University of Pisa, Italy
Why Fairy Tales?
[coverattach=1] When I was asked to choose a topic for a seminar for second year students of English I thought of a way of combining linguistics with the teaching of writing skills. At that stage my ideas were still unclear and all I knew was that I had to select a text type which could be analysed and discussed at first and then serve as a model.
The aim of the whole second year course is to understand that language is a communicative instrument that can be adapted to different interactional and transactional situations. Consequently, learning something about the nature of the language as a semiotic system involves conscious reflection and understanding, but it is through reflection and the development of more specific knowledge about the language that the skills and competence to use it more proficiently can be generated (McCarthy & Carter 1990). This is of course a long-term aim, but our immediate, short-term goal was to develop the students' sensitivity to textual appropriateness and communicative efficiency. Communication takes on so many different forms, each of which has its own distinctive qualities, which depend on the people with whom we talk and on the different purposes for which we talk.
Susan George, professor of English language and linguistics and responsible for the second year, proposed I took up fairy tales thanks to her own positive experience both in Pisa and in Camerino. I was enthusiastic at the idea, although still looking for a connection between them and linguistics.
On the one hand fairy tales are a well established, typical text, with distinctive thematic and formal features (Pisanty 1993: 27; Lavinio 1993: 15-21). However, despite their tipicality, fairy tales allow more scope for creativity than other text-types, and, what is even more important, they can touch a place deep within our subconscious. They are much more than just stories: they are teachings that have been handed down from generation to generation, from which people learn about both the dark and bright sides of life. And I nursed the hope that they would delight us, stimulate our imagination and call up memories from our own childhood.
Which Fairy Tales?
I had to pick a model which would be our reference text, something we could analyse, dissect, tear into pieces and still love as something which has and will stay with us forever. So I opened my book of memory and... out came Little Red Riding Hood.
I chose it because it is a tale that is heard around the world. Perhaps it is the prototypical fairy tale everyone has in mind.
When I began to collect some material for the seminar I was scarcely aware of the number of different versions that spread out after the first medieval legends. I was of course acquainted with both Perrault's tale and the version by the Grimm Brothers, but I had no idea whatsoever that the basic plot elements of LRRH can also be found in tales from Japan, China and Korea.
Jack Zipes (1982) has collected many versions of the tale, from the first literary versions to the present-day politically correct adaptations. He has also commented on the history of LRRH's textual development through centuries, by comparing texts with their illustrations. He has shown that their referential systems are strongly interlinked and in fact, in most cases, signs which belong to two different codes reinforce each other to the point that images become signifiers of the signified text. I have heavily relied on Zipes's anthology, first of all because it provided me with a reference model of a viable teaching path. Secondarily, it was from this collection that I selected the traditional versions by Perrault and the Grimms, Anneliese Meinert's Little Red Cap '65, Anne Sexton's poem Red Riding Hood, Rodari's Little Green Riding Hood. I also included Angela Carter's two tales about LRRH, The Company of Wolves and The Werewolves. But apart from the debt I owe to Zipes, I drew most of my material from the Web. It was surfing here and there that I came across many interesting, exciting sites devoted to fairy tales. Some of them display research projects that are going on at different universities around the world: "Little Red Riding Hood"(http://www.southwestern.edu/lewisv/f...idinghood.html) and "Little Red Riding Hood Project"(http://www-dept.usm.edu/~engdept/lrrh/lrrhhome.htm). Both of them are about LRRH, but whereas the former collects the traditional versions by Perrault and the Grimms and two medieval Italian versions (The False Grandmother and The Wolf and the Three Girls), the latter gathers many texts and adaptations, as well as comments, references to important criticism and a selection of other major links in the Internet. This generous, free corpus of resources provided me with some other interesting texts, such as Roald Dahl's poem Little Red Riding Hood And The Wolf, the politically correct version of LRRH (from Politically Correct Bedtime Stories by James Finn Garner), and an Italian oral version entitled The False Grandmother (with a parallel English/Italian version).
Despite significant differences in language and tone, all the versions share some dominant themes. This may explain why LRRH is so widespread around the world: it is about many basic human themes, such as initiation to independence, family ties, obedience or disobedience to parents, female pubescence, sexuality and/or rape, social order versus nature, female or male heroism, death and rejuvenation, gluttony and even cannibalism. On identifying such themes one might ask a question: are fairy tales like this for children or for adults? Some associations in the U.S. have found some of the classical fairy tales too overtly sexual or even subversive and have therefore proposed blacklisting them. As Fromm (1957) and Bettelheim (1976) have pointed out, erotic material has been present in folk and fairy tales from the very beginning. The Grimm brothers themselves consciously adapted the tales they had collected to make them more innocent and less erotic than the popular versions. They also restored a happy ending to LRRH, which both the folktales and Perrault's version do not have.
In any case, Little Red Riding Hood lives on, because it can talk to anybody, especially on account of the fact that fairy tales may be read at many different levels, and so it opens many stimulating topics to discussion.
During the seminar I also distributed copies of other popular tales by Perrault, the Grimms and Andersen. I wanted my students to have a small corpus of fairy tales to read and analyse for themselves, where they could go and check the appropriateness of their own creations. Despite the differences in style, these texts are all traditional, literary tales. So, since I did not want to prevent the students from writing modern stories, at the risk of infringing the limits of the genre (which sometimes happened), I also gave them examples of modern narrative. They were some of the stories written by Roald Dahl, which display different strategies and technique devised to appeal to a present day audience.
As I have briefly touched upon above, my aim was to find a method of text criticism that could bear some systematic relation to the development of linguistic and, more in particular, writing skills in students, and which might also be re-applied whenever analysing a text, be it spoken, written, literary or non literary.
In spite of what is rather commonly stated, I think that the study of a language and its functioning mechanisms (linguistics), and literary texts (in this case fairy tales, as a literary genre) are not mutually inimical, but can and should rather supplement each other as integral stages in the development of both language and textual awareness. So the employment of a linguistic framework in the reading of fairy tales was meant to produce an inventory of the recursive linguistic forms available in that type of text but also to isolate the relevant features of the genre, such as the situation, i.e. the writer-audience relationship, the informative structure, the level of formality, the ratio between narrative and dialogic text chunks, etc. Yet, this type of categorisation usually runs the risk of oversimplifying texts in order to make them fit into some preordained framework. So I did not start by giving any theoretical framework to my students. On the contrary, we tried to elaborate regularities from the texts we read together, and eventually interpret deviations as instances in which the author had broken the rule for creative purposes. The reasons were the following:
- I did not want to impose a fixed model which could later on curb the students' creativity and inventiveness;
- text-internal features are not important in themselves but in relation to other contextual parameters such as the audience and the aim of the genre (cf. the notion of genres as processes in Benison 1998);
- genres are themselves dynamic objects that vary according to the needs of social systems. Therefore new genres arise and others take on different features over time. So it would be more precise to conceive genres as points along a continuum, with some of them so near to one another that it becomes difficult to identify which is which.
Which Narrative Features?
Fairy tales belong to the wider category of the narrative genre, which has been extensively analysed from many different viewpoints (Eco 1979; Marchese 1983; Pugliatti 1985; Labov 1972; Levorato 1988). Yet, they distinguish themselves especially for the relationship between writer and audience. In fairy tales communication is asymmetrical, consisting in an adult author or teller who tells his tale to an audience or readership made up of one or more children. The aim of the genre, of sub-genre, is to teach by delighting the child, which often, if not always, implies transporting him into the world of the tale. Therefore the author arranges his reader's textual journey before it actually starts.
Like any other kind of narrative and also like any form of formal organisation, fairy tales are able to exploit the features of the medium they use. In particular, all verbal narratives exploit the characteristics of language by way of encoding narrative form in linguistic form. One of the clearest cases of encoding of narrative form in linguistic form is the use of initial/final fixed phrases. Traditional folk tales, which belong to the oral tradition, count on some outstanding characteristics, that is to say all the possibilities of speech, such as prosodic phonology, intonation, the use of pauses, rhythm, the different qualities of voice, as well as on paralinguistic codes, among which gestures, mimicry, eye contact and so on. Written narratives cannot exploit all the devices of oral story telling, but have developed an independent tradition of narrating with its own techniques. This is one of the first aspect one must be aware of when dealing with narratives, and for this reason we started by comparing the strategies of oral and written tale-telling (Lavinio 1990, 1993).
As for the content, it was essential to grasp the basic nucleus of the plot, which corresponds to the macro-structure (van Dijk 1977). The macro structure of a narrative constitutes its line of development from the beginning to the end and does not depend on the way in which events are narrated, but must be reconstructed after reading the text. Macro-structures and story-lines (a subtype of the more general category of macro-structures) are often elaborated a priori by the author, who has the whole narrative in mind before writing, and a posteriori by the addressee, who on the contrary processes information during the act of reading and retains only the most basic pieces. The act of narration does not necessarily follow a strict chronological order: quite the contrary, authors strategically exploit the dimension of time and often call their readers to co-operate in the construction of meaning.
The basic characteristic of a story-line is that it usually involves some initial difficulty and a final resolution. Each narrative consists of a number of episodes and sub-episodes that make up the story line. Labov (1972) identified various components of the story line, among which the complication and the resolution. He also distinguished other stages: the abstract, which announces the topic of the story; the orientation, which introduces the setting of the narrative; and the coda, which is placed at the end and can therefore perform different functions. It can in fact comment on the events and provide the audience with a moral lesson, or signal that the narrative has come to an end and it is time to move back to reality. Clearly, not all stories have all these ingredients, but complication and resolution are essential. Resolution in particular, despite its variable significance in different stories, always brings forth a new state of affairs where order has been re-established, "by the righting of the [initial] wrong" (Fabb 1997:165). In LRRH complication corresponds to the meeting with the wolf and resolution to the killing of the wolf in the Grimms' version and to the moral teaching in Perrault's one, which is not a proper resolution, since the girl dies and the moral may only warn other children. The identification of the main stages is an important help when students begin to write their own stories. In this way they can rely on a schematic framework and move from simple to more complicated narratives.
When we analysed LRRH we agreed on a macro-structural plot, made up of the main stages in the narrative, and then checked if this plot could be successfully applied to the adaptations and re-writings. In many cases the texts did not follow the same stages, so we just ticked those which were present, but for other texts we had to add extra stages, especially to be able to consider fundamental details. It should also be remembered that stages can overlap and/or some categories may have blurred margins and extend over the whole narrative. This is the case of evaluation, in which the narrator often comments on the resolution and expresses his view on the significance of the story (Fabb 1998: 167). This does not necessarily occur through a moral since, as Labov (1972) and others have noticed, narrators more frequently intersperse evaluative comments throughout their narratives with varying degrees of explicitness.