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Jack Zipes with students from Jackson Elementary.

U professor Jack Zipes with some students from Jackson Elementary in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood. During summer 2007, the students participated in a storytelling and creative drama program co-created by Zipes.

Jack be nimble

U professor Jack Zipes continues to reshape the way we think about folklore and fairy tales

By Linda Shapiro

December 5, 2007

"I think, therefore I provoke" might well be Jack Zipes's motto. An internationally renowned scholar and translator who has published prolifically, the University of Minnesota professor is also a cultural activist who motivates children to question the traditional stories they've been told and helps them create new ones. In the process, he has fundamentally reshaped the way we think about folklore and fairy tales.

Zipes has produced books with provocative titles like Breaking the Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales and Don't Bet on the Prince. Across time and place, Zipes says, fairy tales reflect certain universal concerns.

"These stories get to the bottom of our natural inclinations and desires, critical issues such as mating, rape, incest, and inheritance that are germane to the human species and all societies," he says. And, it seems, the tales serve important functions in society. "We tell tales to communicate, to understand the world, to bring about some sort of social identity," he adds. "Throughout history, stories of various kinds were told in ritual ways to socialize children, give them a sense of identity, calm their fears, and explain natural phenomena."

In his latest work, Why Fairy Tales Stick (see sidebar) Zipes, who accepted a position as professor of German and comparative literature at Minnesota in 1989, argues that fairy tales need to be continually reinvented in order to remain relevant. So, for instance, the traditional Grimm brothers' version of "Cinderella," in which the heroine is beautiful and passive, the prince patriarchal, and the stepmother irredeemably wicked, may seem sexist and inappropriate in a contemporary society where women have been empowered and many children live with caring stepparents. Yet the story's primal themes of child abandonment and abuse, sibling rivalry, and parental love remain powerfully present in our culture.

According to Zipes, many writers and filmmakers in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have successfully adapted and transformed the basic themes of traditional stories. He cites the film Ever After as an example that presents the Cinderella character (played by Drew Barrymore) as a feisty, independent woman who is far from classically beautiful.

Digging in, reaching out

But Zipes isn't just writing about the ways that others have updated fairy tales. In 1997 he cofounded the Neighborhood Bridges project with Peter Brosius, artistic director of the Children's Theatre Company (CTC) in Minneapolis. Modeled on the exercises that Zipes developed in his book Creative Storytelling: Building Community, Changing Lives, the Neighborhood Bridges project encourages young children to create and animate their own stories while they explore the rich literary genres of fairy, folk, utopian, and mythic tales. The goal, Zipes says, is to transform children into critical thinkers and savvy storytellers through a flexible process that incorporates theater games, improvisation, and creative writing.

"So often you don't know the impact your teaching is having. Here you can see transformation," says Wendy Knox, artistic director of Frank Theater and one of the teaching artists for Neighborhood Bridges. And indeed, by the time the kids get to theater games like transitioning from one animal to another as they scuttle across the room, they have gone from "whatever" mode to fully engaged and imaginative action.

More kudos for Zipes

The Folklore Society announced at the Warburg Institute that Jack Zipes was awarded the 2007 Katharine Briggs Award for his book Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre. The annual prize was established to encourage the study of folklore, to help improve the standard of folklore publications in Britain and Ireland, to establish the Folklore Society as the arbiter of excellence, and to commemorate the life and work of the distinguished scholar Katharine Mary Briggs (1898-1980; Society president 1969-1972).

Not afraid to tackle cultural icons, Zipes has been critical of Bruno Bettelheim's highly praised psychoanalytic approach to interpreting fairy tales. He has also weighed in on the first four Harry Potter books, which he considers "sexist, elitist, conventional, and mediocre."

But he is equally quick to embrace artists and thinkers whom he believes have radically re-envisioned the fairy tale genre. He applauds the impact of films like Pan's Labyrinth that cause people to think critically about how society can manipulate them. "It imaginatively demonstrates how fascists of all kinds impose their will on good people," says Zipes.

Using theories of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, Zipes is currently studying how we may be hardwired by the linguistic structures in our brains to prefer fairy tales over other literary genres.

"I'm intrigued by the theory because it may offer a new way to explain why fairy tales are so relevant. As the brain is reconfigured from generation to generation, it may cause a predisposition to certain narrative or linguistic forms," says Zipes, who was instrumental in obtaining a highly competitive grant from the German Academic Exchange, a powerful cultural wing of the German government, to create the Center for German and European Studies (a collaboration between University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin) in the U's College of Liberal Arts.

If indeed we are wired to gravitate toward fairy tales, Zipes will have additional validation for a life spent thinking about storytelling--something that is, he's always been convinced, as elemental as breathing.