack Zipes on Wikipedia.


  • By naphini, February 1, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

    This essay is utterly fantastic! (No pun intended–well, ok it was intended). I haven’t encountered a more succinct and clear advocation of clinging to our utopian dreams, the sense of home and desperate longing to get there. There is indeed more to fantasy than escapism, I suspect, and rude dismissals of fairy tales and other fantasies as such too easily disregard the value of that longing. Now I’ll have to pick up and read Jack Zipes; I’m hooked. My question: can this hope and longing, presented to us in tales, be reconciled with a clear and honest vision of the real world — honest like the nihilism or absurdism of Camus, who seeks to destroy hope as a barrier to our happiness? I must reconcile the two. Now… Away!

  • By Gina, January 24, 2010 @ 5:17 pm

    This is a magnificent essay that is easy to read and greatly helped me with my psychology paper.

  • By Jennifer Armstrong, March 6, 2011 @ 9:16 am

    I always have something new to learn from Zipes. I’ve never stopped telling fairy tales to my daughter, and I continue to advise other parents to do the same.

  • By ellen, April 1, 2011 @ 9:13 am

    Can I ask for a reference for this essay, ie not the url for this page but where is it published? If it was written for the website then obviously not, but if it is from a book of his or a journal article would someone let me know?

  • By Brother Wolf, April 1, 2011 @ 9:19 am

    This Essay was submitted by the author to this website – so yes it was written for this website. However the understanding between the Author and the Publisher was that he was allowed to use work that was previously published as long as he had retained the right to do so with the previous publishers. In short he was encouraged to use parts of previous works in this work, but welcome to submit what ever he thought was relavent.

    All the Best

    Eric Wolf

  • By ellen, April 2, 2011 @ 3:45 am

    Thank you so much.

    All best

  • By Mostafa, April 8, 2011 @ 8:14 pm

    Thanks very much for this great conversation as well as the whole website!

  • By Roberta, October 28, 2015 @ 11:33 am

    I like the paragraph where the author treats the duality between canny and uncanny in literature for children and how child reacts to a fairy-tale.
    I and my sister have been grown by fairy tales, I’d say they are very useful, even essential, to overcome pain of growth and fears which foil children and block their growth.

  • By OG, October 31, 2015 @ 8:23 pm

    When I started the essay I thought I liked it. The beginning is not bad; however, as I got to the second part the constant citing of Bloch bothered me. In Bloch’s interpretation, Marxism is an application of the fairy tale to society so we end up with the idea that fairy tales express humanity’s need for a Marxist utopia. Is the Marxist worldview some sort of fairy tale? Yes, but its capacity for destruction does not fit with my idea of what a fairytale would be. When Mao had 30 million people killed to create a better world, this was a catastrophe, not a fairy tale. Fairy tales are not “revolutionary” by any means. They belong to a different kind of world.

  • By Jill, December 18, 2015 @ 3:12 pm

    Hi there!
    I would love to use this piece as part of a graduate essay but I’m unsure of the citation..could you provide MLA reference material? when the piece was published? did it come from a longer essay or book of Zipes’? Thank you very much!

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