My review for Jan M. Ziolkowski’s recent book on medieval Latin fairy tales is now published with my usual venue, the Journal of Folklore Research. I enjoyed it quite a bit, especially its pointed criticism of some recent fairy tale scholarship that ignores viable medieval evidence. Medieval studies in folklore certainly has had its heyday, but those days are long past. It’s refreshing to see some medieval folklorists reminding the discipline of its origins.
Read my review at the Journal of Folklore Research website or below.
We do not, and never will, have access to oral folktales from the Middle Ages. Although unfortunate, this does not mean that folktale scholars should give up hope of ever understanding storytelling in the medieval period or that all our written evidence should be discarded as inauthentic and therefore not valuable. Jan M. Ziolkowski’s book, Fairy Tales from Before Fairy Tales: The Medieval Latin Past of Wonderful Lies, advocates for a “use what’s available” approach to medieval literature, taking into account the varied and nuanced textual practices in use at the time. Some texts with value to folklorists have survived the centuries, and careful attention to historical and cultural contexts may reveal much about medieval vernacular practices. Folklorists who dismiss written evidence out of hand solely because of its medium downplay the complexity inherent in folklore’s transmission.
In his introduction and first chapter, “Folktales in Medieval Latin Poetry,” Ziolkowski lays out a literature review of fairy tale scholarship and outlines his motivations and methodology. The author points to gaps in fairy tale scholarship where researchers have ignored viable medieval texts, due both to lack of training in medieval languages and to a reluctance to deal with written texts. Medieval Latin poetry is unsurprisingly the site of the largest lacuna: heavily stylized poems written by learned monks in rare manuscripts seem antithetical to that clichéd image of poor but noble peasants orally telling crude tales to an audience of peers! Ziolkowski argues throughout that medieval European literature incorporated a wealth of folklore materials and that these medieval materials had an important role in the creation of the modern literary fairy tale as evidenced in the Grimms’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen.
The rest of the volume presents individual case studies that provide evidence for Ziolkowski’s assertions. Chapter 2, “Between Sacred Legend and Folktale,” concerns itself with the tenth-century Latin poem About a Certain Fisherman Whom a Whale Swallowed (De quodam piscatore quem ballena absorbuit), written by the French monk Letaldus from an oral source. The poem is about an English fisherman named Within who is swallowed by a whale and only escapes by setting fire to his boat. He emerges from the dead whale, burnt, blind, and hairless from his ordeal. Ziolkowski surveys similar tales in other folklore-inspired literature from antiquity and the Middle Ages and shows how the Letaldus poem is shaped both by oral lore as well as biblical and extra-biblical lore about Jonah. The mutual influence of the oral folktale and legends about Jonah attests to the complexity of interaction in the medieval period and renders ineffectual the traditional oral/written dichotomy.
Chapter 3, “A Cautionary Tale: Little Red Riding Hood in the 1020s,” takes aim at the popular fairy tale and the mass of scholarship devoted to it, nearly all of which completely ignores a viable eleventh-century literary analogue. Alan Dundes, for example, considered literary fairy tales inauthentic (97), and even Jack Zipes, who distinguishes between oral folktales and literary fairy tales, does not admit fairy tales written before the seventeenth century (96). Ziolkowski uses the eleventh-century poem “About a Girl Saved from Wolf Cubs” (“De puella a lupellis seruata”) to robustly expose a critical bias in fairy tale scholarship when it comes to written evidence. The tale contains some remarkable similarities to modern literary versions, including the eponymous red hood, yet most scholars assert that Perrault’s is the earliest surviving version. More surprising yet, the Latin poem has “not received even passing mention or bibliographic citation in any English-language scholarship…over the past half century” (100). Ziolkowski’s analysis of the Latin poem in this chapter complicates the boundary between the oral and the literary, and between stability and change. The author continues to complicate these issues in chapter 4, “True Lies and the Growth of Wonder,” where he compares the eleventh-century folktale One-Ox with the tale type as attested by Hans Christian Andersen’s “Little Claus and Great Claus.”
In chapter 5, “The Wonder of The Turnip Tale (ca. 1200)” and chapter 6, “The Reorientation of The Donkey Tale (ca. 1200),” Ziolkowski looks at how two medieval Latin poems were reformulated by the Grimms for their KHM, as “The Turnip” (KHM 146) and “The Donkey” (KHM 144). The brothers thought of these Latin texts as mediated folktales that preserved oral qualities that could be restored through careful editing. Despite scholarly interest in the ways that the Brothers Grimm adapted their tales from their original, usually oral, sources, until Ziolkowski fairy tale scholars have largely ignored “The Turnip” and “The Donkey,” two tales with sources actually available! A comparison of these two fairy tales with their medieval sources produces “laboratory-quality data for determining what the brothers thought a fairy tale should be and what adaptive techniques they deployed in shaping sources to achieve this ideal” (172). The changes the brothers made to the Latin poems are interesting, but hardly surprising: they simplified the style, changed medieval characters to modern German ones, emphasized hard work, and omitted women, religion, humor, and erotic elements. In effect, the Grimms restored to the tales the “Germanness” that had been obscured by Latin clerics.
A short conclusion synthesizes Ziolkowski’s main arguments concerning the validity of these medieval Latin tales as viable folklore texts. Following this are five appendices that are just as valuable as the preceding six chapters, as they offer English translations of the texts the author has worked with throughout. Many of the texts are translated by Ziolkowski himself and appear here in English for the first time. With such wonderful translations now readily available, the devoted fairy tale scholar has no excuse not to study these medieval versions!
Ziolkowski’s work is well-researched but not without its problems. Some chapters soar while others fall flat at places. The chapters on “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Turnip Tale” offer superb analysis of the tales and their traditions and consistently bring the medieval version in contact with modern scholarship. However, parts of the chapter on “The Donkey Tale” seem unfocused: the author’s theory of the tale’s diffusion from India to Europe via traveling mimes is largely speculative and does a poor job of highlighting his point that tales change based on context. Ziolkowski’s prose rambles at times, particularly in the first chapter where the author gives a lengthy history of the discipline that may prove tedious to folklorists, and will either aid or overwhelm the general reader. Still, despite these minor flaws, Fairy Tales from Before Fairy Tales not only offers a model for analyzing pre-modern folklore texts but also provides fairy tale scholars with new translations of tales previously unavailable to them. It is an important and groundbreaking work that should be read and heeded by folklorists.