THE OXFORD COMPANION TO FAIRY TALES Edited by Jack Zipes Oxford University Press 601 pp., $49.95
As familiar as childhood, as strange as dreams, fairy tales are easily comprehended by the young and the nave, yet have also attracted the assiduous attention of scholars and academics. For better or worse, Freudians, Jungians, folklorists, structuralists, formalists, historicists, Marxists, and feminists have all been busy explicating, analyzing, classifying, and deconstructing fairy tales.
Although they got their start in the oral tradition, fairy tales went on to become a noteworthy part of written literature. It is the literary fairy tale in particular that a new Oxford Companion is designed to illuminate. General editor Jack Zipes, his coeditors, and a host of contributors focus on the Western fairy tale from medieval to modern times, also paying some attention to influential Eastern tales, like "The Arabian Nights."
It is hard to convey the sheer variety of topics treated. There are entries on well-known authors and compilers of fairy tales, like Charles Perrault and Madame d'Aulnoy of 17th-century France, and, from the 19th century, the Grimm brothers, Clemens Brentano, and the Danish master, Hans Christian Andersen.
Anyone who supposes the fairy tale is a limited genre would do well to consider the amazing amplitude of a form that has attracted so many diverse talents: Alexander Pushkin, Ludwig Tieck, E.T.A. Hoffman, George MacDonald, Lewis Carroll, Charles Kingsley, Oscar Wilde, Maurice Maeterlinck, L. Frank Baum, J.M. Barrie, Sylvia Townsend Warner, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Salman Rushdie, Ursula Le Guin, Italo Calvino, and Naguib Mahfouz, to name just a few of the writers covered in this volume.
And writers are not the only creative spirits at work in the fairy tale realm. The Oxford Companion also looks at filmmakers like Walt Disney, puppeteers like Jim Henson, the composers, librettists, and choreographers of operas and ballets like "The Magic Flute" and "The Nutcracker," and, of course, the artists who have illustrated fairy tales, from Gustav Dor, Arthur Rackham, and Walter Crane to Lois Lenski, Tomi Ungerer, and Maurice Sendak. (Surprisingly, there's no mention of Goldilocks and those three bears.)
It seems right that a book about fairy tales should be illustrated, and the full- and half-page illustrations in "The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales" well demonstrate the richness of the visual tradition.
Along with entries on the people who have helped create fairy tales, there are scads of detailed, informative, and analytical essays on the fairy tales themselves. The entry on "Little Red Riding Hood," for example, finds its first literary version in a 1697 collection by Charles Perrault and locates an earlier version among the oral tales of sewing circles. Whatever the version, it seems, the heroine usually manages not to be devoured by the big bad wolf, sometimes outsmarting him herself, other times being rescued by a huntsman. Moreover, we learn, "there have been hundreds of ... revisions by such gifted authors as ... James Thurber ... Angela Carter, and Tanith Lee in which the nature of ... gender stereotypes has been questioned. There are some tales in which a rambunctious grandmother eats up everyone; the wolf is a vegetarian and the girl a lesbian; the girl shoots the wolf with a revolver; and the girl seduces the wolf."
What is true for dark woodsy terrain also holds true for reference books: The reader should be able to see both the forest and the trees. "The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales" achieves a fine balance between the specific and the broad overview. Along with all the entries on particular stories, writers, and artists, there are several long sections discussing the history and development of the fairy tale in various countries, including Britain and Ireland, Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Scandinavia, North America, and Slavic and Baltic nations. There are also long entries on topics like feminism and fairy tales, folklore and fairy tales, psychology and fairy tales, even advertising and fairy tales.
Packed with fascinating information, assembled with intelligence and care, this "Companion" is as helpful, reliable, and full of fresh surprises as a fairy godmother.
*Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society