Fiction » Fairy Tales & Mythology

The best books on Fairy Tales

recommended by Jack Zipes

Fairy tales are as relevant today as ever, says Jack Zipes, a means of communicating about serious problems such as the abandonment of children or the self-sacrifice traditionally expected of women. He picks the best books to help us reflect on the meaning and significance of fairy tales.

Buy all books

Jack Zipes

Jack Zipes is Professor Emeritus of German and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota and is very happily retired from the corporate university. He was the co-founder of New German Critique, a journal of interdisciplinary studies and was editor-in-chief of The Oxford Companion to Fairy TalesThe Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature and The Oxford Encyclopaedia of Children’s Literature. He was also the founder of Neighborhood Bridges, a storytelling/creative drama programme in the elementary schools of the Twin Cities and is the editor of the Princeton University Press series, Oddly Modern Fairy Tales.

Save for later

Not many people have heard of him, but you regard E T A Hoffmann as one of the greatest writers of literary fairy tales. Why?

He was most original in developing plots, such as the one in which a dog tells his own story. And he had a style that was extraordinary, with clever motifs such as the doppelganger. His style was so unusual that it had a profound influence on a lot of writers in the 19th and 20th centuries. I would say he was the founder of magic realism.

He was also involved in art of all different kinds. Not only was he a writer, but he was a composer of different types of music, including a fairy-tale opera called The Water Spirit, and other musicians used his fairy tales for their own operas – Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann is a case in point. He was a talented artist and he also had a powerful influence as a judge in Germany. All these things make him a fascinating character.

Tell me about his book, The Serapion Brethren, which dates from the start of the 19th century, 

The Serapion Brethren was a multi-volume work with a narrative frame in which friends get together at a tavern to drink and tell stories. And in that frame Hoffmann talks about an eccentric recluse by the name of Serapion, and he developed the Serapion principle, which was an eidetic concept of art. He argued that if an artist is going to be devoted to his writing, everything that you see in your imagination has to be as real as reality or, if anything, more real than reality.

His fairy tales quite often start off with a very factual or realistic setting and gradually draw you into a world that is imaginative and very complex because it deals with all sorts of questions, such as insanity or the politics of his time. He was writing at the time of the Holy Alliance, 1815-1825, which was an extremely reactionary period. He stood up to the archconservatives in Prussia, and in one of his last stories, Master Flea, he criticises the police chief of Berlin in a very subtle way.

I think he also paved the ground for existentialism because he believed there was no God, and he proposed that we are all artists of our own lives and that many of the stories to do with God are fairy tales.

Your next choice is by one of the great Marxist philosophers Ernst Bloch – The Principle of Hope.

Ernst Bloch writes in a complicated, abstract and poetic style that is very difficult to comprehend. A lot of contemporary writers think that he has his own type of language, which is true to a certain extent. He wrote many different books, and the book I admire the most is The Principle of Hope. It is a three-volume study which he began writing in Europe in the late 1930s while he was escaping the Nazis. He was not only a Marxist but also a nonpractising Jew.

He fled Germany and went to America rather than the Soviet Union because he didn’t trust the Soviet Union. The book came at a time when the political difficulties stimulated him to develop a notion of hope that was to offset the terrible wars that had been going on. In this book he also, surprisingly, deals with fairy tales and popular culture. He felt that fairy tales and popular culture had traces of hope that made them really important and relevant to the lives of the majority of the people. For example, he was interested in characters whom he called the small hero, like Tom Thumb. He talked about the importance of fairy tales because they provided encouragement and stimulus for the masses of people who read them.

Why do you think the concept of utopia is so important in fairy tales?

Bloch believed that fairy tales represented a way for us to gain humanity. In other words, life is a struggle, and there is a focus in fairy tales on what we can gain from the struggle to bring meaning to our lives. One of his concepts concerns the upright gait, and he argued that we shall not learn to be humane until we differentiate ourselves from apes and learn to walk upright with integrity. He talks about the utopian disposition in human beings to be immortal and gain the deepest of pleasures. These are the types of themes that he looks at in his philosophical works. Of course, we don’t know what utopia is. The word utopia means ‘no place’, and those people who put a face on utopia, like the Nazis or the Communists of the Soviet Union, are mistaken because we have to determine what utopia is through the struggles and through our hope for a better life. All the best works of art, including popular culture, have what Bloch calls anticipatory illumination. In other words, they anticipate utopia and they illuminate the way towards it. For me this is very important when I look at the philosophical aspect of fairy tales.

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter introduced you to feminist fairy tales.

Yes. Angela Carter played a very important role in my life because I was born in 1937, a few years before she was born, and although we didn’t grow up together, we both grew up in a world where sexism was out in the open. There was no critique of the type of sexism that I experienced when I grew up, and I think the same is true for her. And we both experienced what a lot of people called the second wave of feminism in the 20th century.

I did not know her writing until I came across The Bloody Chamber, and it struck me as particularly relevant to the ongoing gender struggles. She had a position and perspective on gender and feminism that I thought was much more sophisticated and nuanced than a lot of the other feminist writers of the time.


She wrote three or four books during the 1960s and 1970s emphasising that the most important element in feminism was the argument that women should take their destiny into their own hands and gain pleasure out of life. They are strong enough and smart enough to do this. Her position is fully developed in her controversial book The Sadeian Woman. A lot of her tales, such as The Company Of Wolves, show a young girl taking over her destiny. Here the wolf ends up more or less tamed in her lap. She also wrote two children’s stories, which are out of print now. One is called Miss Z, The Dark Young Lady and the other is called The Donkey Prince. These are also two books in which young girls from the working classes assert themselves and are able to resolve difficult problems. For example, in The Donkey Prince there is a peasant girl who enables a prince who was a donkey to attain his goal.

Her writing is also exquisite. She has a great command of metaphor, and the writing is very sensuous without being mannered. She has that ironic humour that Hoffmann has, which I think is another reason I like her. They both use irony to suggest alternative ways to think.

You say that The Dialectic of Enlightenment by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno shaped your thinking – why?

The two authors are also Jewish refugees from Germany in the 1940s. They published their book in 1947, and they share a great deal with Ernst Bloch, whom they knew, although they had different perspectives in regard to philosophy and sociology. Horkheimer and Adorno began as sociologists.

I want to focus on Adorno because he wrote the key chapters in The Dialectic of Enlightenment. He developed the concept of the culture industry, and this is extremely significant for me, because in my work, not only on fairy tales but on literature in general, I wanted to try and understand to what extent we are conditioned through the mass media to understand the world. Adorno developed a thesis about how the monopoly of the culture in the United States was controlled by a few key players. He maintained that they basically sought to dumb down the people so that they do not understand complicated mediations in our lives. Therefore, we are easily controlled. In this respect he was also critiquing Nazism and neo-fascist tendencies in the United States.

How does this relate to fairy tales?

Adorno also helped me to understand to what extent, say, Walt Disney’s fairy tales, which began in the 1930s, influenced society. I am not just talking about the fairy tales but also about the films, books and all the merchandise that went with them. Disney’s products are filled with stereotypical passive women and men as active, daring heroes. Disney’s films such as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty dominated the field of children’s films in the United States and throughout most of the Western world. Adorno led me to see how they represented the worst aspects of the culture industry. And by applying his notion of the cultural history, I have been able to explore and analyse what a serious effect Disney stereotypes have had on our attitudes and dispositions regarding gender. The hundreds of films that the Disney Corporation made – and continue to make – reiterate sexist notions of gender and elitist thinking, encouraging common people to sacrifice their lives for highly gifted kings and queens and princes and princesses.

All my analyses of mass culture, not only of the Disney films but also other forms of popular culture, try to show that we must take mass culture seriously and must be very careful with regard to what type of art form we want to promote in our own world.

I like the idea of your final book, The Civilizing Process by Norbert Elias.

Elias is yet another person who also fled the Nazis! But, instead of going to America, he went to England. He developed his own sociological theories in England, which were not really recognised until the late 1960s when his book was translated. It had a profound influence on sociology, particularly in the UK and to a certain extent in the States. He studied the ways in which people were civilised according to the values and principles of ruling classes.

His focus was on the 17th century and early part of the 18th century. He demonstrated that the rules and regulations which governed how people dress and eat and generally run their lives were part of a gradual evolving process which conditioned people to behave in certain ways. These rules came from the French Court and if you didn’t know them, you were considered non-civilised or illiterate, and you could not find acceptance in high society. This process continues today in very subtle ways.

It was important to me because most literary fairy tales originated during the 15th and 16th centuries, and when they came into being, there were many books written about courtly manners. There was a real vogue for fairy tales in France, and when you study them you can see to what extent writers used them to comment on the way people lived according to arbitrary rules and regulations and the types of relations they had. The fairy tales were discourses about the civilising process in Europe up until that time, and I think to a great extent that these discourses persist up until today.

What kind of role do you think that fairy tales play in today’s society?

Fairy tales are very persistent. In fact I have just written a long essay in which I liken the genre of fairy tales to a whale that ploughs through the ocean swallowing all the little fish that are around it, and it just becomes larger and larger. And in fact, the fairy tale is very difficult to define today because the genre encompasses film, internet, opera, musicals, photography, painting, illustrations, theatre, commercials – there are all types of fairy-tale forms that essentially show to what extent fairy tales stamp our lives on a daily basis. It has something to do with the fact that we are trying metaphorically to gain distance from our lives while at the same time to achieve some kind of happiness and meaning out of life.

Fairy tales have developed as means of communication that enable us to get a hold on problems that we have and ways to resolve them. I have argued in some of my books that fairy tales deal with very serious problems such as rape in Little Red Riding Hood, the abandonment of children in Hansel and Gretel, the abuse of stepchildren in Cinderella, and the self-sacrifice of women demanded by a patriarchal society in Beauty and the Beast.

I recently adapted the thesis of memes proposed by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. In his final chapter he develops this notion that not only are genes replicated in the world, but there are also cultural artefacts which he calls memes that latch on to our brains and are stored in our memory because they are so very relevant to our daily struggles. We replicate them because they lend meaning to our lives. Indeed, there is something about this notion that shows how important fairy tales are throughout the world. They persist in diverse forms because we live them and try to live them. Fairy tales are more real than we realise and more relevant for adapting to a rapidly changing world than we realise.

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by donating a small amount.

Jack Zipes

Jack Zipes is Professor Emeritus of German and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota and is very happily retired from the corporate university. He was the co-founder of New German Critique, a journal of interdisciplinary studies and was editor-in-chief of The Oxford Companion to Fairy TalesThe Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature and The Oxford Encyclopaedia of Children’s Literature. He was also the founder of Neighborhood Bridges, a storytelling/creative drama programme in the elementary schools of the Twin Cities and is the editor of the Princeton University Press series, Oddly Modern Fairy Tales.