Sunday, March 24, 2013


Lately, I've been 'winging' lectures and papers. This isn't to say that I don't plan - it's just that I've gone 'off page.' However, now and then, I still do write up a speech, especially when I'm asked for a copy.

So in this case, I can share with you the speech I gave at the opening of the 'In Fairy Land' exhibition.


We’ve all gotten used to the fairy tale about fairy tales: that the oral tales are the true, original form, passed down from mother to daughter, village hag to drunken oaf, depending on your take on the tradition.

But,  I do love being among the books that contain the murmurings of fairy tales, tales that have long since tripped off the nib of a pen, repeated through inky print runs, bound in volumes to be discovered by new generations.

Today, as you walk through the collection, you’ll see the paper crumbs of fairy tale journeys: the yellowed paper and woodcuts of cheap chapbooks, the glossy, colourful illustrations of fairy tale heroes famous and, to many, forgotten, the gilded volumes with scuffed edges that might have been read at bakers’ dozens of bedtimes beforetimes.

There will be strange tales of genies and lascivious women, attributed to a young bride narrating for her life. There will be early incarnations of heroes we think we know well – a Cinderella who murders a devilish stepmother, a female puss in boots who hasn’t received her boots yet, but is easily as crafty, a Rapunzel who very much enjoys the attentions of a tower-climbing prince. Early literary tales were not read alongside cocoa and teddy bears and were frequently strange, outlandish, bawdy and plain rude. Basile, in particular, was fond of a good joke about flatulence.

There will be later tales from a glamorous French past, where witty women met in salons and composed outrageous stories of perfectly beautiful, perfectly cunning heroines and their over-the-top wardrobes of silks, laces, diamonds, pearls and more. These were tales in which fairies ruled over kings and queens as much as over milkmaids and peasant boys.

There will be more familiar tales, too, from the Brothers Grimm, long before they began to fight crime – as they do in the TV show Grimm – or wrote the first drafts for Hollywood films like Snow White and the Huntsman and hit TV series like Once Upon A Time. There will be Andersen for those of a more melancholy demeanour, among others that will tickle a nostalgia for childhood.

There will be the most extraordinary treasures of illustration, with lavish scenes of princesses stepping from their pumpkin carriages and little girls facing down unscrupulous wolves. Indeed, Australia’s own treasure trove of fairy tale is as much about its watercolour fairies and anthropomorphised koalas in spats as about anything else.

There are also tales of many cultures, collected to improve and educate young minds and to preserve what were often viewed as dying or imperilled traditions, including those tales of the tribe of the Noongahburrahs in NSW.

The work of collections, like the Rare Books Collection here, is invaluable, particularly as it is certainly true that people are forgetting that not all Cinderellas wore glass slippers and not all Beauties made friends with chipped tea cups. Certainly, some of you will be blaming Disney at this point, but Disney simply perpetuated a process of attrition so that a television series like Once Upon a Time, which is ostensibly about a bunch of fairy tale characters living in Storybrook, Maine, will co-opt a Frankenstein or Pongo while neglecting true fairy tale heroes like the kindly ogre who takes in a lively seamstress sadly pestered by a royal stalker or the French princess who dresses up as a cavalier and defeats a dragon.

However, collections like this shouldn’t simply be a preservation of the past. I don’t want to see these tales confined to the Rare Books reading rooms, though I’m incredibly grateful they’re safe here! The tales you see today, kept whole through ink, paper, thread and leather, should continue to be read, to be told, to influence. My hope is that exhibitions such as this will encourage people to learn more about Cinderellas and Jacks and Snow Whites, about talking birds and wise fish, and all sorts of marvels, some sublime and some downright bizarre. My hope is that you will discover tales you never knew and read them and tell them and retell them and pass them on. My hope is that you’ll take the time to become acquainted with the times and places that reshaped tales, providing them with oddities and idiosyncrasies that may have lasted for just one telling but remain to be discovered in the pages of a book.

I think, too, that exhibitions like this allow us all to see the place that fairy tale holds in literature. Fairy tales aren’t simple. They aren’t simply for kids – and in many cases, you’d probably rather the kids weren’t reading them. While they did pass along morals and advice, more often than not, they also cheated the status quo, cheekily overturning the limitations imposed by society upon its subjects. I’ve always loved reminding students that the princess didn’t always obediently, passively kiss the frog when he puckered up– she used to slam him up against the wall, fed up with his impositions and determined not to share her bed with a slimy amphibian. It’s only then he turned into a prince, proving that getting mad can win a girl her prince charming.

It matters that we understand who told fairy tales, how they came to be written and illustrated, how they were adapted by their authors. While we have lost the multitude of voices who shared and invented the heroes, the villains, the transformations, magical spells and enchanted objects, left with only random impressions of the words recorded, edited, re-arranged, we do have a vast catalogue of printed words and marvellous illustration. Some are well read, some are scribbled over, some were treasured, some were studied, but the tales in print are just as inventive, diverse and creative as those tales from their cousin, the oral tradition.

While we may never hear the first time a red capped girl or bluebearded husband tripped from the tongue, we do have an absolutely amazing literary tradition to be preserved and passed on so that it, too, may grow.

I’d like to thank Stephen Herrin, especially, for his incredible work on the exhibition, as well as Richard Overell and everyone involved in the exhibition and the continuation of the Rare Books Collection as it grows. I’d like to thank them for celebrating with me the fairy tales that, with their promises of magic, have made life just a little bit better and more wonderful.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Fairies in Academia

Kip the Enchanted Cat from The Golden Book of Fairy Tales

The other week, colleagues and I shared a piece in The Thesis Whisperer about a "circle of niceness." Most of my colleagues being, like myself, level B or aspiring to level B, it had particular relevance.

The question was posed: "As we talked we started to wonder: do you get further in academia if you are a jerk?" The piece ends: "It’s hard to do, but wherever possible we should work on creating circles of niceness. We can do this by being attentive to our own actions. Next time you have to talk in public about someone else’s work really listen to yourself. Are you picking up a prevailing culture of assholery?"

Of course, it is tricky. It can be difficult to be honestly critical or in disagreement with a piece of work while still being 'nice'. Nice itself is a fraught concept. It can come across as false, which made me start to think...

The fairy tales of the female authors during Louis XIV's reign were frequently criticised as being artificial. The authors weren't regarded as highly as their male counterparts, even another fairy tale author like Perrault, who, in fact, wrote more simplistic tales. Yet, these female authors appear to have created a circle of niceness in spite of - or because of - this.

Murat addresses her contemporaries with praise: "You are all beautiful, young, with a good figure, fashionably and richly clothed and housed, and you live exclusively in royal courts or in enchanted palaces."* The forewords of many collections include elaborate compliments for fellow authors and female members of Louis XIV's court. The latter may be flattery, in light of the necessity of patronage, but in some cases it can be speculated that genuine relationships or respect had sprung up between the authors and royal women. Then you have cases where Lhèritier, for instance, dedicates a tale to Murat, declaring her charming and proposing that the moral may please her (a little ironic in light of the scandals that would colour her reputation).

The tales are linked, of course, to the salons, which themselves fostered a co-operative culture among women and, even, men.

Were these "circles of niceness"?

In the tales themselves, while there are remarkably unhelpful and often jerky fairies, princes, queens and so forth, there are also fairies who help without agenda. These fairies frequently occupy high positions and are praised for their beauty and intelligence. They are in a position to help and help they do. 

Murat even calls one "Obligeantine," which unsurprisingly means obliging and kind. Obligeantine appears in "The Savage" and is especially wonderful as she rides around in a black painted giant's skull. She takes the heroine under her wing, protects her from harm and helps to clear her path to social position and love. She really doesn't ask for anything in return and makes no outrageous demands. She's in a position to be nice, so she is nice.

While often patriarchal structures set women against women, these tales reveal the value of being obliging, kind... nice. It isn't about being artificial or less clever or even weaker: it's simply about being in a position to help and, so, helping. Maybe it's time there were more fairies in universities?

*Bottigheimer, Fairy Tales Framed: Early Forewords, Afterwords, and Critical Words (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012), 203 


Thursday, March 7, 2013

There's air-conditioning at the "In Fairy Land" exhibition

It's been hot in Melbourne. We've started off the semester, but I have to admit that my first suggestion at a supervision meeting was that we trek to the campus centre for 'coffee freezes'. Part one of successful supervision? Ensure everyone is capable of being cool and collected.

This week, I was so pleased to open the "In Fairy Land" exhibition at the Rare Books Collection. Stephen Herrin has put together an amazing selection of fairy tale books culled from the collection. This is one of my favourites from an edition of d'Aulnoy. Who doesn't love a carriage been drawn through the air by flying dogs? I'm looking forward to spending some more time with the new acquisitions, too, like the Richard Doyle book and a glorious edition of The Pleasant Nights. You can take a virtual tour if you're not in Melbourne, here. There's also a pdf available of the catalogue. I think my speech will also be up soon. However, if you get a chance, do stop by to have a look. It's considerably cooler there, too!