Fairytales in the 21st Century

Arthur Rackham, untitled, 1904. Public domain.

When you look at our culture, it seems like fairytales have never been more popular.  “Grimm” and “Once Upon a Time” are starting their second television season.  Earlier this year, we had two movie versions of Sleeping Beauty.  Young adult paranormal stories remain popular with readers of all ages, and I’m currently reading a 1994 collection of classic fairytales retold by some of the best modern fantasy authors.  The book, Black Thorn, White Rose, by editors Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, was reissued as a kindle edition and features challenging tales by authors like Nancy Kress, Patricia Wrede, and Jane Yolen.

Snow White begs for mercy. From an 1852 Icelandic version. Public doman.

The old stories call out to us with their promise of depth as the stuff and fluff of modern life fails to satisfy the yearnings of the soul.  Yet according to Wolfgang Mieder, professor of German and folklore at the University of Vermont, we’re missing a critical element that earlier generations possessed, and the loss is related to the flood of tales we have today.  “Everybody reads different stories and we no longer know the same fairytales. The connecting element is lost,” says Mieder.  He is optimistic about the survival of fairytales, but questions the way we now receive them.

Mieder, a German-American, won the 2012 European Fairytale Prize and has studied the social significance of fairytales for more than 40 years.  After high school, he traveled to the US from Germany to study mathematics, but a seminar in German folklore changed his life’s direction.  Folklore became very personal for him.  He recalls that in Germany, “In the 1950s you used to be given a colorful picture as a gift when you bought margarine, which I made a lot of effort to collect and paste in my album. With the album I got to know the world of fairytales.”

Wolfgang Mieder. CC-by-SA-3.0

Mieder, who has authored 200 publications and 500 articles, want his students to find the same personal connection to the old stories.  This can be hampered by the sheer volume of folklore appearing on TV, movies, and the internet.  Will the glut of information detract from the impact of stories that generations of people heard aloud in the flickering firelight?  Mieder is hopeful – he has observed a new interest in oral telling of old stories.

This is something I have experienced, both as a story teller and listener.  All over the world, it was largely during the dark months when the stories were told, and now we have a world-wide celebration of stories each November.

In 1988, J.G. Pinkerton, of the Connecticut Storytelling Center, imagined a night of storytelling, which he called Tellebration, to build community support for storytelling.  That year stories were told in six locations throughout the state.  By 1997, there were Tellebration events on every continent except Antarctica.

Tellebration is held on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, November 17 this year.  You can search for events near you – or even organize and register your own – at this site, hosted by the National Storytelling Network: http://www.tellabration.org/index.html

You can access the full article on Wolfgang Wieder here: http://www.dw.de/dw/article/0,,16234957,00.html

And finally, to see a wonderful site devoted to fairytales and folklore – the place where I found the Wieder article – visit the “Sur La Lune Fairy Tales Blog,” listed on my blogroll.

And finally-finally, as in really finally, I’ll be devoting next week to exploring some old stories and oral tradition. I’ll be largely or entirely unwired for the duration, but I promise you will hear more about this in upcoming posts.

Arthur Rackham, The Three Bears. Public domain.

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