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Class Struggle in the Fairy Tale: The Preservation of Folk Culture in an Emerging Literary Form. (Guest post by: Travis Shue)
The fairy tales of well-known collectors Charles Perrault, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, and Joseph Jacobs all reflect societal norms and seek to impart an instructional message or meaning to their intended audience. Thus the characters and situations involved in the tales can reveal much about the pervading social conditions, including comments or critiques upon class struggle. In their original folk culture, these stories maintained a strong desire from the lower class to attain higher social standing through their own ingenuity or help from the outside. However, in the transition from folk to fairy tale, from literary to oral, the bourgeois class laid claim to these tales and shifted their original functions to encourage upper class norms. Despite this revision , several tales continued to maintain that original element of class struggle steeped in folk culture. Specifically, Perrault’s “Puss in Boots,”the Grimms’ “The Brave Little Tailor,” and Joseph Jacobs “Jack and the Beanstalk,” all retain this oral tradition. Relying on Jack Zipes’ scholarship regarding the transition from an oral to literary tradition , from the common man ‘s attempt to fashion an environment whereby one’s own effort achieved success to the bourgeois restructuring of the tales intended to stress social stability, I will argue that the selected tales retain that folk element of individualistic achievement, of the lower class’ ability to chart their own course and attain higher status.
There is a clear distinction between oral and fairy tales, the clearest being the method of transmission to the audience. Oral tales are those stories passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth, by the storyteller himself clustered about with an audience, while fairy tales are those stories cemented i n time and structure by the advent of the printing press. I n studying fairy tales, it is imperative to grasp this transitional process from oral to print in order tonfully appreciate the change of meaning or purpose of restructuring that took place during this time, particularly with regards to class representation.
Fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes analyzes this transition and sees not only changes in transmission but also changes in class representation. Oral tales were largely the property of a lower, illiterate class. When the oral tradition was collected and published, these stories became the product of a higher, literate rung on the social ladder and the term changed to fairy tales, as opposed to simply oral tales. With this change in form and audience came a change in function; the peasant messages embedded in folk tales were ill suited for the richer audience, and collectors like Perrault adapted the oral stories to fit their audience and enforce bourgeois norms. Zipes writes, “The folk tale is part of a pre-capitalist people’s oral tradition which expresses their wishes to attain better living conditions through a depiction of their struggles and contradictions. The term fairy tale is of aristocratic and bourgeois coinage and indicates the advent of a new literary form which appropriates elements of folklore to address and criticize the aspirations and needs of an emerging middle-class audience” (Breaking the Magic Spell 32). Folk tales, then, largely dreamed and emphasized a world where social mobility was possible. But, in the transition to print culture, the aristocratic audience and collectors balked at the idea of class struggle and instead used the tales to moralize and socialize according to the aristocratic, courtly culture, which usually meant removing elements of changing class and encouraging social stability.
During the 17th century French aristocrats busied themselves with collecting and printing the stories that pervaded their own culture, the most popular being Charles Perrault. Perrault published his most popular collection of eight stories in 1697 titled Tales of’ Mother Goose. This collection contained Perrault’s classic “‘Cinderella: Or the Little Glass Slipper;·a clear example of the changes that occurred in the transition from oral to print culture. The Cinderella that existed i n the oral tradition was a strong, independent woman who actively sought out her own recognition, but, in the collection and transition from oral to print culture, Perrault shifts Cinderella’s character from one of independence to dependence, from agency to submissiveness: “In Perrault’s literary fairy tale, Cinderella is changed to demonstrative how submissive and industrious she is. Only because she minds her manners is she rescued by a fairy godmother and a prince” (Zipes, Subversion 30). In addition, Perrault’s Cinderella story is embedded with clear symbols of social stability that the new bourgeois audience would appreciate and value. Cinderella’s problems occur when her father remarries, her stepsisters project and enforce their dominance over her, and her status is relegated from one of upper class to that of a serving wench, forced to sleep near the fire wearing rags. She was displaced from her previous social standing and suffers for it. Only when she re-attains this status, when she returns to her rightful place, is marriage with the prince rewarded. Perrault and his audience placed great stock in maintaining ones status; to change that status, even if it was a descending change, upset the established order and was discouraged. Fairy tale scholar Elisabeth Panttaja further emphasizes this idea in her analysis of the Grimms’ version of Cinderella, reading the two stepsisters as the invasive lower class trying to supplant the rightful nobility, Cinderella. The sisters are depicted strongly as wicked and justly punished for their ambition, reaffirming to the audience the destructive nature of class struggle. Panttaja writes that the Cinderella tale is “designed to assuage upper-class fears about the rising and clamorous lower classes who would substitute their coarse and scheming daughters for the ‘true bride.’ the bride whose seeming lack of ambition and anxiety is the mark of a higher social rank.” for ultimately it is Cinderella who is rewarded at the end, despite her sisters constant conniving (96). This “bourgeoisification” of oral tales, as Zipes terms it, thus largely removed encouraging messages of social mobility for the disenfranchised and replaced them with aristocratic ideals of social constancy ( Breaking the Magic Spell 40). The shift from oral to print marked the starting point for a monumental shift in meaning and purpose for these stories, but it was a shift that brought about neither instantaneous change nor one that completely eradicated the original stories appeal for class struggle. Vestiges of the lower classes dream for wealth and status remained in the following tales, which demonstrate this hangover from folk to fairy, from mobility to stability, and continue to resonate with audiences today to whom the tale of the lower class underdog remains as endearing now as they were centuries ago.
Perrault’s classic “Puss in Boots” has endured through the centuries and is classified as a Trickster tale, featuring a wily cat protagonist who cons his master’s way into previously impossible power. Considered in the context of class struggle and class representation, Perrault ‘s tale reveals strong underpinnings of social upset and outright mockery of the nobility by the lower classes. Though the cat dominates the story, he is nevertheless the servant of his master, a poor miller’s third-born son bequeathed with the back end of an already miniscule inheritance, namely, the cat. After persuading his owner not to eat him and to properly clothe him with fine boots, the cat proves himself a master of intrigue and deception. Robert Darnton argues that Puss is also an embodiment of folk culture motifs, a conglomeration of “the crafty younger sons, stepdaughters, apprentices, servants, and foxes of the folk tales,” which suggest another connection between Perrault’s printed tale and the oral culture it was collected from (64). The cat creates a persona for his master, the Marquis of Carabas, and proceeds to establish his reputation by courting his favor with the king, clothing him in royal garbs, procuring a loyal peasantry , and finally conquering for him a castle. Thoroughly impressed and convinced, the king marries his daughter to the miller’s son and the cat attains a royal position.
On the surface, Perrault’s tale is a humorous story about a cat who outwits the king and a miller’s dubious son who is left bumbling along for the ride. However, as with most Trickster tales, the story is also clearly indicative of social upset and status mobility. Here is a poor miller’s son who, through the cat’s ingenuity and deception, achieves remarkable social ascension. In this story, all one needs for this claim to nobility are the outer trappings, i.e. clothes, subjects, and a castle. For an illiterate peasantry inhabiting a world of strict familial heritage and royal bloodlines, the possibility of gaining wealth and power at the expense of only some clothes and land is empowering, albeit highly fantastical. In addition, “Puss in Boots,” openly mocks the intelligence of the bourgeois class. Throughout the story the cat tricks the king, feeding him lie after the lie while the reader laughs at the royalty’s inability to properly discern the truth. At the end of the story, the upper class is successfully deceived and the lower class has gained its victory of social upheaval and mobility. Thus despite Perrault’s tale being a part of the newly founded printed fairy tale, his “Puss in Boots” retains clear elements of the earlier oral tradition’s ideals of class struggle and resists the bourgeois notions of social stability.
The Grimms collected and published the first edition of their fairy tale collection in 1812. As Zipes noted, the Grimms’ tales reflect the “bourgeoisification” of oral culture as the stories are increasingly adapted to suit and socialize a younger audience to determined normative standards of an emerging middle class. Their story of “The Brave Little Tailor.” however, preserves the lower class struggle against an oppressive aristocracy. This tale can be divided into two distinct sections: the triumph of the tailor over giants and his ascension to royalty through ingenuity. The first section opens with an amusing episode involving peasant jam, pesky flies, and overblown heroics. Annoyed with the flies, the tailor kills seven of them and marks the achievement with a new belt embroidered with his new motto, “Seven at one blow!” (207) The tailor must now tout his exploit and proceeds to tell anyone who will listen, including a giant. Through a series of clever tricks, the tailor convinces the giant of his superiority, sleeps in the giant’s own cave, and finally escapes from the brute. The tailor ‘s repeated triumphs over the giant are much more than a man’s clever deception s, but are symbolic victories of the mundane over the extraordinary , of the possible over the impossible, read, of the reality of the lower class over the fantasy of the upper class. Despite the tailor’s self-proclaimed brilliance , the giant decides to test him with three superhuman feats: squeezing a stone until water drips, throwing a stone beyond sight, and carrying an entire tree. The tailor meets each challenge not with an equally amazing deed but a mundane, common task. To best squeezing the stone, the tailor squeezes cheese; to throw a stone further than the giant, the tailor releases a bird; to show greater strength than the giant the tailor tricks the giant into carrying him on the tree, hiding outside his sight. In short, the tailor is able to best the giant’s impossible tasks through relatable, commonplace tasks that a lower class audience would find inspiring and achievable in the face of the improbable odds of ever gaining equal footing with the aristocracy.
The second section of the story finds the tailor in the service of the king, who tasks him with three seemingly impossible quests in an attempt to drive him away from the kingdom, intimidated as he is by the tailor’s reputation . Successful completion of the quests yields the tailor the king’s daughter and half the kingdom, which the king reluctantly grants. The story itself comments on the absurdity of the situation, of the huge social upheaval that occurs. highlighting the class tensions that are on display, for if the king ‘·had known that, far from being a war hero, the bridegroom was only a tailor, he would have been even unhappier than he was. And so the wedding was celebrated with great splendor and little joy. and a tailor became king” (21 1 ). Through one last con involving a passive-aggressive display of intimidation against t he former king’s assassination attempt, the tailor cements his place as king, and the oral culture’s ideal of self propelled social ascendancy finds its way into print culture, standing opposed to the emerging norms of stability and lower class subjugation.
Englishman Joseph Jacobs collected and published several oral tales in 1890, including “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Like “Puss in Boots” and “The Brave Little Tailor,” this tale is identified as a Trickster tale and continues to preserve the desire of the lower class for betterment through class struggle. In “Jack and the Beanstalk, ” protagonist Jack hails from a poor family confronted with a worsening scenario as their single source of revenue, Milky-white the cow, has dried up and must be sold. This initial setup contains strong identifying markers to a lower class faced consistently with increasing hardships and starvation, which allows the proceeding victory over poverty and increased status to be celebrated all the more. Recent scholarship by Christine Goldberg has called attention to the importance of the beanstalk in this tale and notes that in folklore this motif s “focus is often on the opportunity it affords the hero to climb” (14). In Jack ‘s case, the beanstalk serves as both a literal and metaphorical solution to his problem and enables him to rise above his status. Literally , the beanstalk is a gateway into the sky kingdom of the giants where Jack’s thievery affords him the opportunity to get himself and his mother out of poverty and ascend into royalty following marriage to a princess. Metaphorically, Jack ‘s beanstalk is the means by which he can climb out of the lower class and into the upper class. Once there,.once freed from disenfranchisement Jack is able to better hi s life and gain agency. Jack also serves as a personification of class struggle when he destroys the giant lord through felling the bean stalk. Jack’s representation as the everyday common man colors his triumph over the giant as emblematic of the larger, symbolic victory of the lower class over the upper in a successful demonstration of social upheaval through the deeds of the disadvantaged.
Brian E. Szumsky has argued that Jacobs’ version of the Jack story is embedded with positive messages of the capitalistic spirit that was dominant in Britain during the late nineteenth century. Szumsky utilizes a postcolonial reading that posits that any previous morals contained in earlier Jack tales are restructured by Jacobs into a “purely capitalistic one in which the entrepreneurial (mercantile-capitalist) spirit – that is, the taking of risks for the sake of personal gain – results in Jack’s materialistic success. ..” (19). However, I argue that Jack is not rewarded for a capitalistic spirit because he never truly exhibits one. Jack ‘s behavior is not indicative of a forward-thinking entrepreneur but a simple peasant. Jack has to steal from the giant three times before he and his mother are truly secure; he neither invests his newly-found gold nor attempts to use his wealth to create more, a central tenant for a capitalist spirit. Instead, Jack thinks solely about the present, an attitude much more in line with a lower class concerned about their daily needs than merchants preoccupied with future investments. While it is true that Jack’s class ascension is a direct result of his “materialistic success,” the story closes not as a result of Jack’s profits but because of his change in class, from a poor peasant to a prince, affirming its positive message not of capitalism but of rising social status.
Social mobility and class struggle unite these tales. Each one features an unlikely, oppressed protagonist, sometimes poor, sometimes disenfranchised, but all starting their story with bad luck and unfair treatment befitting their lower class; the miller’s son is granted the crumbs of his father’s already meager inheritance: Jack is constricted with poverty: and the tailor, though not overtly oppressed, is cemented within his station in an repressive, class-based society. The antagonists, both indirectly and directly, for these characters are the nobility, personified as ugly, brutish giants but also portrayed more literally as unintelligent, easily fooled, and deceitful. Through ingenuity and cunning, the miller’s son, Jack, and the tailor triumph over their oppressors and gain wealth, prestige, and status. These victories are highly symbolic and call back the oral tradition ‘s messages from folk culture of the ability to freely control your own life and gain freedom, wealth, or even power. Within these tales “the goal of the protagonist concerns social status and recognition …he [the protagonist] seizes his opportunity to succeed, as do the princesses and fair young maidens of the peasant class” ( Breaking the Magic Spell , Zipes 155). Though not the intended audience for these printed fairy tales, the so-called heroes in these stories are representative of the lower class’s plights and dreams, and these tales present the potential for their hardship to be overcome, to rise from the squalor of poverty and ascend the social ladder and right the wrongs of an oppressive system.
Many of the meanings and purposes in the folk tales were changed and repurposed in the transition from oral to print, moralized and sanitized to service a new, higher-class audience. But the voice of the voiceless that pervaded and informed folk culture was not entirely eliminated and found its preservation in the analyzed tales . While it is discouraging to imagine a culture’s stories being forcibly rebranded and repackaged for an entirely different, originally unintended audience, it is encouraging to note that that inherent folk element is remembered. As these and new stories continue to be told across a dizzying amount of new media, the voice and culture of those less fortunate cannot be discounted or ignored, shuffled away or simply removed. Though doubtless better off than the peasantry in early modern Europe, poverty continues to rack the nations and its victims struggle for their own voice and agency. but if you look close enough. it can always be found . And it should never take a wily cat. a magi c beanstalk. or the conquering of giants to afford anyone the chance for change and opportunity.