The Things You Can Find

I’m digging into the Disney Beauty and the Beast right now. And looking it up online, I found an interesting bit of trivia: the screenplay writer was Linda Woolverton, which made her the first woman to write a Disney animated feature (which definitely shows in the movie, especially contrasted with previous Disney movies). Now, the interesting thing? She also wrote the screenplay for Maleficent.

I found an old article from the Los Angeles Times from January 1992, just after the release of Beauty and the Beast. (I remember standing around waiting to be seated in a restaurant right about that time, and seeing the poster for the movie. The person I was with jokingly suggested we go see it, which I had no interest in as I had never heard the story and wasn’t really into cinema movies – I could count on one hand the number of films I’d seen in the theatre at that point. Later I watched the B&B movie on VHS, and absolutely fell in love with it; and later still I discovered that going to the movies is one of my most favourite things to do, ever. Ancient history… and entirely beside the point.) Anyway, that article: it’s called “Ms. Beauty and the Beast: Writer of Disney Hit Explains Her ‘Woman of the ’90s'”. What had me crowing out loud in triumph was this line: “Woolverton, fearful of being influenced by the imagery of the Jean Cocteau film version, decided not to watch it.” See, I just finished copying a line from Zipes where he calls Disney’s accrediting the de Beaumont version of the story as hypotext for the movie “outrageous”, as, he claims, most of the plot and characters of the Disney film are ripped off lock, stock and barrel from Cocteau. Haha. Of course, the fact that the scriptwriter purposely hadn’t watched Cocteau doesn’t mean that others who were involved in the making of the film hadn’t done so – the article quotes Woolverton as saying “‘Beauty and the Beast’ was a group effort, one in which 500 people wore pencils down to their nubs” – so, sure, the influence of Cocteau is in there. But as for the plot and characters being “copied” from Cocteau, nope.

Anyway, it’s all very interesting about Linda Woolverton. Now I’m going to look up who the screenplay writers for the other newer Disney movies were; it’ll be interesting to do a quick comparison of the ones written by men with those written by women (I certainly hope that Woolverton wasn’t also the last female Disney screenplay writer). I know the old Disney movies were solidly staffed by men; I remember watching an old “making of” featurette for Snow White from 1938 which proudly showed all the animators and technical people and storytellers and so on, and then at the end of the process the ‘girls’ in the colouring department – all women had to do with the making of those quintessential princess movies was to neatly colour inside the lines on the celluloid. It absolutely stuck in my craw. And what was most eye-opening about it was the tone of the featurette’s narrator – he seemed to think that was perfectly normal, the natural order of things. No wonder the movies are what they are, with their paternalistic attitudes and featherwitted princesses who can only pine for a man – that’s the world they were created in, and the people they were created by. We’ve come a long ways today – hurrah for Linda Woolverton!

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Coming Off the Pedestal

I’ve done a lot of reading in the last ten months. A lot. And in the course of that reading, I found myself going through an interesting process. I learned things. I found theories and scholars I had never heard about before, but they made heaps of sense (very exciting!). I eagerly lapped up what they had to say. I put them up on a pedestal. I read more stuff. And more. And one day, I found myself disagreeing with a Great Scholar. Just on one small thing; I shrugged it off. I read more, and learned more. And thought more. And I disagreed again, this time more strongly. And repeatedly. As I kept learning, my ideas changed. Not only did the pile of books on my desk grow, my thinking did, as well. And now here I am, nearing the end of my studies, and I have – opinions. Okay, I know anyone reading this who knows me personally is laughing now – I’m not exactly known for my scarcity of opinions and shyness in expressing them, in a general way. But now I have opinions on a particular subject, which came from actually studying it. I do, in a small way, have something to say about folkloristics. Perhaps I’d even go so far as to call myself an embryonic folklorist – or maybe just, like some, a fairy tale fan. And as such, I disagree with some of the Greats in the field, on a few things.

Okay, with one Great in particular (I’m sure you already know where this is going): Jack Zipes. I first started reading him back in September, on my prof’s recommendation (and very grateful I am for that recommendation, too). I was thrilled, I loved what he had to say. And really, he is great. The amount of insight I got from his writings is quite staggering. I was wishing I could go study under him, but quite apart from the fact that he was working at the University of Minnesota, which is a long ways from here, he’s retired now. Too bad. I kept getting more of his books out of the library, and then bought my own copies for keeps; they’re that good. But as I kept reading, amid all the wonderful stuff I was learning I ran across points where I didn’t like what he was saying. The first thing was his disparaging opinion of Harry Potter. I was ready to make excuses for him – he’d been pushed into expressing an opinion, he wrote about the series when it was only half finished, etc. But then I delved deeper into the study of fairy tale film adaptations, and got a hold of one of his latest books, The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy Tale Films (2010). And as I kept reading, some of what he was saying kept rubbing me the wrong way. I found myself getting annoyed with his dismissive tone, his hypercritical and condescending attitude to particular popular culture products. And finally, here I was, just this afternoon, reading the chapter on Beauty and the Beast and Frog Prince adaptations, and I was loudly disagreeing with half the chapter (“That’s baloney!” “Gimme a break!” – yes, I know I’m weird, but my family is used to it) – that’s when I wasn’t rolling my eyes at what he was saying. That’s right, the guru has come off his pedestal.

Don’t get me wrong – I still have enormous respect for Dr. Zipes, and probably 95% of his writings are excellent. But there are certain topics where I just find myself at odds with his opinions, and they are just that, opinions. Specifically, it’s dealing with popular culture where my ideas clash with his. Now, as I mentioned before, I’m not a big Disney fan. I’m not sure if any real fairy tale buff can be. But Zipes, it’s like you mention the name Disney, and the shutters come down. “What good can come from Disney Studios?” Nothing, apparently. By definition. He goes into enormous raptures about the Cocteau Beauty and the Beast, which I personally find so-so (okay, I’m hampered by my lack of French; I can only follow the story with the subtitles, but still, I don’t quite know what the fuss is about), but the Disney version, which I love, is in Zipes’ opinion pretty much despicable. The feminist themes in it are a sham, the whole thing is same-old-same-old Disney flatness, the music is trite, etc etc. In fact, reading what Zipes says about it, I can’t help but get the feeling that as soon as he sees the name “Disney” on a screen, he doesn’t even bother paying attention to what he is watching, because his mind is already made up. Some of the comments he makes about the movie are plain old wrong. For example, he says that the Beast rescues Belle and then dies in her arms, which is baloney – the Beast’s battle with Gaston is for his own sake, Belle is neither threatened nor anywhere close by at that moment. Dismissing a text for something that’s not even in it is, I’m afraid to say, just shoddy scholarship.

On the other hand, I found myself slightly amused to find that Zipes is very much in favour of films that came out of the old Eastern bloc countries. Now, I do agree that the Czech and DEFA (East German) films are pretty fabulous. But perhaps it’s not a coincidence that a scholar whose work is based on the ideas of the Frankfurt School (a form of Marxist scholarship) likes movies from communist countries? And dislikes anything that is commercially successful such as Harry Potter and the Disney empire?

About the only movies I find myself agreeing with Zipes on, other than the Czech/German ones, are the Shrek series. Well, he can appreciate their subversiveness and humour, because DreamWorks isn’t Disney. The subversiveness of Disney’s Enchanted, on the other hand, doesn’t count…

So those are some of the thoughts that ran through my mind this afternoon as I was loudly arguing with Dr. Zipes in an empty room. He’s come off the pedestal I stuck him on (entirely unasked for on his part, I might add). The learning curve of finding a guru, and then un-finding him again, has been interesting. It’s an empowering thing to be able to look at what even the greatest scholars say with a critical eye, to find in yourself the temerity to disagree with authority.

More Gripes About Zipes

I’m getting to the point where I’m quite seriously annoyed with Professor Jack Zipes, he of the erudite fairy tale scholarship whom I’ve considered, recently, my academic guru. I was reading his 2011 book The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films (New York: Routledge). And what I was almost afraid to call “intellectual snobbery” in my last griping post (because, after all, who am I to disagree with Zipes?) is just constantly tripping me up in this book, and it’s no longer deserving of the gingerly approach I gave it then. It’s got to be called what it is: SNOBBERY. Okay, I’m skipping over quite a lot of what he says because it’s not relevant to my current study, and I only have so much time to read right now, so I’m zeroing in on what matters. But over and over he is scathingly dismissive of some works of adaptation, while highly praising others. And what is it that draws down Dr. Zipes’ ire the most? The name “Disney”.

Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, for example, is castigated as “a banal adolescent love story” in a “rendition [that] is so stale, stiff and stupid [alliteration much?] that one must wonder why the film was such a success when it premiered in 1959.” Well, one must wonder that he still wonders, as in the preceding paragraph he is dismissing the film’s hypotext, the Grimm’s version, so much tamer than the Basile and Perrault tales of which it was an abridgement, as “a boring fairy tale” (88). Excuse me? Why does Zipes think this story has endured as one of the perennially favourite fairy tales, as part of the Western Canon? Why is it that it’s the boring Grimm’s version that’s stuck with us, not the (presumably) exciting French/Italian one with rape and hidden children and baby-eating ogresses? Well, maybe it’s because the common people like boredom. Or is it that there’s something in these stories that Zipes just fails to see?

My bet is on the latter. Here he is on “Cinderella”: “[T]he musical adaptation of Perrault’s tale that truly ignited filmgoers’ hearts [well, at least he admits that much] was Disney’s animated Cinderella (1950) … It is difficult to understand why this film … had so much success. The music is mediocre; the plot is boring; and the themes are trite” (181). I’m afraid it’s not at all difficult for me to understand why Zipes finds it difficult to understand. He’s just answered his own question. He fails to comprehend the film’s success because he finds the story boring. Condemned from your own mouth, Dr Zipes.

Now, I don’t mean to put Disney on a pedestal – far from it (far from it!). I have my own complaints about those insipid airheaded princesses and cardboard princes (“Someday my Prince will come”, indeed! Get a life, girl!), and the commercialism of the Disney enterprise just gives me the willies. But that does not lead me to write off the films that they made and their enormous success as just a case of the masses falling under the spell of the culture industry. People ain’t all that stupid, you know! And I think it’s a piece of bloomin’ arrogance to talk as if they were. Not just arrogance, ignorance. It’s missing something vital about those stories – the main, core reason that they have been popular for centuries, and keep getting told over, and over, and over, and over.

The reason we love “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty” and all those other stories, and one of the biggest reasons the Disney films were the blockbusters they were on their first release and are still being watched by little girls today with unabated fanaticism – in the case of Cinderella sixty-four years later, sixty-four! – is that there is something in the story, in the “boring” plot, that speaks deeply to us. And to dismiss the films because they happen to be made by Disney is, and I’m going to stick out my neck and just say it, folly.

As I said before, folktales are tales of the folk, of the people. The common people. And today’s commoners love the Disney versions. There is no way around that. And if Dr Zipes has nothing but scorn for those films, I’m afraid I must think that he is, somehow, missing a point.

Some Gripes About Zipes

Okay, so I just put that in the title because it rhymes. However, I do have a few minor gripes with Dr Jack Zipes, him who, as I might have mentioned a time or two (dozen), I greatly admire in many ways. He’s written far too many books, for one – I keep reading Zipes books, and every time there’s still a bunch more I haven’t got to. Sigh.

But the main thing that’s starting to get my goat a bit is his – okay, for lack of a better term, I’ll just call it intellectual snobbery. Or maybe it’s just a matter of taste. Whichever, it seems to me that whenever Zipes writes about a book or movie I like, he looks down his nose at it. Harry Potter, case in point – as far as he’s concerned, the series is a patriarchy-reinforcing product of the culture industry. On the other hand, he thinks Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials series is a great piece of work, whereas I tried to read Pullman some years ago and just couldn’t stick it. Gloomy, violent and disturbing – just not a fun read. So is this just a case of Zipes liking dark, heavy stories, and disliking lighter material? I kind of wonder. He really likes Pullman, for sure; in discussing Cinderella adaptations, he brings him in too, with I was a Rat. But as I mentioned before, when Zipes talks about a Gail Carson Levine adaptation of Cinderella, he ignores the brilliant Ella Enchanted and talks about Cinderellis and the Glass Hill, which isn’t a Cinderella story at all, but a retelling of “The Princess on the Glass Hill”, a different fairy tale entirely.

Which brings us to fairy tale adaptations, Zipes’ main forte. Okay, I’m with him to a point on Disney movies – the Someday-My-Prince-Will-Come bubbleheads of the 30s and 50s have me rolling my eyes, too. But the Disney fairy tale movies are still fun to watch, and what’s more, they’re incredibly popular. And that’s where I’m starting to wonder: does Zipes just disapprove of anything that the common rabble like? Is that evidence for him that the viewers/readers have fallen under the spell of the culture industry?

The thing is that the folktale, the original, oral tale, was just that – the folk tale, stories told by the Volk, the common people. In Why Fairy Tales Stick, Zipes complains at some point (I can’t find the page right now to give you the exact quote) that a great lot of the fairy tale books in print today are low-quality drivel. Well, yeah! I very much doubt that every fairy tale retelling by every nanny around the 16th-century nursery fire was a literary masterpiece. It just wasn’t preserved on paper for the next few centuries. Oral culture has given way to print culture (and it in turn to audio-visual culture, to an extent); of course there’s a goodly quantity of dross is either medium.

But the other thing is that I think it’s okay to have fairy tales that are just fun, and that those can have an impact just as great as the heavy, worthy, “deep” adaptations. Perhaps a greater one, because, as I said, they’re FUN, so they spread. Take Disney’s Enchanted, for example – Zipes doesn’t have anything good to say about it, from what I remember (I think he does talk about it somewhere – once again I can’t remember where – and is quite scathingly dismissive). But it’s a piece in which Disney skewers their own conventions, in a postmodern multi-layered self-ironic style that’s quite a delight to watch. However, you have to be able to enjoy a good, sweet, princessy romantic fairy tale to get some value out of it. It’s not deep, it most definitely isn’t heavy – but it’s thoroughly satisfying for what it is, and has a really great message with it, to boot.

And that’s the thing that’s rubbing me the wrong way about some bits of Zipes’ writings: does literary criticism always have to mean “criticising” in the common sense, namely “fault-finding”? Yes, I know that’s not the academic definition of it, but more often than not, it seems that’s what it comes down to. Can we no longer find simple enjoyment in simple-ish stories? Can a sweet story without violence and heart-wrenching pain not also have literary and cultural merit – even if it’s a cash cow? Don’t get me wrong – I’m no supporter of big business, Disney among them, and their money milking practises. But if the enjoyment of a story that ends in a wedding and happily-ever-after means I have common tastes, then so be it. A folktale is a tale of the people – so shouldn’t we look to what is popular, what the people like, rather than to what literary critics designate as worthy of our attention? Even if those literary critics happen to be Jack Zipes?

And speaking of literary criticism, here’s a quote I ran across yesterday in Terry Pratchett’s Guards, Guards!:

[The Librarian of the Magic University] waited patiently as a herd of Critters crawled past, grazing on the contents of the choicer books and leaving behind them piles of small slim volumes of literary criticism.

(London: Corgi Books, 1990, p. 257)

I’m sorry, but after all the reading I’ve been doing that struck me as inordinately funny. It probably just proves once again that I have common tastes.

Even the Bigwigs Make Mistakes

One thing I’ve learned in the course of my grad studies: even the “experts” are not infallible. During undergrad studies, one tends to look at anyone who is published with wide-eyed awe (“It’s in print, therefore it must be true!”), doubly so if the publication in question is a book. But in grad school, I’ve found out that not only do the “experts” disagree with each other (often quite violently, up to and including name-calling) and, what’s more, that I can disagree with them, too, but that sometimes they’re just plain wrong.

Case in point: my new guru Jack Zipes. In Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre (New York: Routledge, 2006), he spends some time analysing the Cinderella story, and brings several examples of adaptations that subvert the original story. One of those examples is Gail Carson Levine’s Cinderellis and the Glass Hill, the story of a farm boy with two brothers who don’t like him, who is nicknamed “Cinderellis” because he gets ashes all over him, and who gets himself a princess from the top of a glass hill. So Cinderella/Cinderellis, glass slipper/glass hill – pretty obvious, eh? Zipes thinks it’s great that Levine turned Cinderella into a boy and all.

The only problem is that she didn’t. Cinderellis and the Glass Hill isn’t a retelling of Perrault’s (or Grimm’s) “Cinderella”, but of Asbjørnsen and Moe’s “The Princess on the Glass Hill”. When I read Levine’s story last night, I recognised it right away – I had just read “Glass Hill” in Lang’s Blue Fairy Book a week ago. The main character is a farm boy called Cinderlad, and yes, he wins a princess by climbing a glass hill, but there’s no wicked stepmother, no ball, no animal helpers; the story pattern is quite different. It’s Aarne-Thompson-Uther Type 530, “The Glass Mountain”, not Cinderella’s Type 510A, “Persecuted Heroine”. Cinderlad isn’t persecuted by a step-family, he’s just unloved and laughed at by his real brothers – it’s an “apparently-stupid youngest son of three makes good” story.

And Zipes missed it. Which makes me feel quite smug, that I’ve caught out this scholar whom I respect so much in a flat-out mistake like that. Now, if he had stuck with analysing Levine’s Ella Enchanted, it would have been a different matter…

Theoretically…

I think I’m about done with reading folktale theorists. No, that’s not true – I still have stacks more theory books to read. What’s more, I want to read them, because they’re interesting (well, yeah, I guess I’m weird that way). But there’s only so much I can manage, being human and all, with a finite amount of time and brain space. So I had to pick & choose which ones I’d focus on for the work I’m doing right now, and just to get the selected ones sorted in my mind, I’m going to give a quick-ish summary of them.

Here’s the books in question:

Bruno Bettelheim: The Uses of Enchantment;

Joseph Campbell: The Hero With a Thousand Faces;

Vladimir Propp: The Morphology of the Folktale and Theory and History of Folklore;

Jack Zipes: Breaking the Magic Spell and The Enchanted Screen (etc. etc.);

Clarissa Pinkola Estés: Women Who Run With the Wolves;

Marina Warner: From the Beast to the Blonde;

Maureen Murdock: The Heroine’s Journey.

As I see it, those books fall into several different categories, based on the authors’ approaches to the tales.

Right off the bat, Murdock’s The Heroine’s Journey, despite the tantalizing title, doesn’t really fit the lineup; I don’t know if I’ll actually use this book in my studies. The reason is that it’s not really about stories or tales as a whole; she engages with Campbell, but not with fairy tale theories, and not in general, with universally applicable ideas. Her book, published in 1990, is a psychological exploration of women’s journeys very specifically in the late 20th-century Western world. So, The Heroine’s Journey is primarily psychological – quite interesting, but not as relevant to my topic as I had hoped.

Two others who fall into the “psychological” rubric are Bettelheim and Estés. Bettelheim, of whom I was told back in my high school term paper days that “no paper on fairy tales is complete without a reference to Bettelheim”, is far less useful than I had anticipated. His book is all about a Freudian interpretations of fairy tales, and how exactly “the child” understands the tales and what they do for “him”. Seeing as I’m not a “he”, and as a child reacted very differently to fairy tales from what Bettelheim says should have happened, his ideas really don’t make much sense to me, and his dogmatic tone very much rubs me the wrong way. It might be different if I had a better understanding of Freudian teachings, but, well, I don’t (the concept of the Oedipus complex as a universal human experience still has me scratching my head, and don’t even get me started on penis envy…).

Unlike Bettelheim’s prescriptive pronouncements, Estés speaks in many cases from direct experience of how “Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype” (the subtitle of her book) are relevant to women’s lives. A psychologist and professional storyteller, Estés explores “The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales” (Bettelheim’s subtitle) with regards to women, always referring to concrete tales and extrapolating meaning in the context of the female reality. (The contrast between Estés and Murdock is that the latter refers very little to folktales and focuses only on modern Western women’s lives, while Estés bases her whole work on folktales and deals in universals, on realities of women’s lives throughout history.)

Marina Warner also deals in feminist folktale theory. From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers describes the origins of fairy tales as stories told by women. She explores the importance of the female voice in the transmission of tales, from the sibyls of antiquity to Dorothea Viehmann, one of the Grimms’ chief sources for their stories. I’m not entirely done with Warner’s book, so can’t quite give the one-sentence synopsis yet, but I would say that Warner fits into both the “feminist” and the “historical” categories of theory (and is bloomin’ fascinating, to boot).

Another “historical” book is Vladimir Propp’s Theory and History of Folklore. Propp is a little difficult to deal with, as he was a Russian writing in the heyday of the Soviet Union. It’s a tad annoying when he squishes in quotations by Lenin and Engels, which he did just to keep the Soviet censors assured that he was being a good comrade and not letting Western thought corrupt his scholarship (they’d given him a hard time for citing Western scholars before, so he was covering his butt). However, Propp is one of the granddaddies of folklore studies, so he can’t be overlooked.

What’s particularly important is Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, the tale-dissection study I was talking about a few weeks ago. He takes the Russian “wondertale” and demonstrates that each tale follows a predictable pattern, thirty-one steps which always occur in the same sequence (they don’t have to all be present in each tale, but their order doesn’t vary – at least that’s what he claims, and many other folklorists seem to believe him). Propp, in the Morphology, is strictly about the tale as the tale – not about its meaning, its usage, or its origin, just about what it says, and how most folktales (or all, if you buy into his theory) follow the same pattern, tell the same story.

That, of course, is precisely what Campbell says in his Hero with a Thousand Faces, as well. Campbells monomyth or hero’s journey isn’t quite as detailed as Propp’s thirty-one steps, which to my mind makes it more universally applicable (and easier to understand) than Propp’s theory. However, the point has been made (notably here) that Propp’s functions can fit quite neatly into Campbell’s hero’s journey; in other words, they’re just two ways to express the same idea. Campbell is not quite as drily analytical as Propp; with his exploration of archetypes he crosses over into the realm of psychological theories again.

Which brings me to Jack Zipes. I’ve left him for last because he’s the hardest to summarize. A lot of that has to do with his incredibly prolific output: thirty-three books (authored or edited) between 1979 and 2012, and at least half of them look like something that could be relevant to this study. Sigh. However, I’ll make a stab at stating very simply what stuck out from his writing, specifically Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk & Fairy Tales (1979/2002). What’s different from the other writers I’ve read so far is that Zipes comes at folktales from a socio-political angle. The oral folktale, he says, was a way to subvert the realities of peasant life under feudalism, give people hope that things could change. Once the stories were written down, turned into literary fairy tales, that began to change, and they became more and more used to bolster the systems of authority rather than work against them, until today’s (Disney) fairy tale films which are a tool of the culture industry for keeping people sedated and making them spend lots of money. Well, at least that’s what I understand Zipes to be saying. He’s another bloomin’ fascinating writer, too, and quite easy to read.

So, just as a quick summary: Bettelheim and Estés: psychological. Estés and Warner: feminist. Warner, Propp and Zipes: historical. Propp and Campbell: analytical. Zipes: socio-political and cultural.

There is a quote by Campbell which quite struck me:

Mythology has been interpreted by the modern intellect as a primitive, fumbling effort to explain the world of nature (Frazer); as a production of poetical fantasy from prehistoric times, misunderstood by succeeding ages (Müller); as a repository of allegorical instruction, to shape the individual to his group (Durkheim); as a group dream, symptomatic of archetypal urges within the depths of the human psyche (Jung); as the traditional vehicle of man’s profoundest metaphysical insights (Coomaraswamy); and as God’s Revelation to His children (the Church). Mythology is all of these. [Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, New World Library 2008. 330.]

“Mythology is all of these.” I think the same could be said for fairy tales. Is their significance psychological, historical, feminist, political, sociological, or cultural? I believe it’s all of the above.

Theory Overload

My. Poor. Head. It’s on theory overload. If I hear the words “patriarchy” and “culture industry” one more time I might just scream. Aaaaaagh! There, I’m done.

So, other than Gilbert & Gubar (the ones about patriarchy) I’ve been reading Jack Zipes. A lot. He’s the guy who talks about culture industry. First I read Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales, the 1979 version. I liked it so much, I bought me the 2002 (updated) version, and it’s got a chapter at the end about Harry Potter. Now, I’m afraid I disagree with Dr Zipes on Harry, but to make sure of that, I had to go back to the library and get the book where he goes far more indepth with that topic: Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children’s Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter. Yup, sure enough, I still disagree with him.

Well, to a point. What he says about the Harry Potter mania being a product of the culture industry, yes. Agreed. And there are things Zipes says about HP which I thought from the first moment I picked up the books, namely, that they’re really nothing special as far as kids’ fantasy goes. Diana Wynne Jones, for example, is easily as good a writer as J. K. Rowling, and the HP books are really very conventional. That’s Zipes’ main point, the conventionality, the reinforcing of common standards. He also says the books are sexist, which, much as I hate to admit it, I have to agree with. All the heroic deeds are done by men and/or boys; women are either stay-at-home mothers (Mrs Dursley, Mrs Weasley, presumably Mrs Malfoy) or, if they’re working women, unmarried (the Ministry of Magic witches, the professors at Hogwarts – mind you, in that case, so are their male colleagues. Standard 1950’s academic environment, methinks).

Where I disagree with Zipes is, among other things, on his pronouncement that the Harry Potter books are all the same, every last one of them. Same plot, each time, he says. But I can forgive Zipes for saying that, because at the point he delivered that crushing verdict, only four of the books had been written. He critiques the Harry Potter series from the exact middle of the series – yes, there are seven books, but in sheer volume of pages, the first four books together don’t make as many pages as the last three. It’s like critiquing Lord of the Rings from the middle of The Two Towers. Zipes makes a few other statements about the HP books which he couldn’t have made if he had written his essays seven years later, after the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. For example, he says that there aren’t any women on the evil side (that’s part of his point that women/girls are practically absent from the books). Well, with the fifth book Rowling created one of her most evil characters, Dolores Umbridge, not to mention Voldemort’s crazed fangirl, Bellatrix Lestrange – most definitely witches, not wizards. That’s just a minor point; along with this one, several other of his criticisms pertain to issues which are dealt with in later books, such as the rounding out of the characters which he feels is lacking. In the later books, Dumbledore, Harry’s father, Sirius Black, and even (or especially) Harry himself are no longer “perfect” – their flaws begin to show, and the struggles Harry has with that fact are some of the key points of the stories.

However, as I said, I can overlook Zipes’ critiques because he didn’t and couldn’t have known any different. I’d really like to know what he has to say about the HP stories now that the series is finished, but from the tone of those essays from 2000/2002 I wonder if he’s even bothered reading the remaining books. From the essay in Sticks and Stones, I get the feeling he’s only talking about HP because he’s been made to – he made one side comment about HP in another essay on a different topic, and journalists and the public jumped all over him, wanting to hear more about his opinion on the lightning-scar boy. So he gave it, just to have people like me get all miffed about it, even ten years later.

The thing is, I get miffed because I really like what Zipes has to say, for the most part. His folk tale theory makes heaps of sense, and his writing is interesting to boot – not hard to read, like some of the other theorists out there. He’s also extremely prolific – as I said, Breaking the Magic Spell first came out in 1979, and he’s still going strong, putting out a book every few years. I’m eagerly waiting for his latest, The Irresistable Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre – it’s in the mail. Along with Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book and Red Fairy Book, which I need for my final thesis. It’s tough having to buy fairy tale books, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do for your education, right?