This four-part blog started as a lecture that I was invited to give at the Robert Musil Literature Museum, Klagenfurt in Austria. I have tried to maintain the accessibility of the original lecture in this written version, but have developed the argument, providing more in-depth analysis and extending the references to include more theoretical perspectives.
So that it is not too much of a read in one go, I have broken the article down into three sections and will post them in turn, as each part is completed.
In this part of the article (Part 2) I will consider the reasons why particular stories stick, and appear to be irresistible. To support the discussion, I will draw on my own relationship with the Welsh legend of The Hound Gelert, a story I first heard at the age of seven, and have returned to ever since.
Introduction - Sticky Stories – and what makes them stick?
Jack Zipes has dedicated a whole volume to this question in his book, ‘Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of Genre’ (2006), so in this short section, I can really only skim along the surface, but I will start with a quote from his work that will, to some extent, set the agenda:
…the fairy tale creates disorder to create order and, at the same time, to give voice to Utopian wishes and ponder instinctual drives and gender, ethnic, family and social conflicts. (Zipes, 2006: 15)
We are very vulnerable to the power of story, and the ability of that coin of culture (Bruner, 2002) to stick to our palms. If you ask someone in the UK how many fairy tales they can name, the list will possibly include ‘Snow White’, ‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, ‘Rapunzel’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘The Little Mermaid’, ‘The Three Billy Goats Gruff’ and ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’. With the exception of the last two, all of these stories are sourced either from the versions from the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault or Hans Christian Anderson. When I give talks on folk and fairy tale, it is often a surprise to people that these collections have richer contents than the stories with which they are familiar - the Brothers Grimm’s collections contain over 200 tales alone. So, the question is what makes the tales that we remember stick?
Zipes goes into some depth as to why particular stories have survived and have retained their popularity, suggesting that they have ‘memetic qualities’ (2006: 96) - memes being definable units of culture that can be passed on. These stories, then, explain social behaviour and the way in which we respond to our environment (Zipes, 2008) and, because there are fundamental norms that are regarded as important across cultural and generational boundaries, fairy and folk tale provide a means of transporting these ‘units of culture’. Hence, the danger of the innocent becoming victims of violence is conveyed through the variations of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ (as discussed in Part 1 of this blog). The unit of culture, then is fairly stable, and this stability means that the narrative core of fairy and folk tales can be easily repeated and therefore remembered. And this repetition itself means that it ‘has been deemed worthy of repetition because it is loved, and it is loved because it tells us something about ourselves that we want and need to know’ (Swann Jones, 1995: 5).
While previous generations have relied on print media and spoken word to transmit story, the memes of traditional tale are passed on today through a range of media including gaming, film and TV. Of course, it is impossible to consider the impact of modern media on people’s familiarity with fairy tales without mentioning Disney and its animated and live-action versions of these stories. The ubiquity of Disney versions means that, for many children, ‘Cinderella’ is Disney’s film of the story, and it is not uncommon for storytellers to experience children’s confusion when sharing a different version with them . In Part 3 of this blog, I will discuss Disney and its films in the context of taking a critical approach to choosing and using folk and fairy tales but, whatever the desirability of Disney versions of folk and fairy tales, their influence cannot be denied, and stories such as ‘Cinderella’, ‘Snow White’ , ‘Rapunzel’, and ‘Sleeping Beauty’ have a continuous profile because of the corporate power of ‘The Magic Kingdom’.
Beyond Disney, fairy tale memes maintain a place in popular culture, which can be evidenced in adverts such as the use of the traditional English tale, ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ to advertise breakfast cereal.
Images from fairy tales can be seen throughout both modern media and traditional print. When Sage recently published the new edition of Nikki Gamble’s ‘Exploring Children’s Literature’, they gave it the cover you can see in Figure 1, and they obviously did so in the knowledge that both teachers and student teachers alike would immediately make a connection with ‘Little Red Riding Hood’.
Umberto Eco refers to traditional tales as ‘simple forms’ (1994), and we can see how a story such as ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ lacks the complexity of the twists and turns of a novel or adventure film. Lacking the gaps in the narrative that an audience would be expected to fill in a developed narrative, fairy and folk tales are structured quite simply, event to event, making them easy to work with in the classroom, both in terms of investigation (themes, character, structure etc.), and as a stimulus for children to create their own stories. To understand the connection between traditional tales and children’s story making, we can look to the work of Brian Sutton-Smith in the 1970’s. Sutton-Smith and his research team collected and analysed children’s oral and written stories and came to the conclusion that ‘children's stories may be less well-structured than fairy tales, folktales, legends, and myths, and they may be replete with modern content, but they nevertheless have the same basic plot structures and the same general concerns with fate, fate overwhelming, and fate nullified as do those other genres’ (1981, p2). This is perhaps not surprising when the underlying structure of folk and fairy tales is considered.
A quick online search will reveal multiple versions of a basic story structure that fits that of the folk or fairy tale, but the conceptual content remains the same for most of these versions. I have summarised this content in Figure 2, which is based on the model first suggested by Freytag in his 1863 publication, ‘Technique of the drama’. To me, this model makes perfect sense, simply from the experience of overcoming obstacles in life, and how one naturally organises ideas when communicating events to someone else: When you describe an event, you talk about someone who wanted to do something, but hit problems, tried various solutions and either succeeded or failed in doing what they wanted.
Take, for instance, the time my mother and I were locked out of the house when we returned from shopping. I had to be pushed upside down through the fanlight at the top of the window, so that I would drop down feet first onto the Window-sill on the other side, jump to the floor and go and open the door from the inside:
Introduction: mum and I returned home from shopping
Problem: we were locked out.
Rising action: mum found the open window and worked out how we could get in the house
Climax: I balanced upside down on my mothers hands and she pushed me up through the fanlight
Falling action: I lowered myself onto the window sill and jumped to the floor
Resolution and ending: I went through the house and unlocked the door
In other words, the simple story structure matches our own experiences in the world. In Figure 3, I have plotted ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ against this structure - a more complex narrative, such as the novel or adventure film can be seen as a development of this model, with multiple points of crisis and resolution.
In Figure 4 ‘The Story Mountain’ you will see a similar structure to that in Figure 3; this is a model that will be familiar to many teachers because it l was promoted heavily by the National Literacy Strategy in schools in England. You will notice that it places the problem at the peak of the mountain, and I have criticised it for many years on the basis that this closes the space within which resolution can be achieved and the story to develop (it also ignores the notion of rising tension and climax). Little Red Riding Hood’s problem is not the wolf being in Grandmother’s bed: the problem is that there is a wolf in the forest through which she has to walk. The moment of ‘My Grandmother, what big teeth you have’ occurs just at the climax of the story, where there is the greatest point of danger. Some people argue that the NLS structure provides children with an easy to understand framework on which to construct their own stories, but I have not met anyone who can explain to me why this model is preferable to any other, particularly when it contradicts just about every authority on narrative structure that I have read going back to Freytag. Concerns are regularly expressed about the quality of children’s writing, and their dependence on formulaic approaches (e.g. Lambirth, 2016), and (while any plotting device could be accused of doing this) the NLS ‘Story Mountain’, I suggest, is overly reductive and fails to take account of the way that the space between problem and resolution is where episodes can be shaped to communicate tension and peril to the reader.
Returning to Sutton-Smith’s point (quoted above) about the alignment of themes of fairy and folk tales with the stories that children tell, thematic relevance is also an important aspect of such stories’ accessibility and suitability for the classroom. Whilst the stories may have a ‘simple form’, there is nothing superficial about the themes of folk and fairy tales, and, for many years, I have drawn on the work of the Czech émigré, Aldus Greimas, to understand how ideas are connected in a particular story. Greimas’s method of analysis can be used in the classroom through considering the following questions:
Who is the story about
What do they want to do/achieve?
What makes them want to do/achieve this?
If they succeed whom will it benefit?
What/who is working against them?
What/who is working for them? (Greimas and Courtés, 1979, summarised in Daniel, 2012)
In 'Little Red Riding Hood' we could answer:
Who is the story about - Little Red Riding Hood
What do they want to do/achieve - To visit her grandmother with comfort foods
What makes them want to do/achieve this - Her grandmother is sick
If they succeed whom will it benefit - Her grandmother
What/who is working against them - The Wolf
What/who is working for them – Either the hunter/woodcutter or Little Red Riding Hood’s intelligence and courage (depending on the tradition).
This approach to narrative does not identify the events of a story, but it summarises the relationships between the forces that drive the narrative. To understand a more complex narrative (such as a novel) one would need to ask these questions multiple times, but the ‘simple form’ of the folk tale means that they can be used to grasp how the story works with relative ease. By thinking about the relationship between Little Red Riding Hood and her helper (who or what is working for her), we can see how different versions of the story affect the thematic drive towards the story’s resolution (see Part 1 of this blog to read about some of the variations in the tale). The two options for the helper presented above are either the hunter (or woodcutter) and Little Red Riding Hood’s intelligence and courage: the former is about the young girl waiting for the older man to rescue her; the latter is about a young girl having the personal resources to control her own destiny.
The Faithful Hound Gelert – A Case Study
In Figure 5, you can see a couple of holiday snaps from the summer of 2018, when I visited the village of Beddgelert in North Wales - almost five decades after visiting with my parents during a rather damp week of camping in Snowdonia. That first visit is carved on my memory because as we sat by the grave of the dog Gelert, my mother told me the story of the faithful hound, slain in error by his master who thought the dog had killed his child. To provide some context, I have plotted the narrative of the legend of Gelert against the simple story structure in Figure 6.
So, let’s look at this tale and consider why it has persisted in my memory, using the categories that I have outlined above: cultural relevance, familiarity, simplicity, and thematic relevance.
In relation to simplicity, I have already plotted the narrative against the simple story structure (Figure 6), and this single narrative strand makes the story easy remember and pass on. Unlike the stories discussed above, the legend of ‘Gelert’ is not familiar through film, TV or iconic image and so the familiarity of this specific story is not familiar to the same degree. The narrative of ‘Gelert’, however, is built around an established and familiar trope (or literary device) of the falsely accused friend, and is the Welsh version of a story that can be found across Europe. To realise how familiar this theme is, one only has to think of episodes in the Harry Potter series of books, where Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black is imprisoned in Azkaban for crimes that he didn’t commit (Rowling, 1999) The familiarity, is then in the theme, rather than the story itself, and loyalty and fairness are as much a concern for a seven year old child as for any adult.
If we look at the six questions explored above, the theme of trust becomes apparent in the tension between the forces working for and against the prince and his wife:
Who is the story about – Prince Llewelyn and his wife
What do they want to do/achieve - To secure the safety of their child
What makes them want to do/achieve this – The land is dangerous and the child is being left without adult protection
If they succeed whom will it benefit – Themselves and their child
What/who is working against them – Their absence from the house
What/who is working for them – Gelert, and their trust in him.
This reveals the theme of loyalty and allows us to see that loyalty’s betrayal in the prince’s rush to judgement and slaying of the hound - the trust that the prince and princess have in the dog is tested (with fatal consequences) because of their absence from the home.
The cultural relevance of this story is, then, both general and specific. While the theme makes it universal in its appeal, the tale’s relationship to a physical location (and the grave as a physical object - however spurious the connection) means that it is passed on as a way of explaining the significance of the site.
Summary of Part 2
Folk and fairy tales, then, provide a unique resource for classroom use, as stories in which children can see their own concerns, such as fairness and protection, reflected in stories that are easily understood and remembered. They are complete narratives which, while simple in form, provide models that are rich in imagery and are capable of dealing with profound themes. While folk and fairy tales exist in multiple versions, their basic structure is one that is familiar. This means that when children create their own versions of such stories (whether in play, as oral storytelling or in story writing), they have a model structure which provides a manageable scaffold around which they can experiment with character, setting, action and a range of linguistic devices.
References for Part 2
Bruner, J. (2002) Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press
Daniel, Alastair (2012); Storytelling across the primary curriculum. London: Routledge
Eco, U., (1994) Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press
Freytag, G (1863. 1900 edn) Technique of the drama: an exposition of dramatic composition and art,Trans. E.J.MacEwan, Chicago: Scott, Foresman and Company.
Gamble, N. (2019) Exploring Children’s Literature (4th edn.) London: Sage.
Greimas, A.J. and Courtés, J. (1979) Semiotics and Language, An Analytical Dictionary (trans) L. Crist, D. Patte, E. McMohan II, G. Phillips, and M. Rengstorf, Bloomington: Indiana University Press (1982)
Lambirth (Professor of Education) (2016) Exploring children’s discourses of writing. In English in Education, 50:3, 215-232
Rowling, J.K. (1999) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. London: Bloomsbury Sutton-Smith, B. (1981) The Folkstories of Children. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia.
Swann Jones, Steven; The Fairy Tale, the magic mirror of the imagination (London: Routledge; 1995) pp4-5
Zipes, J. (2008) What Makes a Repulsive Frog so Appealing: Memetics and Fairy Tales. In Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 45, No. 2 (May - Aug., 2008), pp. 109-143
Zipes, J. (2006) Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre. Abingdon: Taylor and Francis
Jack and Beanstalk Weetabix advert from article Weetabix launches £10m campaign with Jack and the Beanstalk ad. Talking Retail, available at https://www.talkingretail.com/products-news/grocery/weetabix-launches-10m-campaign-jack-beanstalk-ad-09-03-2017/ (accessed 27/10/19)
Story Mountain from Matthew_1987 (2016) World Book Day resources available at https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/world-book-day-6186551 (accessed 29/10/19)
 It is important to note that Zipes is primarily concerned with the literary fairy tale (such as those collected by Perrault and Grimms, or the literary creations of Hans Christian Anderson) rather than the broader category of traditional or folk tale. However, I would suggest that the point that he makes in this quote is equally applicable across the wider category.
 Long before I took up storytelling as a profession, I was attending a workshop with storyteller, Sandra Pollerman. She described how children would correct her and say, ‘But that’s wrong! The story goes like this….’ and then provide a correction which was grounded in a popular version of the tale that she was telling, usually Disney. To overcome this, she adopted a formula to start and end her storytelling which embedded the possibility of multiple versions:
‘This is the story of _______________, and this is how I will tell it…’
‘That was the story of _______________, and that was how I told it.’
 This is the story how I tell it, rather than one drawn from a specific text.
 Disappointingly, the grave that I went on pilgrimage to visit has, in reality, nothing to do, with the slain hound, but was an attempt by a local landlord to generate business.