The Enduring Relevance of Fairy Tales

In her new book, associate professor Nancy Canepa offers a panoramic view of the Italian fairy tale tradition and shows how the age-old form remains among the most enduring kinds of storytelling.

Nancy Canepa's fascination with fairy tales has been a driving force in her scholarly career.

From a 17th-century tale about a "homicidal Cinderella" to the newly released Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio set in fascist Italy, the age-old form captures and challenges cultural norms and ideals, often in unexpected ways.

"Storytelling has always been a way to process, reflect upon, and react to the human condition, and the fairy tale is among the oldest and most enduring forms of storytelling," says Canepa, an associate professor in the Department of French and Italian.

Canepa's first book, From Court to Forest, explored the earliest collection of literary fairy tales in Europe, Giambattista Basile's The Tale of Tales (1634-36). She has also published edited volumes on the early modern Italian and French literary fairy-tale traditions and on teaching fairy tales, and translated The Tale of Tales and Carlo Collodi's The Adventures of Pinocchio.

Her new book, The Enchanted Boot: Italian Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, is the first volume published in English that examines the entire Italian fairy-tale tradition, from medieval to contemporary times, including a number of works never before translated. By introducing a wide range of authors in their historical and cultural contexts, the book offers "a panoramic view of this tradition," Canepa says. Most importantly, she says, it gives readers a greater understanding of the evolution, over the centuries, of "the rich spectrum of Italian identities and cultures."
In a Q&A, Canepa reflects on the evolving field of fairy-tale studies, favorite stories from her newly translated collection, and how encouraging students to write original fairy tales often brings about "fun and amazing" results.

What initially piqued your interest in studying fairy tales?

When I was a graduate student I was very interested in the evolution and transformation of narrative genres, in particular the Italian novella. Basile's 17th-century fairy-tale collection The Tale of Tales comes, in fact, at the tail end of the early modern novella tradition inspired by Boccaccio's Decameron.

Some of the questions that intrigued me early on were: Why the turn from the realism of the novella to the marvelous dimension of the fairy tale at this particular moment in time? What does an emerging literary genre (as the fairy tale was in Renaissance Italy) look like at the start of its trajectory? What were the forms and functions of the fairy tale before it became a genre predominantly for young audiences? Basile wrote in a nonstandard literary language—Neapolitan dialect—and I was also interested in exploring the significance of this experimentalism in the context of the linguistic debates of the time.

What do you think would surprise readers about early fairy tales?

It's crucial to remember that the fairy tale, just like other forms of narrative, is not timeless or "universal." Over the centuries fairy tales have had widely different forms and functions. So, for example, if we're speaking of Europe, from the first literary production in the 16th century up until at least the mid-18th century, literary fairy tales were a decidedly adult genre, commonly adopted as forms of courtly and salon entertainment. And as a new genre that hadn't yet assumed a set position or legitimacy in the literary hierarchy, the fairy tale could take on certain topics and in general push the envelope in ways that weren't always possible in more established genres.

So, for example, in Basile's Tale of Tales we find a sly but roundly articulated polemic of the royal powers-that-be, at a time when Spain exercised colonial rule in Naples and the south of Italy, where Basile lived and worked as a courtier. Or, the many French fairy tales by women writing in the orbit of Louis XIV's court in the late 17th century confront proto-feminist matters that were quite urgent for their authors: forced marriage, equal opportunity, and the like. Because they weren't for children, these early tales are also often more complex from a narrative and stylistic point of view, as well as much raunchier and violent than what we tend to associate with fairy tales.

How has the field of fairy tale studies evolved and where is it headed?

Until the 1970s or so, the study and teaching of fairy tales was mostly relegated to courses aimed at preparing primary school teachers to use fairy tales in their classrooms. In other words, fairy tales weren't considered an appropriate scholarly subject for advanced academic study. 

In the past 50 years, though, fairy-tale studies has come into its own and become institutionalized as a discipline. This has resulted in a rich outpouring of editions, re-editions, translations, and anthologies that have reconsidered canonical works (e.g., Perrault, Andersen, the Grimms), as well as in the excavation, translation, and publication of fairy-tale texts previously unavailable or inaccessible in English.

Innovative critical and theoretical perspectives (materialist, feminist, post-colonial, eco-critical, film studies, etc.) on the forms and functions of fairy tales, together with monographs on single authors and national and transnational traditions have also proliferated, and academic and commercial presses have become more and more welcoming to fairy-tale scholarship. It's been very exciting to be part of all this.

What's your favorite fairy tale from your newly translated collection?

I'm not sure I can answer that one! I have a soft spot for Basile's tales, since his is the collection that got me started and with which I've spent the most time. Among his tales that are included in The Enchanted Boot, "The Cinderella Cat" and "Sun, Moon, and Talia" (his version of "Sleeping Beauty") offer some surprises, such as (spoiler alert!) a homicidal Cinderella who is willing to do just about anything to get what she wants. I love Basile's "The Cockroach, the Mouse, and the Cricket," a laugh-out-loud tale of the triumph of one of his many foolish heroes.

The tales in the last section of the book ("Something Old, Something New: Fairy Tales for Our Times") are also a lot of fun, and very representative of the ways in which contemporary authors fashion their tales to speak to our own realities.

For example, in Gianni Rodari's "Nino and Nina" the traditional tale of "Hansel and Gretel" is transposed into the bustling and impersonal "forest" of Milan in the 1960s, a time when waves of mass migration from the rural south of Italy to the industrial cities of the north could lead not only to prosperity but also to new forms of desperation. Or, in the charming eco-pacifist fable, "A Family in a Shoe," Dacia Maraini addresses the risks of burning bridges between the natural and human worlds.

What do you find most rewarding about teaching fairy tales?

Writing original fairy tales is always a central activity in my courses, and besides being fun and often resulting in amazing results, it really brings home the realization that the fairy-tale tradition is just as dynamic today as it has been for thousands of years, since by writing their own tales students are participating in and enriching that tradition themselves.
Something else that always blossoms in the courses I teach on fairy tales is the awareness of how narratives shape our lives, and at the same time how if we operate from this awareness we can better understand how to change prevailing narratives by actively intervening in them—in the case of fairy tales, inserting ourselves in the long line of oral and literary tale-tellers.  It's sometimes initially disorienting but ultimately liberating for students to realize that there's no "original" of any fairy tale and that even if Disney fairy tales may crowd our collective imagination, they are only one iteration of a narrative prototype that has been around forever and that is still very much with us. 
Most of all, I love exploring the fairy-tale universe with students because the appeal and relevance of fairy tales are never-ending, even as they shape-shift over time and space. Fairy tales are uniquely "in" and "out" of the world; their matter-of-fact mash-up of realistic and fantastic elements is an invitation to imagine dimensions different from the here-and-now, and as such, they are a potent vehicle for the expression of cultural aspirations and anxieties, for the construction and subversion of ideologies and identities, and for the utopian hope for a better world.
It seems, in fact, to be especially in times of crisis and conflict that we feel the most need to "think with stories"—to take in, to tell, and to refashion stories as a way of reflecting on the world around us and imagining different ways of narrating our shared future. Shortly after the onset of the pandemic in 2020 the writer and activist Rebecca Solnit began a series of readings of fairy tales titled "Fairy Tales for Emergencies." In a comment on this initiative, she underlined how fairy tales, in all of their marvelous unrealness, inspire us to intervene in the world even in the darkest of times:
"In the fairytales I chose for this moment, the protagonists are not powerful in any conventional way but they are active participants in their fate, leaving the familiar, taking risks, changing their lives, finding people worth connecting to, reaching out to help others who will help them in turn. It turns out that the powers that matter are attentiveness, innovative thinking, and alliance-building. They change their fate, which is to say it's not fate or destiny at all, but an unwritten future that they seize authorship over. They don't know what will happen, but they launch into uncertainty with the energy of participants."

What better "moral" for our troubled times?