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.

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