BY JACK ZIPES
University of Minnesota
Once upon a time, when the famous scientist Albert Einstein was teaching at Princeton University, a tiny old woman approached him as he was walking home after a class he had just taught. She was schlepping a skinny young boy of about six who was dragging his feet.
“Mr. Einstein,” she called out in a strong Central European accent. “Mr. Einstein, stop your tracks and help me!”
Einstein was taken aback. He didn’t know what to do except stop.
“How can I help you?” he responded with a smile as he took out a pipe.
“You shouldn’t smoke. It will kill you,” the old woman said.
Again, Einstein was taken aback, and he put away his pipe.
“Is that better?”
“Much better,” the old woman said as she drew her timid grandson toward Einstein. “Jaky, stop fiddling and listen to this great man.”
Now she turned her attention back to Einstein.
“Mr. Einstein, I want you should tell me what my grandson must do to become educated like you. I want he should be a great scientist.”
Einstein didn’t hesitate with his reply, “Fairy tales. He should read fairy tales.”
“All right,” the woman replied. “But what then? What should he read after that?”
“More fairy tales,” Einstein stated bluntly, took out his pipe, and continued walking toward his home.
The old woman was silent for a moment, but then she grabbed hold of Jaky’s hand and began dragging him through the park again. Suddenly she stopped.
“You heard, Jaky!” she pointed her finger at the frightened boy. “You heard what the great man said! Read fairy tales! Do what the man said, or God help you!”
And she whisked her grandson away.
Needless to say, this is a true story, not a fairy tale. I must confess that the boy in this anecdote was me, and I have lived under Einstein’s spell ever since my momentous encounter with the great man in 1943. Or perhaps one could call the spell “my grandmother’s curse.” Whether spell or curse, I can’t recall not imbibing fairy tales. They are in my blood. Ever since my grandmother traumatized me, I have constantly collected fairy tales, read them, written them, studied them, and even lived them. Most of all, I have collected fairy-tale postcards for more than fifty years. My wife thinks I am like the golden boy of fairy tales, that is, she thinks that Lady Fortuna watches over me and changes everything I touch into gold.
|“French encounter.” From the author’s collection.|
She also thinks that I’m a fairy-tale postcard junky. For years I have spent a good deal of my research time at library sales, auctions, flea markets, postcard shows, garbage dumps, and garage sales and in second-hand bookstores, musty libraries, book stalls, movie theaters, cellars, attics, and museums. My daughter, who has tolerated my tale-telling and fairy-tale postcard obsession ever since she was born, has offered to ship me off and pay for a fairy-tale de-toxication program run by rational, stringent, down-to-earth social workers. Lately, however, she has concluded that I’m hopeless and helpless.
To tell the truth, I may be helpless, but I’m not hopeless. I think it is hope in fairy tales that has driven me throughout my life, and perhaps it was hope that drove Einstein. There is something peculiar about fairy tales, the best of fairy tales, that propels me and, I think, most human beings absorb them as if they were vital food and vital for survival. We simply can’t do without them. It is as if we were pre-disposed to lead our lives according to the spells and curses of fairy tales.
|“Frog King.” From the author’s collection.|
In my own case, I have constantly learned about the complexities of life through fairy tales and especially through buried treasures. This brings me back to talk about the importance to fairy-tale postcards that have been produced in the millions and yet have been ignored to a large extent by collectors and scholars. I don’t mean to exaggerate the neglect, but quite clearly very few collectors and scholars have written about the history of fairy-tale postcards, and most people who buy the cards are not aware of why they are drawn to fairy-tale postcards.
As a narrative metaphor or metaphorical pattern, a fairy tale, in my opinion, like other short narratives — anecdotes, jokes, legends, myths, warning tales, and so on — stems from historically conditioned lived experience that fosters a reaction in our brains, and this experience is articulated through symbols that endow it with significance. Fairy tales are relevant because they pass on information vital for humans to adapt to changing environments. Sometimes they do this through the images on tiny postcards. I do not want to privilege the fairy tale or, more precisely, the oral wonder tale as the only type of narrative or the best means by which we communicate our experiences and learn from each other. But it does seem to me that we are predisposed to the fairy tale whether in a book or on a postcard because it tends to offer a metaphorical means through which we can gain distance from our experiences, sort them out, and articulate or enunciate their significance for us and for other people in our environment.
|“Pinocchio.” From the author’s collection.|
Nobody — not even I — lives their lives by fairy tales. Over hundreds of years they have come to form a linguistic type, a genre, a means by which we seek to understand and contend with our environment, to find our place in it. There are many types, genres, and means of narration. Our predilection for certain fairy tales reveals something about ourselves and our cultures. Every family and society in the world have developed types, genres, and communicative means that produce cultural patterns and enable people to identify themselves and grasp the world around them. Sometimes these communicative means or media have contributed to the formation of spectacles and illusions that prevent us from understanding our empirical experiences.
I prefer to think that fairy-tale postcards, as startling illustrated memes, have flown and continue to fly magically through the air to enlighten us and give us pleasure. Just one look at the unique images printed on the postcards in my book will give you an idea of how much we revere and continue to revere fairy tales.
|“Hansel and Gretel.” From the author’s collection.|
Jack Zipes is professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota. He is author of more than forty books, including Tales of Wonder: Retelling Fairy Tales through Picture Postcards; The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World; and Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales, Children, and the Culture Industry.