Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales, Max Luthi

By astonishing coincidence, I find myself needing to research fairy tales right in the middle of the Once Upon a Time Challenge (about which, if anyone is wondering, I have never forgotten at all but have kept it uppermost in my mind at all times).  Max Lüthi has written a book that provides an insightful and very readable overview of the conventions of the European fairy tale.  As a starting place for my research into fairy tales (I am going to research the crap out of fairy tales, y’all), I could hardly have picked a better book.

Lüthi talks about the conventions of fairy tales and what they mean to us.  I spent the entire book shrieking “OH YEAH! THAT IS TOTALLY TRUE!” because Lüthi writes about patterns in fairy tales, mainly Grimm’s.  I read Grimm’s fairy tales like mad when I was a little girl, way more than Lang’s, so Lüthi was writing about all the stories I read, in the versions that I read them.

For instance, I have previously remarked upon stories that violate ontological boundaries.  Fairy tales do this all the time, with talking animals and like that, but Lüthi points out that while we may be surprised by this, the characters aren’t.  An animal walks up and starts talking to our fairy tale protagonists, and the protagonists are perfectly chill about it.  One of Lüthi’s lovely, concise observations: “[In fairy tales], everything can enter into relationship with everything else…[they] free people from their natural context.”

Or, oh, this was good, Luthi notes that relationships and feelings are externalized rather than explained in emotional terms.  Relationships and connections between characters are tangible: a princess will slip something into her lover’s pocket before he leaves.  A girl who walks a long way in search of something or someone will wear through three pairs of iron shoes, her weariness represented rather than described.  True story, right?  That kind of thing happens all the time in fairy tales. Tangibles.  Love ’em.

As I have a troubled relationship with time, I appreciated this the most:

The fairy tale conquers time by ignoring it.  Part of the power which it has to delight the reader derives from this triumph over time and the passage of time….[these stories] remove us from the time continuum and make us feel that there is another way of viewing and experiencing life, that behind all birth and death there is another world, resplendent, imperishable, and incorruptible.

I took copious notes on this book, with a pen that I am trying to use up its ink because I can’t bear to throw a gel pen away.  It’s the most obnoxious color of pen ever, this terrible orangey dark coral, but the pen’s a Uni-ball Signo with a 0.5mm nib.  I can’t throw that pen away.  I have a finite number of pens, and anyway, it’s got a 0.5mm nib!  But it’s the ugliest damn color ever, and the day this thing runs out of ink is going to be a happy, happy day for me.

32 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales, Max Luthi

    • I love it too. I like to see it bleed over into other (non-fairy-tale) fantasy books, like Rowling and Diana Wynne Jones. It causes me to love them even more when I see their fairy tale roots.

    • I have a book by Bettelheim, two by Warner, and Zipes is on my radar but not to be found at the public library. When I get through the ones I have right now, I’m heading to the university library to restock. 🙂

  1. I don’t know if I like the idea of reading a book analyzing fairy tales and why people read them. I don’t think I like books that analyze other books, I suppose, as I also have no interest in reading a book Ana recommended to me (sorry!) about how to read comic books. But at the same time… it’s cool that someone actually did research and drew parallels/conclusions.

    • I guess you didn’t major in English? :p I actually LOVE reading books and articles that analyze other books or stories – often when I find a new-to-me “classic” author, I’ll geekily go look up articles about them. I like seeing all the connections that other people have made about stories I like to read.

    • It is! Which is good because I’m only doing it for fun, not for work or school or anything, just because I feel like learning about fairy tales. I’m looking forward to getting into some more detail with them, though – gender roles, and like that. 🙂

  2. I love your tags. Loved the post, too, but the tags reach right into that part of my brain that waits for unexpected humour.

    There is a great collection of women writers on their favourite fairy tales: Mirror, Mirror on the Wall.

    • I’m glad you like the tags! 🙂

      I’ve heard of that, Mirror Mirror on the Wall – I think I almost got that when I was at the university library, but I couldn’t find it in the stacks. The stacks being quite dark and ominous, I didn’t want to stick around too long searching.

    • It is! I am interested in fairy tales anyway, but I love it that Luthi wasn’t necessarily trying to find huge psychological implications for the patterns he discerned in fairy tales. Now that I am reading rubbishy Bettelheim, who is getting very into the Freudian implications (“the Queen being trapped in the oral incorporative stage”, etc.), I miss my old pal Luthi.

  3. Great quote about conquering time.

    I read the color fairy books because it was what my Granny had around–falling-apart hardcovers that had been through 3 generations already–then got my first book of Grimm as an 11th or 12th birthday present. It was the 1940’s translation/selection with Fritz Kredel illustrations that keeps getting reprinted. I’m pretty sure the Andrew Lang books have some Grimm sprinkled through them along with everything else. I know he was a magpie, but he has more magic for me in memory because of the non-cartoony engravings. I still wish I could step into them.

    I’ve read a new translation of Andersen that was really eye- popping. I should probably read a different Grimm and see if it has the same effect. Which one did you grow up with?

    I secretly threw away a crusty crayola marker that was getting wads of brown gunk all over the place (and small children) when I was visiting relatives last week. Guard your pen from strangers!

    • I never cared for Anderson, and I still don’t, but when I learned he was probably gay, that explained SO MUCH about his fairy tales to me. The Little Mermaid walking on knives, poor dear, and the Ugly Duckling that everyone scorns, and the Emperor not having any clothes – oh, Hans Christian Anderson. Poor dude born in the wrong century. I should give him another try really, but God, his stories are depressing.

      Oh, yeah, I read Andrew Lang too, and I loved those illustrations. I can’t remember what book of fairy tales I had as a kid – you’d think I would remember! I remember I loved D’Aulaire’s Greek myths, and then we had this book of stories like The Fisherman’s Wife and Ali Baba, which had really gorgeous lush illustrations.

      • Good point! I suspect he was genuinely weird on top of it, though. Even if he was born in San Francisco in 1990, people would say, “Yeah, that’s Hans. He’s a great guy, but he’s totally mental.” I’d also venture that 19th century Danish state church Lutheranism may have as much to do with the walking on knives as the gay. And he trying to make a living as an artist! (having crossed class boundaries).

        It took me a while to warm to him. He is certainly off-putting if you find him too young. Just right for an angsty 14 year old, and later on there are subtleties to enjoy if you can get past the histrionics.


    Back when I was young and had thoughts and wanted to do things like stay in school forever, but before I ran out of money, I wanted to specialize in fairy tales … and then I majored in Classics and History. Hmph.

    I still love reading about them, though, and fantasize about the LS/Children’s Lit grad studied program at the UBC.

    The earliest fairy tales I encountered were the Olive beaupre Miller My Bookhouse Books, a 1930s edition my mother had grown up on, containing everything from the Bros Grimm and HC Andersen, to the Water Babies and Uncle Remus. (I took one in for a unit on racism, the story of the Tarbaby, in twelfth grade, and my teacher flipped out that I brought that antique a book to school.) After that, i read the Colored Fairy Books (Lang ftw!) and the Tales of my _______ Grandmother books. It wasn’t until I was in college that I hit Zipes, though his collections are very good.

    re: HC Andersen, I took a class on him several years ago, and he was a very odd and sad man. I really don’t think his stories are usually read the way they ought to be; they definitely benefit from a re-read and consideration. (True story: When Disney’s The Little Mermaid came out, my tutu refused to take me to see it because I was such an emotional child, and she thought it would be too difficult for me to take. She was definitely going by Andersen’s work, not a bowdlerized Disney version.)

    • Classics and History is still good! There are all sorts of good bits to classics, like Cicero, and then Cicero some more, and Ovid, and periodic structure (like in Cicero), and also Catullus, and The Odyssey, and many other things but not Horace. I hope you didn’t have to read Horace. I hate horrible Horace.

      Oh, is Zipes a collector of stories? I thought he was more a fairy tale scholar dude – not that collecting them wouldn’t make him one! I thought he wrote about fairy tales. Maybe I have him mixed up with Bettelheim.

    • My family had the Book House too. I pored over the volumes that had fiction. My favorite was Tales Told in Holland, with the housewife mermaid and her clean floors. This post is attracting all sorts of commenters I’d like to shake hands with!

  5. Oh, I like the sound of this book, and although I am probably not going to be researching fairy tales as thoroughly as you are, I would definitely like to read this. Great review, and I am with you on the orange pen. I loathe that color ink!!

    • It’s an awful color! I hate seeing it take up pages and pages of my pretty marble-back notebook with the flowers on the front. And I swear this ink lasts longer than normal ink.

      Do read it, if you ever spy it in the library. I don’t know how thoroughly I’m going to be researching fairy tales yet – I think I’ll probably do it Sarah Waters style, read lots of things until I sound like I know what I’m talking about. :p

  6. ooh ooh! I researched the crap out of fairytales in grad school for my MA thesis. Lemme know if you wanna talk fairy tale crap sometimes.

  7. I want this! Also, best of luck with your research! I’m guessing you’ll be reading Jack Zipes and Maria Tatar and Marina Warner? They’re all very very awesome 😀

    PS: I feel that I have to say that Understanding Comics it not actually a how-to book 😛

    PPS: I’ve just read in Dorothy Sayers’ biography that she loved fairy tales and collected the Andrew Lang books, and got all happy when she finally had the full set. And I thought I couldn’t love her more ❤

    • Yep, all three of those, Maria Tatar on your recommendation, if I remember correctly. I have two of Marina Warner’s books on gender sitting in my living room, but I’m saving them until after I finish the less-interesting fairy tale books I have out.

      I love it when authors can totally own their love of children’s stories. C.S. Lewis is endearing that way – G.K. Chesterton too. It helps me feel fond of them when they are being very annoying.

    • I love them too – I read so many fairy tales as a kid, and often haven’t revisited them as an adult. I’m excited to read them again with my grown-up girl eyes. 🙂

  8. I have a Huge Freaking Stack of fairytale and children’s literature related research books left over from a class I took. I’ll share the titles of a couple *good* ones, if you’re interested. (Don’t hesitate to say “No, thank you, I’ve already got plenty” ~_^)

    That sounds like a really interesting book, and a really fun project.

  9. I need this book. I teach a course on the Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell’s work, and so much of what I teach comes from old oral narratives.

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