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The Grimness of Contemporary Fairy Tales

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Leverhulme Lecture! All welcome!


It is virtually impossible to escape the Brothers Grimm and their fairy tales in the twenty-first century. Especially in the western world, their tales have infiltrated into our lives and in all their different variants have become dominant in the field of fairy tales. Though there were a few parodies and unusual adaptations of the Grimms’ tales in the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, it was not until Anne Sexton provocatively re-wrote twenty-five Grimm tales in her book Transformations in 1971 that a new era, sparked in part by the feminist movement, began that opened new perspectives on the Grimms’ tales and brought about a tidal wave of experimenting with the tales in literature, theatre, television, ballet, opera, film, storytelling, and other cultural domains. Since then there have been numerous post-modern experiments that are difficult to “label” and interpret. In the twenty-first century they have appeared not only in Germany and English-speaking countries but in most countries in the world. My research seminar will focus on the grimmness of contemporary tales, poems, novels, and graphic books to discuss the peculiar appeal that the Grimms’ tales have for authors with diverse perspectives, including Robert Coover, Kate Bernheimer, Kelly Link, Adam Gidwitz, and others. I shall allude to other authors and non-literary works in an endeavor to understand what makes the Grimm tales so essential to these writers and the development of the fairy-tale genre.


Jack Zipes is professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota. In addition to his scholarly work, he is an active storyteller in public schools and has worked with children’s theaters in Europe and the United States. Some of his major publications include Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales (1979), Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion (rev. ed. 2006), The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World (1988), Hans Christian Andersen: The Misunderstood Storyteller (2005), and Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre (2006). He has also edited The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales (2000), and The Great Fairy Tale Tradition (2001) and is editor-in-chief of the series Oddly Modern Fairy Tales published by Princeton University Press. Most recently he has published The Enchanted Screen: the Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films (2010) and The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre (2012).

This talk is part of the Centre for Research in Children's Literature at Cambridge series.

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