Jack Zipes, editor,
The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales
(Oxford University Press, 2000)

The rich history of fairy tales spans countless generations. Whether told around the fire to children huddled in a crofter's hut or projected from the halls of Disney to the big screen, fairy tales continue to fascinate people all over the world.

Jack Zipes, ably assisted by a large body of researchers and editors, has put together one of the most comprehensive resources on the subject of fairy tales ever to grace a bookshelf. The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, first published in 2000, is an invaluable source of information on the development of fairy tales and similar forms of storytelling, the people who created or preserved the stories for future generations, and the impacts of the tales on society. While limited in scope to the literary traditions of the Western world (Europe and North America), this Oxford Companion sets its sights high in tackling so broad a subject and succeeds admirably in producing a comprehensive encyclopedia of information boasting more than 800 entries.

Specific tales are outlined. Biographies of literary giants and anthologists, from the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Andersen and William Butler Yeats to A.A. Milne, Beatrix Potter, C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum and J.R.R. Tolkien, abound. Modern writers and creators have made their mark, too, and you'll find Steven Brust, Charles de Lint, Walt Disney, Neil Gaiman, Jim Henson, Terry Jones, Tanith Lee, Patricia A. McKillip, Terry Pratchett, Steven Spielberg and Jane Yolen among those represented here. (I suspect future editions will include the likes of George Lucas, Tom Holt and Terri Windling, who are sadly among the missing.) Examinations of related oral and literary forms are provided, with obvious links to interpretations through folk music, opera, television, movies, art and even advertising. There are also expansive sections on the countries where fairy tales developed their most distinguishable traits. Black-and-white illustrations and photographs punctuate the voluminous pages of text, breaking up the gray passages with samples of art from the genre's published history.

In short, if it's related to fairy tales in any way, no matter how remote, chances are good that Zipes and his team have included references to it here.

Not only is the subject thoroughly and wonderfully researched and exhaustively cross-referenced, but the data is presented in interesting prose -- far from the dry text that can make reading volumes such as this an exercise in tedium. While I'm not suggesting the book is appropriate for frequent light reading, you can certainly find yourself sampling from its pages without getting bored!

The massive compendium is preceded by a hefty introduction by Zipes, detailing the development and distinctions of the fairy tale as a literary form.

The introduction links the literary fairy tale to the oral wonder tale, and notes the similarities and differences between those forms and related genres such as the folk tales, legends, chronicles and fables. It also delves into the common factors that define wonder/fairy tales: familiar protagonists such as Jack, Hans, Pierre, Ivan and, of course, variations on Cinderella; supporting characters such as the faithful bride or loyal sister, the boastful tailor or cunning thief; magical beasts such as the talking fish, flying horse or sly fox; and marvelous items like a magic sack, a powerful club or seven-league boots.

Fairy-tale protagonists require a certain degree of credulity, Zipe explains. "Those who are naive and simple are able to succeed because they are untainted and can recognize the wonderous signs. They have retained their belief in the miraculous condition of nature and revere nature in all its aspects. They have not been spoiled by conventionalism, power, or rationalism." Villains, on the other hand, attempt to exploit, control or destroy, and they lack respect for nature and people alike.

With exacting detail, Zipes explores the history and development of fairy tales as a written form around the world, discussing at length the evolution of the tales for both adults and children of various social classes, from ancient antecedents to modern Disney.

It would take a library to equal the information stored in between these covers. Whether you are a serious scholar or a occasional dabbler in the subject of fairy tales, you'll find The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales a resource you cannot do without.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 29 June 2002

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