Believing that fairy tales have lost their magic, Renaissance scholar Armando Maggi, PhD’95, calls for a new kind of happily ever after.
By Lydialyle Gibson
Last October Armando Maggi, PhD’95, began his Humanities Day lecture with a clip from the opening scene of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Released in 1938, it was the first fairy tale to be turned into a feature-length Disney cartoon, and Maggi hoped the two-minute sequence would prove a point. “This is a clip you know very well,” Maggi told his audience, as the classroom went dark and the large screen above the blackboard lit up. After Disney’s familiar gilded storybook flapped open, a seaside castle came into view, and then the wicked queen in her chamber, interrogating her mirror and receiving the unpleasant news of Snow White’s beauty.
Then Snow White herself appeared, a scullery maid in a tattered dress, scrubbing the castle steps and singing into a stone well, her own echo warbling the accompaniment: “I’m wishing (I’m wishing) for the one I love to find me (to find me) today.” Doves fluttered around her. Suddenly, a passing prince, hearing her voice, leapt over the castle wall and sidled up beside her, lending an unexpected harmony. Snow White gasped. The audience chortled. Maggi raised the lights.
“I’m glad you laughed,” Maggi said.
A scholar of Renaissance and contemporary culture and early-modern Italian literature, Maggi believes fairy tales have lost their magic. “Exhausted,” is how he describes it. The glass slippers and poison apples, the evil stepmothers and fairy godmothers and princes charming — and the kisses that lead to happily ever after — these things no longer exert much imaginative or intellectual force, he says, no longer offer symbolic truths or respond to real-life anxieties and aspirations. “You laughed when you saw Snow White singing, with the prince showing up all of a sudden,” Maggi said. “I’m not sure that the audience when the film came out had the same reaction.”
And not only because times and audiences have changed in the past 75 years. Fairy tales themselves have lost resonance, Maggi said, have calcified into fixed flat story lines, internalized but not really instructive. “We can understand reality only through a mythic lens,” he said, and fairy tales once provided that lens. Now the view is narrower.
Yet we can’t move on, as demonstrated by countless literary interpretations, both satirical and straight, as well as an annual tide of movie remakes and television shows with titles like Grimm and Once Upon a Time. “We are not satisfied with these stories,” Maggi said, “but we go back to them. Why? Because in our unconscious, we perceive these as ‘natural’ stories, stories that precede us,” stories that have existed forever.
They haven’t. “The reality is, these stories were constructed,” Maggi said, poking the air with a pen as his voice, at first reedy and tentative, swelled with urgency. “They were invented. And they are very recent stories.” But, like the queen returning every morning to her mirror, Maggi told his listeners, we cling to them, because we have nothing else to take their place.
“And so,” he said, “we need a new mythology.”
Later, in his Weiboldt Hall office, a tiny elbow of a room where stacks of books rise from the floor like stalagmites and a single Gothic window looks out toward the Midway, Maggi explains further. “We cannot live without mythology,” he says. “It’s the way we reason, the way we survive, the way we make sense of our world. It’s just that the stories we’ve been using — mythic stories, fairy tales, legends — they’re not working anymore. We need something new. What we long for is a remythologization of reality.” He leans back in his chair. “This is an important moment.”
That’s the argument — and the frustration — that drives his current work, a book in progress called “Preserving the Spell.” “We are, in a sense, beating a dead horse,” he says. “We feel like this horse could still ride us somewhere, but it can’t. We need to find another vehicle.” Seven years ago, Maggi, a professor in Romance languages and literatures and the Committee on the History of Culture, taught a seminar called Renaissance and Baroque Fairy Tales and Their Modern Rewritings. Exhuming the 500-year-old origins of contemporary fairy tales was a project only slightly afield of his usual research on baroque poetry, Renaissance philosophy and demonology, and female mystics channeling voices from heaven, whose visions carried them from the depths of purgatory to the tomb of Christ.
We are, in a sense, beating a dead horse. We feel like this horse could still ride us somewhere, but it can’t. We need to find another vehicle.
The class came and went, but fairy tales stayed with him, gnawed at him. He began to wonder, he says, about “the end, the exhaustion of certain narratives, and the struggle to replace them.” He taught the course again in 2010, and then last year embarked on the book for the University of Chicago Press, which he’s on leave this year to finish. It’s a sprawling study of several centuries’ worth of fairy-tale evolution, and at its center is his call for a new mythology. But, as he said in his Humanities Day lecture, the concept goes deeper than fairy tales. It’s about storytelling as a whole and what stories mean, about why we tell them again and again, how they feed a hunger inside us.
As a six-year-old boy growing up in Rome, Maggi used to look forward every week to the latest copy of Fiabe Sonore — “literally,” he says, “‘tales with sound’” — a children’s book and record with a narrated fairy tale. “We would buy it in the kiosk,” Maggi says, “and then my mother would just park me in my room, and I would listen to the beautiful voice of this narrator telling a story”: Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Cinderella, the Three Little Pigs, Puss in Boots, Aladdin’s Magic Lamp, and dozens of others. “I can hear him now, a father-like voice, so pleasant and warm.” Maggi still keeps a stack of those records back home in Rome. “At the time I didn’t realize where the stories came from,” he says. “But they came from all over the place, really diverse origins — Arabian Nights, the brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault. And Basile.”
The earliest written versions of some of the Western canon’s most famous fairy tales appeared in 1634, in a collection called The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones, by Giambattista Basile, a poet and courtier who studied Petrarch and Boccaccio and wrote in the vernacular Neapolitan dialect. Not actually intended for little ones — children’s literature didn’t yet exist as a genre — the book is structured as an oral performance, in which a series of storytellers offer up one tale each over five days, to satisfy the craving of a prince’s pregnant young wife. Among the contemporary stories that have their debut in Tale of Tales are Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Puss in Boots, and Hansel and Gretel.
Scholars argue over how much of Basile’s stories are his own invention and how much they derive straight from oral folktales the poet picked up on his Mediterranean travels. Almost certainly, he transformed and added to the stories, Maggi says, but “we don’t have any evidence.” It’s also true that fairy tales had existed as a form, both oral and literary, for thousands of years, in collections like the Middle East’s Arabian Nights and India’s Panchatantra. In Italy, the oldest written fairy tale is Cupid and Psyche, which the Latin writer Apuleius folded into his second-century novel The Golden Ass. Maggi calls Cupid and Psyche an important “narrative engine” whose metaphors and motifs became a wellspring for later fairy tales.
But Tale of Tales holds particular interest for him because it contains the earliest recorded iterations of so many fairy tales now buried deep in the Western psyche. Those early iterations are almost unrecognizable today, full of complex, unpolished narratives and moral ambiguities, shocking vulgarities and gruesome violence. In Basile’s version of Cinderella, the heroine murders her first stepmother in order to help her governess become her new — and, as it turns out, wicked — stepmother. There are no dwarfs in Basile’s Snow White. The beautiful girl, named Lisa, is awakened from her seeming death by a jealous aunt, who drags her by the hair from her seven crystal caskets, beats her until her mouth “looked like she had eaten raw pigeons,” and forces her to work as a slave. Lisa is finally rescued by her uncle, who throws her a banquet and finds a nice husband for her, “just as her heart desired.”
Meanwhile, Basile’s Sleeping Beauty offers no Prince Charming and no kiss. Instead the sleeping princess, Talia, pricked by a piece of flax, is impregnated by a king who, searching for an escaped hunting falcon, happens upon her house. Unable to wake her, he nevertheless picks “the fruits of love” before riding home to his kingdom. The spell breaks nine months later, when one of her newborn twins, searching for her breast, instead sucks the enchanted piece of flax from under her fingernail. The story ends happily ever after, but only after the king’s wife — who, plotting her revenge, becomes the story’s villain — tries to kill Talia and cannibalize her children, only to find herself condemned to a fiery death. “So,” Maggi says, “this is Sleeping Beauty, but at the same time, it is not Sleeping Beauty. It is a different story.”
The spell of a fairy tale, what famous fairy-tale scholar Max Lüthi calls the “miracle,” is linked to the oral origin of the story. There lies the original vitality of the tale.
Over the next two centuries, the brothers Grimm and their contemporary Clemens Brentano, a German poet and novelist — and before them, French fairy-tale collector Charles Perrault — rewrote Basile’s stories, adapting them to their own cultural moments. Shortening and simplifying them, combing out the moral uncertainties and narrative imprecisions, they turned the tales into children’s stories. “So the version we remember,” Maggi says of Sleeping Beauty, “is a much shorter, sharper version that leaves out the babies and all that other stuff. In the brothers Grimm version, the story ends with a kiss.” Maggi claps his hands. “And that’s it. That’s the moment when you have Sleeping Beauty.” What today seems like an eternal narrative is in fact, he says, “a creation of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm rewriting the story.”
But already, Maggi says, something was being lost. The messy elements of those original stories, the opaque references and narrative miscues, the murky morals and complex characters, were essential to the fairy tales’ magic.
More than a century and a half after the Grimms published their Children’s and Household Tales, the Grimm stories themselves have been retold and resimplified again and again, by Disney and others, until they become fossilized. Few people these days read the actual text of the Grimms’ fairy tales, let alone Perrault or Brentano or Basile. “If you go to the bookstore, the brothers Grimm are in folklore,” Maggi says. The children’s section offers fairy tales that are thinner, simpler summaries, often of Disney movies. Meanwhile, the stories have been reproduced and parodied in books and films, their abstract outlines used in countless artistic manifestations: poetry, video games, comic books, children’s books, pornography, and commercials.
Postmodern writers like John Barth, Angela Carter, and Robert Coover, AM’65, have wrestled with these inherited versions of fairy tales, twisting and reshaping them in ways that, Maggi says, “exposed them, unveiled the anxiety, the despair that lies within these stories that need to change.” In his 1996 novella Briar Rose (Grove Press), Coover resurrects narrative elements from Basile’s Sleeping Beauty and embeds them within his story of a sleeping princess who will never wake, while her doomed prince hacks away at the briars surrounding the castle, which he will never reach. “I have great admiration for these works,” Maggi says. “They are important; they are often brilliant. But what postmodern authors do not do is present an alternative.” Like other variations on existing fairy tales, postmodernist retellings, he says, remain “anchored to these atrophied fairy-tale formations.”
Perhaps paradoxically, the quest for a new mythology has turned Maggi into an archaeologist of the fairy-tale past. By reconstructing the origins of contemporary stories and tracing their evolution from century to century, he hopes not only to dispel the notion of fairy tales as “natural,” eternal stories but also perhaps to locate a few bread crumbs in the forest, which may help lead the way to new, responsive, robust narratives. The contrast between our familiar fairy tales and their unruly ancestors, Maggi says, is not unlike the academic dichotomy between literary and oral storytelling. “In the bowdlerized versions of the brothers Grimm, everything has to make sense, everything has to be explained.” And the idea that fairy tales should be moral? “This is also questionable,” he says. “This is also the brothers Grimm legacy.”
Basile’s stories, laid out to mimic an oral performance, are “full of gaps, contradictions, obscure allusions, and misleading innuendos that make his tales immensely fascinating,” Maggi says. Like The Tale of Tales, oral stories are traditionally considered “incomplete, in-consistent, redundant, what verges on nonsense.” An oral storyteller may, for instance, introduce details or characters and forget to incorporate them into the plot, or describe a dramatic scene without first laying the groundwork. All these things, in a way, keep the story more alive, mutable. “The spell of a fairy tale, what the famous fairy-tale scholar Max Lüthi calls the ‘miracle,’ is linked to the oral origin of the story. There lies the original vitality of the tale.”
Toward the end of his Humanities Day lecture, closing in on the allure of oral storytelling, Maggi paused. “We must be able to dream,” he said. “We do not dream anymore when we watch this Disney Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella.”
He has given several talks on his fairy-tale research, and invariably, he says, someone from the audience will ask, “So, where are the new stories?” It’s a question he can’t yet answer. “What I say is, ‘It has to be a cultural change. It can’t be one person who saves fairy tales.’”
Still, he can’t help asking that same question: where are the new stories? He wonders if part of the answer may lie in the popularity of memoirs and reality television — fictions bearing the illusion of reality — and the extras that come with DVDs. “Movies are not enough anymore; we want to see interviews, behind the scenes, the making of the film,” Maggi says. “There is a longing for reality that has something to do with our frustration with fairy tales. We want stories that we can relate to, stories that seem real, that seem complicated, that are messy, but also stories of confronting danger or difficulty, as memoirists do, and overcoming them. Stories of triumph.” Happily ever after.
Note: This story originally appeared in the University of Chicago Magazine’s May–June/12 issue.