Why Fairy Tales Stick: Interview with a Fairy Tale Scholar
Here we have an interview with Jack Zipes, a retired professor of German who is widely recognized for his research and writings in the field of fairy tale. His interest began after an encounter with Albert Einstein who advised him to study fairy tales if he wanted to do well in life. (Well, I guess all of us opera singers are well on our way!)
The Storytelling Instinct, or Why Fairy Tales Stick
by John Smelcer
John Smelcer: Today, perhaps as much or more than ever, fairy tales permeate our culture in literature, music, art, and especially cinema (consider the success of Disney and Shrek). And while we generally think of fairy tales as the realm of children, much of these mediums are for adults (consider Wicked). The question arises, with all our modernity and science and technology, why do fairy tales persist? I realize this is precisely the title of one of your recent books, Why Fairy Tales Stick (Routledge, 2006).
Jack Zipes: If anybody asks me why fairy tales stick, I always respond with a question: Why do we breathe? We don’t know exactly how long human beings have told fairy tales, but we do know more or less that people began telling stories as soon as they were able to speak. They probably communicated with gestures, dancing, painting, and other artifacts even before they could speak. What kinds of tales did they tell? Clearly, they communicated warnings, instructions, explanations, and anything that helped them adapt to their environments and to survive. They also communicated with metaphors. Gradually, they embroidered and embellished their communications with descriptions and learned to construct their stories artfully to entertain, amuse, and instruct listeners. The more artful they became, the more the stories resonated, and since the early humans did not know how to write, they stored relevant stories in their brains. And, just as it was then, so it is now.
JS: Your comment reminds me of something J. R. R. Tolkien, himself a linguist and scholar of the myth and fairy tale, wrote in Tree and Leaf, “Speaking of the history of stories and especially fairy-stories, we may say that the Pot of Soup, the Cauldron of Story, has always been boiling.” I agree that language is among our most important survival mechanisms. Noam Chomsky with his Minimalist Program and Steven Pinker in books like his The Language Instinctargue that we humans have not simply a propensity to acquire language, but an instinct to do so. They argue that our brains are genetically hard-wired for language. Like you, I have always conjectured that people began telling stories as soon as they were able to speak. It seems to be rational that our storytelling instinct coincides with and is sustained and transmitted by our language instinct (as far as I know, every culture on earth has a language and a corpus of stories, including myths, legends, and fairy tales—many of which, especially the more ancient ones, I dare say, find their way into the fabric of religion). At this point, it may be necessary to make a clarification. We’ve interchanged words like story, fairy tale, and myth. For this discussion, can we assume that we are broadly referring to the tradition that is storytelling, in whatever its form, realizing that each of these terms has its own definition?
JZ: Yes, I agree, and as our capacity to speak and reason has developed, we have sorted the tales in our minds and tended to define them by the way we have employed them in socio-cultural contexts. Over hundreds of years, the sorting has led to the developments of genres of storytelling. In the process we have stored tales in our brains when they have been important for us to adapt to our environments. I have recently hypothesized that the most important stories in a culture become memes. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins proposed in his book The Selfish Gene (1976) that human beings are not only wired by their genes but also by their memes. Dawkins maintains that there is one fundamental law of life that he believes is undeniable: “the law that all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities. The gene, the DNA molecule, happens to be the replicating entity that prevails on our own planet. There may be others. If there are, provided certain other conditions are met, they will almost inevitably tend to become the basis for an evolutionary planet.”[i] Indeed, Dawkins argues that there is another new replicator that he calls a meme, a unit of cultural transmission. “Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, and ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. . . . memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn’t just a way of talking; the meme for, say, ‘belief in life after death’ is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.” [ii]
[i] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976): 192.
[ii] Ibid., 192.