Teaching Fairy Tales

I’ve spent all day working on my teaching materials for this semester. One of the classes I’m teaching is called Fairy Tales and Literature, and I thought you might like to see the reading list.

We’re going to start with J.R.R. Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stoires” and then talk about his ideas in relation to Madame de Beaumont’s “Beauty and the Beast” and Angela Carter’s two Beauty and the Beast stories: “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” and “The Tyger’s Bride.” That will be our introductory section. Then, we’re going to talk about the meaning and method of fairy tales, so we’re going to get into Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment. That will give us some theories to use when discussing four fairy tales and literary reinterpretations of them. Here’s what the list looks like:

Charles Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Little Red Cap” by the Brothers Grimm, with James Thurber’s “The Little Girl and the Wolf” and Carter’s “In the Company of Wolves.”

“Cinderella” by the Brothers Grimm and “Catskin” by Joseph Jacobs, with Aimee Bender’s “Donkeyskin” and Kelly Link’s “Catskin.”

Perrault’s “Bluebeard” with Joyce Carol Oates’ “Blue-Bearded Lover,” Margaret Atwood’s “Bluebeard’s Egg,” and Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber.”

We’re also going to read what Bettelheim and Maria Tatar have to say about all of these fairy tales. There will be some more theoretical material, including by Marina Warner and Jack Zipes. And then we will get into Jane Eyre, which I’m going to teach as a series of fairy tale structures.

Here are the books we will be using:

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me
, edited by Kate Berhneimer
Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber
The Classic Fairy Tales, edited by Maria Tatar

And of course the Bettelheim and Jane Eyre.

I will probably be writing about this material as the semester goes on. I decided to teach the class because there was just so much fairy tale stuff coming out: and you know, I wonder why. Why now? Perhaps it has to do with Tolkien’s idea that fairy tales promise us eucatastrophe, the happy ending. We all hope, perhaps against hope, that there is a happy ever after out there somewhere. Me, I believe in happy endings. I think that sometimes we have to make them, but I think they exist. I like that line from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: if it’s not happy, it’s not the end yet.

Here is the illustration I’m using for the class website:

It’s a picture of Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf by Gustave Doré. Of course, not all versions of fairy tales end happily — there is the Little Red Riding Hood who is eaten up! I suppose that’s eucatastrophe for the wolf. But I agree with Tolkien that the happy ending is intrinsic to the fairy tale, perhaps not as it started, but as it has become.

What I’m wondering right now is, what sorts of story ideas will teaching fairy tales give me this semester? I’m looking forward to finding out.

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17 Responses to Teaching Fairy Tales

  1. Book club is currently reading Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales by von Franz. Quite interesting.

  2. Melissa Mead says:

    I’d love to take this class!

  3. Caitlyn says:

    There’s a book I love called Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, which is mostly about how witchcraft in Medieval Europe was a hold over from shamanic beliefs, but there’s an amazing chapter where he breaks down Cinderella and shows that it could have begun as a story about a shaman’s descent into the underworld. It kinda blew my mind when my folklore prof had me read it, because it was such a wildly different way to look at fairy tales. The author is Carlo Ginzburg.

  4. This looks like a great foundational course. Von Franz is interesting but I never used her because Jungian archetypes to me often overwrite the material’s messages. Zipes always gets them talking. . . . I slipped in Foucault on discipline to talk about the whole “moral of the story” aspect of many fairy tales. I really appreciate the comparative approach for the tales. I eagerly await hearing how your approach to Jane Eyre plays out.

  5. Caroline says:

    oh, thank you … if you are ever in Mugar Library stop by the and say hello.
    I’d love to be taking this class.

  6. I had the good luck to meet Kate Bernheimer and get her autograph when I bought
    My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me in a dinky basement in a Mission
    Street shop. It cannot be read except off and on; like drinking some strange elixir.
    Also, I have just finished and recommend Graham Joyce’s latest novel, “Some Kind Of Fairy Tale.” As all of Joyce’s novels, it is heady and thoughtful and good for the
    heart. I could blather on about fairy tales and how they have saved my life many
    times, but…luckily I will not.

  7. helen says:

    What a wonderful course! I shall look forward to reading more about it here, I hope you do write about it. I am having a bit of a fairy-tale moment myself, I’ve decided to read and post about all the Grimms’ fairy tales in my copy of the selected tales. As yet I have only written about the first one, but how fascinating that turned out to be (the tale, I mean, not my post heh heh!).

  8. Diatryma says:

    Ursula Vernon posted a wonderful Bluebeard recently– her Livejournal is ursulav. She’s also been doing fairy tale retellings with commentary, reaching for the very weirdest.

  9. Jane Yolen says:

    More. . more please, Miss, and I want to take your course!


  10. Paula LH says:

    It sounds like a fascinating class. I expect that your students will still be thinking about it many years later.

  11. Carmen Lau says:

    First of all, thank you for writing this wonderful blog in addition to your fiction. I am now a fan of both. I like that you delve into things like happiness, depression, fear. It’s refreshing to see honest questions being asked and considered.

    I think people are interested in fairytales nowadays because they provide what you mention in later posts: magic and meaning. Especially meaning. It’s possible to live day after day, look back and wonder, What was all that for/about? and receive no satisfactory answer. There is always a sense that there’s a point in fairy tales, no matter how mysterious that point may be. Every action and incident has the potential for meaning. And fairytales are so well-worn, they must contain some wisdom. I think the act of rewriting fairytales, or using fairytale elements in new fiction, is a magical act in itself, an act of reclaiming and bringing that wisdom into modern life. Like a necessary act of transformation.

    I think all that might be a regurgitation of what you said in another post. I’d have to look back and check. Anyway, if it is, I agree with you.

    Also, I agree with the happy ending theory. Through all the strange darkness, there is almost always a happy ending waiting for fairytale characters. It’s something I’d hazard to say everyone wants.

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