Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338
April 09, 2003
New book by English prof explores origins, importance of fairy tales
Fairy tales are more than just bedtime stories, according to a new book by a University of Guelph professor.
Jennifer Schacker, School of English and Theatre Studies, explores the nature and emergence of the fairy tale genre in National Dreams: The Remaking of Fairy Tales in 19th-Century England. The book examines how and why oral traditional tales from various nations became popular reading material in England and how they, in a roundabout way, contributed to English national identity.
Traditional tales have long been mainstays of both children’s literature and cultural discourse, being shaped by their readers over time, Schacker said. In her book, which was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in March, Schacker looks at English renditions of story collections such as Grimms’ fairy tales and the Arabian Nights. She traces the larger stories of cross-cultural encounter in which the books were originally embedded, and shows how and why the folklore of foreign lands became popular reading material for a broad English audience.
Tale collections that were supposed to represent the peasant traditions of countries such as Germany, Norway, Ireland and Egypt resonated with an ever-widening English reading public, Schacker said. The English translated, modified and adapted imported tales and, despite these alterations, ultimately regarded these stories as mirrors of their originating cultures. The foreign tales highlighted England’s perceived connection to a similar past while simultaneously giving rise to the sense that the country had lost its oral tradition and had to look elsewhere to find it, she explained. “England imagined itself a nation of readers and scholars, not storytellers.”
Schacker added that fairy tales were intended to stimulate readers’ imaginations in more ways than one. They were created to provide entertainment and escape, but also to inspire reflections on national identities and differences. Such reflections were part of the reason they were so popular, having a type of “magical hold” on the English imagination at a crucial historical moment, she said.
Schacker, who joined U of G last fall, has studied children’s literature since her undergraduate days at McGill University when L. Frank Baum’s Oz books awakened her academic interest in the genre. She completed her MA and PhD at Indiana University’s Folklore Institute, and now teaches children’s literature and seminar courses at Guelph on such topics as the Arabian Nights and the history of print culture. “I’m most interested in the literary, historical and ideological contexts that gave rise to folklore scholarship and children’s literature,” she said.
As a result, reading to her own children, ages five and nine, has both personal and professional appeal for Schacker. But she admits it’s difficult to read bedtime stories without getting up halfway through to take notes. “I think my children are getting used to that.”
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