Jack Zipes speaks on ‘The Grimness of Contemporary Fairy Tales’ at the first Humanities Public Lecture at the University of Gloucestershire

The School of Humanities welcomed Professor Jack Zipes, the internationally-recognised scholar of fairy tales and children’s literature, to Francis Close Hall last Wednesday evening for the first Humanities Public Lecture. More than a hundred people, including students and members of the public, joined us for this very special event.

Photo courtesy of Debby Thacker. Flowers and poster design by Simon Cuttell.

Professor Zipes is Emeritus Professor of German at the University of Minnesota and a prolific author. Dr Debby Thacker, herself an expert on children’s literature, introduced Professor Zipes, noting that he had ‘changed the way we think about fairy tales’. His lecture, ‘The Grimness of Contemporary Fairy Tales’, challenged everything we thought we knew about these formative stories.

Noting that the word ‘grim’ sits within a wide semantic field in both German and English – it connotes gloom, fierceness, roughness, authority – Professor Zipes asked us to bring ‘a critical Grimness’ to our sense of what these tales mean to us. Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm are the ‘experimental founders of folklore’ committed to storytelling and to the most demotic literary form, the fairy or ‘wonder’ tale. Their genius was ‘personal, profound, artistic and scholarly’ (and linguistic, since they gave their name to a vowel shift). However, their work also belonged to the new print culture that emerged in the early nineteenth century; the brothers questioned the tales even as they conserved and validated them.

Many contemporary writers have been drawn to the Grimm tales. Professor Zipes singled out Anne Sexton, Angela Carter, A.S. Byatt, Margaret Atwood, Emma Donoghue, Tanith Lee, Sara Maitland, Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman and Cornelia Hoegland as writers who have ‘contested the authoritative sources while reshaping them’.

A short question and answer session with the audience followed, and Professor Shelley Saguaro proposed a vote of thanks. But that wasn’t all: Professor Zipes stayed behind to chat with a few English Literature students and to sign their copies of The Complete Fairy Tales (Vintage 2004). Well, it is a class text, as Stanley Fish would say.

We thank Professor Zipes for a truly memorable occasion. We also thank Harriet Heathman, Sam Hyde, and Nicola Riley for their invaluable assistance, and all English Literature and Humanities students who attended.


Professor Zipes and Dr Thacker. Photo: H. Weeks

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