Fairy Tales: Contexts of Subversion

Today we have a guest post by Christine Chettle from Reading the Fantastic.

Reading the Fantastic is an initiative based at the University of Leeds in the UK to bring together fellow enthusiasts of fairy tales, folk tales, and fantasy literature through reading groups and seminars (plus coffee, tea, wine and snacks), with a specific focus on exploring stories across cultures and disciplines.

Christine Chettle is a co-organizer of Reading the Fantastic and has recently finished a PhD examining Victorian fantasy and social change. We hope you enjoy her article:


 Fairy Tales: Contexts of Subversion

By Christine Chettle


The Foxes, 1913, by Franz Marc, 1880-1916

The Foxes, 1913, by Franz Marc, 1880-1916


An email conversation between myself, part of the Reading the Fantastic initiative in Leeds, UK, and Jo Henwood of the Australian Fairy Tale Society, revealed two things: both of us, Jo in Australia and I in Leeds, are co-organizers of discussion groups passionate about fairy and folktales, and both groups are separated by miles and budgets. But, we thought, an exchange of blog posts could provide a concrete way to explore our groups’ mutual interests and to explore how fairy and folktales connect people across time and space. Intriguingly, we already had a point of connection, as a conversation with another AFTS member, Reilly McCarron revealed: one of the first tales my group had discussed was ‘Mr Fox’ — in the version published by Joseph Jacobs (1854-1916). Born in Australia, spending a good deal of his working life in the UK, and dying in America, Jacobs collected and published fairy tales from a number of countries, beginning with English Fairy Tales (1890), in addition to his work in anthropology, cultural history, and folklore.

Jacobs’s motivations for his project were, in addition to uncovering and popularizing tales special to different countries, to ‘giv[e] a common fund of nursery literature to all classes of the English people and [ . . .] to gain fuller knowledge of the workings of the popular mind as well as traces of archaic modes of thought and custom’. His inclination towards universality was in part prompted by what he termed ‘The only reason, I imagine, why such tales have not hitherto been brought to light, is the lamentable gap between the governing and recording classes and the dumb working classes of this country–dumb to others but eloquent among themselves’. (A critical examination of this statement, as Caroline Sumpter points out in The Victorian Periodical Press and the Fairy Tale, reveals that ‘In his patriotic task of recovering the English folktale for “all classes”, Jacobs had to turn a blind eye to the fact that the working classes had been reading and recording for some time’ and reminds us of another reason for discussing connected versions of tales: each of us, and each version, will have flaws in outlook and can only benefit from the opinions of others.)

Jacobs represents part of a larger context of people, inspired by collections of earlier tales from other countries, trying to explore new understandings of fairy and folk tales. The Grimms themselves, of course, were in part influenced by the tales of Marie d’Aulnoy, originator of the term ‘fairy tale’, and Charles Perrault (among others), who were themselves influenced by earlier Italian writers (and so on it goes). In the nineteenth century, for example, John Ruskin and George MacDonald wrote new fairy tales (‘King of the Golden River’ [1841] and ‘The Light Princess’ [1864]) in response to earlier collections. At the end of the nineteenth century, the cumulative cultural influence of Hans Christian Andersen’s and the Grimms’ collections, along with various translations of The Thousand and One Nights compilation of Arabic folktales, prompted fairy tale scholars and enthusiasts to collect and study fairy tales in an extended and diffused critical context: as well as Jacobs, see the works of Antti Aarne and Andrew Lang, for example.

‘Collecting’ tales doesn’t just mean putting them into a book; it means seeking to understand them, exploring the connections they suggest, and investigating how they reach across multiple borders. As phylogenetic researcher Jamie Tehrani explains,


Folktales [ . . .] embody our shared fantasies, fears and experiences. Understanding which elements of them remain stable and which ones change as they get transmitted across generations and societies can therefore provide a unique window into universal and variable aspects of the human condition . . . .[and] represent a potentially rich point of contact between anthropologists, folklorists, literary scholars, biologists and cognitive scientists.


Another boy born in the Southern hemisphere who later travelled to England was also influenced by the study of fairy tale collections. Literary scholar, linguist and author John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, in discussing what prompted him to create his Middle-Earth legendarium, explained that his dissatisfaction with existing folk tale work was one such prompt: “I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands” [quoted in Fimi, page 50]. Tolkien’s searches led him to build a fantasy literary world which combined his own experience with a knowledge and appreciation of a number of other cultures.  Of course, the intersections of race in Tolkien’s world contain complexities and flaws; for a well-researched, comprehensive and nuanced discussion of this matter, I refer you to Dimitra Fimi’s Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits. Investigating the intersections of folktales and fantasy means acknowledging all the different ways, both positive and negative, in which myriads of tales impact the huge range of voices who read and speak them, and the tensions such impact can evoke.

Lady Mary, the heroine of Mr Fox, walks the complex path of analysing and connecting text with audience as she transmits her experience to craft a subversive narrative. One day, she follows her fiancé to his house; passing mysterious signs proclaiming, firstly just ‘Be bold, be bold, but not too bold’, then ‘Be bold, be bold, but not too bold/Lest your life’s blood run cold’, she sees these words come to life as her fiancé overpowers and murders a young woman, another of his brides, while Lady Mary spies on him. Her wedding feast gives her the opportunity to overpower this murderous man, since she is surrounded by many witnesses – yet Mr Fox controls the conversation. By initially presenting her tale as a dream, she can command attention without being silenced; by gradually increasing her tone of discomfort in uncovering scenes of horror, she builds fascination through the cumulative mystery she relays. When she finally reveals the dead woman’s hand and accuses her murderous fiancé outright, the witnesses at the feast are ready to kill on her behalf, redeeming her from a destructive social contract.

While we are unlikely to battle vulpine fiancés and discussion groups generally don’t incur violence, as we seek to understand the tensions beneath tales and explore how they connect us to other people, we too can gain the power to transmit experience across barriers of social space as well as time. The discussion group format extends this power, as in this context, no one person controls the conversation (well, certainly not to the extent of Mr Fox) and we can all join in discovering and uncovering the subversive dynamics in folk and fairy tale lore.



Dimitra Fimi, Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits, Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke, 2010

Caroline Sumpter The Victorian Periodical Press and the Fairy Tale, Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke, 2012

Jamie Tehrani, ‘As they spread, fairy tales evolve like biological species’ https://theconversation.com/as-they-spread-folktales-evolve-like-biological-species-20271, 2013


For more information on Reading the Fantastic, visit their site: http://reading-the-fantastic.tumblr.com/, their facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/ReadingTheFantastic),Twitter (@FantasyReadings) and by email (readingthefantastic@gmail.com).

Christine Chettle blogs here (www.fantasiesofthevictorians.blogspot.co.uk), tweets @Cherissonne and can be reached at c_chettle@yahoo.co.uk. Her write-up of the Reading the Fantastic session featuring Mr Fox is here.







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