The Norton volume of fairy tales, The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm, edited by Jack Zipes, includes two tales under the thematic heading “Virtuous Queens.” They are two variants of a story sometimes referred to as “The Girl without Hands,” or “The Armless Maiden” – a tale of a girl who is attacked and disfigured, but whose worth is proven by her body’s mystical ability to cause precious objects to appear. The two versions collected here, however, are united not only by parallel plot structures, but also by the appellation of our maimed but magical heroine: Straparola’s “Biancabella and the Snake” and Jean de Mailly’s “Blanche Belle” both feature a maiden who takes her name from her fair features; in de Mailly’s tale, she is explicitly noted to have been named for her very white skin.
At the time I encountered this volume, I was prepping a class on Fables and Tales, and had been on the lookout for variants of the classic tale of Snow White, so the names of these stories caught my eye. Continue reading
For the last couple of years, I have taught a course called Fables and Tales, a class that most students take to meet a general education requirement in the humanities at San Francisco State University.
Fables, fairy tales, and folklore are not exactly my area of expertise, though I find the topic fascinating. The first time I taught the course I spent nearly a hundred hours prepping – mostly in background research, exploring sources and looking for creative and interesting readings and assignments – and enjoyed every minute of it. For a comparatist, the intersecting and overlapping nature of folklore is fertile ground. And from a pedagogical standpoint, the more connections I can make between stories, the better able I am to create a climactic arc for my course – to give students the sense that each part of the course is building on the last, that they are moving ever-closer to a goal. As both a scholar and a teacher, my impulse to look for literary connections and convergences kicks into overdrive.
My students, on the other had, tend to be a bit more circumspect, seeing connections between texts less readily than I do. I often open up discussions by asking students to test the limits of the relationships between stories, posing questions like, “Would you call this a Cinderella story?”, “Are Snow-drop (Schneewittchen) and Snow White really the same person?”, “Is Biancabella more similar to Snow White or Cinderella?”, etc. While they sometimes make interesting and unexpected connections between stories, a sizable chunk of them will tell me they don’t see any connections at all. They’re particularly skeptical of more abstract connections, where the details of the story are adapted to emphasize particular thematic concerns, such as the interpretation of Bluebeard as a serial adulterer.
As they have challenged me on my own comparative impulse, I’ve thought more deeply about the relationships between texts, and my own agency as a scholar in asserting and depicting those relationships. I’ve also explored ways to clarify and support the relationships I identify for my students. As I searched for a framework to make these relationships more compelling, I remembered my study of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept of family resemblances, which seemed in many ways uniquely suitable.
“When we claim to have been injured by language, what kind of claim do we make?
We ascribe an agency to language, a power to injure, and position ourselves as the objects of its injurious trajectory. We claim that language acts, and acts against us, and the claim we make is a further instance of language, one which seeks to arrest the force of the prior instance.
Thus, we exercise the force of language even as we seek to counter its force, caught up in a bind that no act of censorship can undo.”
— Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative
In recent days, a great deal of thought, and even more raw emotion, has been generated by the topic of rhetoric — rhetoric about politics, about race and culture, about identity and belonging, and about exclusion and distrust. I think now, more than ever, we as a society are confronted with the power — the potentially abusive power — of language.
And yet, when considering the power language has to wound, I cannot help recalling Judith Butler’s assertion, in Excitable Speech, of the paradoxical nature of language’s power — that in trying to curtail the power of language, we inadvertently accede to it. Then again, in accepting the power language has over us, we can likewise recognize it as a power we can wield. Though the book is now creeping up on its twentieth anniversary, it seems more relevant than ever to remember both the warning and the promise it contains.
I recently had occasion to review my notes on Derrida’s Monoligualism of the Other, a book I first read in grad school. I was developing my dissertation at the time, and I’ve realized now how much Derrida’s discussion in this book has influenced many of the questions I ask about the body and embodiment in literature.