Dear “Can Fairy Tales Belong to Anyone?”

May 31, 2012 § 5 Comments

God I love WordPress. There is nothing more entertaining, sometimes bewildering, and ofttimes enraging as being able to see what Google search terms someone used that led them down the rabbit hole to your humble blog.

I try to let the frequently searched high school essay questions slide off my back while resisting the urge to answer them for the poor student (“narrative voice barrie peter pan” and “what is the atmosphere of the book hnger games” (sic)), and I’ve stopped rolling my eyes every damn time someone searches “lana parilla hot” and it gets them here. Hi guys, I bet you found me again, just since I typed that. Enjoying yourselves? Here you go:

But this morning I saw listed not once, but twice, a question that got my brain buzzing and my heart hurting–someone, over the course of the night had searched multiple times the question “can fairy tales belong to anyone?”

I feel a little like Francis Pharcellus Church getting a letter about Santa Claus from a girl named Virginia.

Yes, reader, fairy tales can belong to anyone.

Meaning, as well, that fairy tales cannot “belong” to one person alone.

Despite how many copyrighted products out there that you see (TM this, property of the __ Corp that), the only reason that those copyrighted products exist at all is because fairy tales have been told and retold by writers, filmmakers, and illustrators for hundreds of years. That ownership is the result of years of transience on the part of fairy tales, freedom to be told by anyone, anywhere. There are regional stories that seem to “belong” to a certain part of the world, or a certain ethnic or religious group–Russian Fairy Tales, Jewish Fairy Tales–but if you read these stories, as many as you can, you’ll see that they travel from region to region, changing a little as they go. They’re slippery, and can’t be tied down to only one place or person.

Fairy tales belong to one person the way a recipe for tomato soup belongs to someone–or meatballs, as Angela Carter once famously wrote. Everyone may have their own special way of making it, and there are your canned varieties that permeate the marketplace, but you yourself probably could whip some up in a pinch, and no one, NO ONE, could say that you were wrong for doing it. Tomato soup was around long before Campbell’s got a hold of it, and the same is true for fairy tales. The Grimms, Perrault, Disney, Universal Studios–these may own the right to say “this is MY version of Snow White,” and place the stamp of ownership on a particular order of words, or a costume design (well, perhaps not Perrault or the Grimms: public domain, being long dead,  and whatnot). But the tale itself is a free thing, and it likes your take on it just as much as Disney’s. Perhaps more.

It’s curious, the tale, to see what you make of it, and how you might share it. Because the tale does not “belong” solely to Disney or the Grimms, that means that it can belong to you, but only if you allow it to belong to the world as well. You have just as much right to say “this is MY version of Snow White,” and I would argue that you also have a responsibility to add “but what is yours?” Because if there’s anything a fairy tale enjoys more than being passed around, it’s seeing a different side of itself, one that did not belong to anyone before, and could not have existed if it, the tale itself, did not already belong to everyone. So please, take ownership of that fairy tale, reader, and then pass it along.

For more reading on the ownership of fairy tales, I suggest Jack Zipes’s Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales. And for some delicious tomato soup made by some fine contemporary authors who are doing just what I’ve prescribed here, pick up My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer. And good luck.

Illustration from Self Portrait by Trina Schart Hyman

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