As previous chapters have shown, authors frequently borrow from the existing literary canon in their own work. The canon refers to an elusive and ever-changing list of literary texts that critics feel are essential to understanding the history of English literature as a whole. In the USA, the canon is not an official list, but rather a notionally agreed-upon group of books that is constantly being amended, updated, and fought over. The canon changes as society changes; whereas in previous times, it was exclusively dominated by white male authors from Europe and North America, nowadays it features more female writers, writers of color, and writers from the Global South.
Knowledge of the canon is extremely useful for any student of literature, but it is important to bear in mind that the canon is controversial and that just because a text isn’t “canonical” doesn’t mean it isn’t an important or enjoyable book to read. Although a lot of time is spent arguing over which books should be considered canonical, some scholars have proposed abolishing the canon altogether, arguing that it is an inherently elitist and unproductive way of thinking about literature.
Although it has historically been common for authors to “borrow” from the canon, nowadays many indisputably canonical texts will not be familiar to the average reader (most Americans, for example, have not read Homer’s Iliad). If an author references a text like the Iliad, many readers will fail to notice, and may even feel alienated and frustrated by encountering references that they cannot understand. As a solution to this problem, many authors have chosen to borrow from children’s literature—everything from folktales to The Wind in the Willows (1908) to The Cat in the Hat (1957).
Historically, most people were introduced to the canon through their education (this is particularly true of writers, who tended to be well-educated). However, as time has passed, the idea that all students should read a certain set of texts has fallen out of favor, and literary curricula are thus now more idiosyncratic. At the same time, much of children’s literature (including fairy tales) has endured in popularity.
According to Foster, the fairy tale with the most enduring appeal is “Hansel and Gretel.” This story centers around the classic theme of lost children who cannot find their way home, and—although it comes in many forms—tends to play on cultural anxieties around this issue. For example, in Robert Coover’s “The Gingerbread House” (1969), the witch kills the doves who eat the breadcrumbs (as opposed to killing the children themselves) and is identified only by a flash of black rag at the end of the story. Coover is aware of the fame of “Hansel and Gretel” and thus only needs to hint at the fate of the children in order to induce a shudder in the reader.
Here, Foster makes clear the connection between fairy tales and real life. Although “Hansel and Gretel” might seem fantastical and silly, it is in fact rooted in one of the most fundamental fears of humanity—the fear of losing children and of ourselves becoming lost and vulnerable. Following this parallel, it becomes clear that the witch is an archetype related to figures such as the older seducer, the sexual predator, or even the corrupting influence of society.
Some writers deliberately subvert well-known fairy tales; this is the case with Angela Carter who, in The Bloody Chamber (1979), revises stories such as “Bluebeard” and “Puss-in-Boots” in order to cast them in a more feminist light. Both Carver and Coover demonstrate that authors do not need to lift everything from a fairy tale, but can pick and choose certain elements. These elements could be as subtle as “the sense of lostness” or the danger of temptation. Like Shakespeare and the Bible, fairy tales are all part of “one big story” and so are inherently connected to later works of literature.
It might at first seem trivial to update fairy tales with a feminist twist. After all, aren’t they just silly children’s stories? However, as Foster’s mention of intertextuality shows, fairy tales actually have a profound impact on literature and culture. By highlighting the sexism in fairy tales, Carter suggests that there is sexism at the very heart of the culture of our society.
This might sound ironic, Foster admits—and that’s the point. Fairy tales represent an oversimplified, morally straightforward version of the world, and thus their adaptation in the modern era is almost always laced with irony. At the same time, certain fairy tale archetypes seem perfectly suited to the modern world, such as children who’ve wandered far from home. In both cases, borrowing from fairy tales allows authors to create a mix of strangeness and familiarity within their work, and it is this mix that creates the depth and vibrancy of good literature.
Fairy tales don’t just exist to entertain children; their main purpose is arguably to teach children about proper behavior and morality. As our moral views have shifted over time, fairy tales can end up seeming outdated and even disturbing. When more recent authors “borrow” from fairy tales, therefore, they often use irony to highlight the discrepancy between these different moral codes.