Volume IX, Number 1, Spring 2013

"Of Fairies and Freaks. One editor, two collections" by Enikő Bollobás

Enikő Bollobás is Professor and Chair of the Department of American Studies at Eötvös Loránd University. She has published five books: Egy képlet nyomában: Karakterelemzések az amerikai és a magyar irodalomból (2012), They Aren’t, Until I Call Them: Performing the Subject in American Literature (2010), Az amerikai irodalom története [A History of American Literature] (2005), Charles Olson (1992), and Tradition and Innovation in American Free Verse (1986). Her numerous essays have appeared in international and Hungarian scholarly journals, including The Emily Dickinson Journal, Paideuma, American Quarterly, Journal of Pragmatics, Language and Style, Word and Image, Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies, AMERICANA, Jelenkor, Holmi, Pompeji, Helikon, Műút, A Dunánál, Nagyvilág, Magyar Napló. Email:

Postmodern Reinterpretations of Fairy Tales: How Applying New Methods Generates New Meanings
Ed. Anna Kérchy.
Lewiston, Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press
Pages: 568
ISBN: 978-0-7734-1519-5

Exploring the Cultural History of Continental European Freak Shows and “Enfreakment”
Ed. Anna Kérchy and Andrea Zittlau
Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
ISBN: 978-1-4438-4134-4


Two volumes appeared recently, collecting essays on generative topics: one on the contemporary reinterpretations, metafictional and metacritical, of fairy tales, the other on freakery and enfreakement. What they share—apart from the trendy topics and methodologies—is the person of Anna Kérchy, who edited the first and co-edited the second with Andrea Zittlau. It’s not that these volumes follow fashion; instead, they set its standards (high) and provoke very complex responses.

The first collection (Postmodern Reinterpretations of Fairy Tales) grew out of the international conference The Fairy Tale After Angela Carter, held at the University of East Anglia in 2009. But the volume is not a conference proceedings per se (not the least because unfortunately some prominent conference participants are missing from the volume), but an anthology of 26 “exploratory discussions of modern-day reinventions of the fairy tale and fantasy from a variety of perspectives,” as Martine Hennard Dutheil de la Rochere’s Foreword puts it (iii).

The authors revisit the genre of the fairy tale in three senses. First, by exploring its contemporary rewritings, they extend the master genre to include such hybrid and multiple—but still literary in the wider sense—sub-genres as urban fantasy, post-human science fiction, anti-fairy tale, forensic crime fiction, and cult fairy tale romance. Vanessa Joosen, David Calvin, Andrea Schutz, Natalie Robinson, and Sabine Coelsch-Foisner are among the authors who give accounts of how the genre itself is being repeated with a difference. They discuss the often multiple rewritings of classic fairy tales, anti-fairy tales, and various master myths of literature, showing that these subvert the genre by imagining the lost voices of fairy-tale tellers, by making central a formerly marginalized character, or by using experimental postmodernist strategies (like permutation and disruption).

Second, they discuss revisitings that use new media and technologies—this is the first sense of “how applying new methods generates new meanings.” Among these new methods are digital storytelling, cybercafés and cybersalons, cinematic and virtual reality remakes, fantasy romance animation, and computer games. New media and technologies are being explored by Doroty G. Clark (who examines children’s literature as adapted to digital format), Helen Pilinovsky (who focuses on the online fairy tale communities of cybersalons), Andrea Wright (who turns to how cinematic fairy tale reappropriate the generic scripts of the fairy tale), Dorothy Morrissey (who writes about the Maguy Marin production of Perrault’s Cinderella), and Gergely Nagy (who discusses a piece of canonized high fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, as rewriting several mythical-legendary stories, by exploring a metafictional device here, that allows the fictional narrator to fictionalize another character). The essay co-authored by Anna Kérchy and Ingrida Povidisa also belongs in this group, concerning Tim Burton’s animated motion picture, Corpse Bride, a postmodern mixture of fairy tale, the gothic, and forensic crime fantasy. The authors explore similarities at various levels, narratological, rhetorical-tropological, and psychological.

Third, since these re-fictionalizations will produce formations that have been identified and explored by postmodernist fairy tale and fantasy fiction theory (employing concepts such as “ambiguity, intersubjectivity, heterotopia, heteroglossia, alternate worlds, metamorphosis, simulation, translation, rewriting, irony, identity and textuality in their relation to gender, sexuality, corporeality, (dis)ability, race, or class,” as Kérchy claims in her Preface [iv]), some other authors read the old and new genres and subgenres as framed by a variety of literary and cultural theories. This is the second sense of “how applying new methods generates new meanings.” This time, however, the new methods do not refer to the new media and technologies that the texts themselves use but to the theories and methodologies that interpretations employ: post-colonial criticism, queer theory, body studies, disability studies, trauma studies, feminist poetics, poststructuralist theories of the subject, musicology, dance studies, cognitive neuroscience, as well as psychogeography, ludology, corporeal narratology. Grounding their readings in these theories, the authors of the volume give a wide spectrum of both the literary and non-literary reinventions of the fairy tale and fantasy fiction, and of its subversive theories and methodologies. For example, Péter Kristóf Makai adopts game theory and neuroscience to study virtual reality fairy tales; Attila Kiss reaches to body theories in his discussion of the tradition of anatomy theatre; Ida Yoshinaga applies the findings of transmedial narratology to her reading of the double (pornographic and comic-book) narrative of the novel Lost Girl; Anna Kérchy introduces what she calls corpusemiotical analytical method to Terry Gilliam’s film Tideland, a metafictional rewriting of Lewis Carroll’s Alice-tales.

The essays of the second volume, Exploring the Cultural History of Continental European Freak Shows and “Enfreakment,” investigate a heretofore unmapped territory of disability studies, Continental European freakery. Following in the footsteps of English and American disability studies scholars (Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Robert Bogdan, Rachel Adams, and Leslie Fiedler) they apply their findings to a terra incognita within the discipline, Continental Europe, thereby developing new methods, a transnational approach, and internationalizing the discipline too. So the essays examine enfreakement, the foregrounding of a particular brand of otherness, corporeal otherness, or “the wondrous, monstrous, or curious Otherness associated with the freak,” as the Introduction of Anna Kérchy and Andrea Zittlau puts it (1), within a particular European context, giving an overview ranging from the 15th century to the 20th century. The case studies themselves target several versions of the Other, from the racial, ethnic, or ethnographic Other to the medical or anatomical Other. What emerges in the volume then, is a whole cultural history of Continental European freakery, with equal emphasis on pain and amusement, trauma and wonder, diabolization and demonization. The forgotten stories uncovered in the essays give out a specifically European narrative of the history of normativization (for example, the Nazi eugenics program), and at the same time present narrative responses to such attempts whereby the medically otherized performer, enfreaked and dehumanized by ideology, reclaims agency through self-writings.

The cultural history outlined in this innovative “freak-show studies” volume on Continental Europe offers new perspectives by adopting interdisciplinary approaches interweaving Disability Studies proper with cultural anthropology, philosophy, sociology, museology, popular entertainment research, and trauma studies. A substantial geographical area from Germany and France to Ukraine and Russia is covered by authors who come from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria, Germany, France, Italy, Ukraine, and Russia. The theories and methodologies applied are duly diverse, embracing, as the editors claim, “partial perspectives and situated (knowledge)formations [and] refusing to settle for a finalized, objective historical truth and rather opting for keeping the notion of histories in/on move in a relative and dynamic process” (12).

In the rest of my review I will present some of the Central European contributions which I believe are representative in either subject matter or theoretical approach.

The Hungarian ethnographer and anthropologist Ildikó Sz. Kristóf has uncovered the oldest diabolized images of Native Americans in heretofore unknown documents in Upper-Hungarian Jesuit Libraries. These representations dating from the 17th and 18th centuries tie into the stereotypical image of the racially Other in Europe, she claims, emphasizing that in these centuries “diabolization was still a characteristic and rather shameful path of the European history appropriating American Indian (non-European) cultural otherness” (68). The author identifies these representations as the predecessors of early modern freak shows, processing in static forms (as anthropological tableaux vivants or sorts, using texts and engravings only) similar modes of othering. Having investigated the visual and textual strategies of diabolization applied in a substantial case material, Sz. Kristóf convincingly argues that these are “demon shows” that present the American Indian as “visible and recognizable supernatural being from the realm of Satan” (47).

Dóra Székesi, PhD student in French Studies at the University of Szeged, discusses Diderot’s monster parade, or “imaginary freak show” (93), in D’Alembert’s Dream, emphasizing Diderot’s relativization of normativity. Signaling the epistemological shift in how corporeal alterity was perceived in contemporary scientific discourse, Diderot includes physical-developmental deformities together with mythical and other imaginary “textual” monsters, suggesting that everything and anything is part of the totality of the grand tout of this biological universe: conjoined twins, hermaphrodites, and hybrid creatures. And monsters being “the manifestation of a different temporal order,” the freak will not be synonymous with disorder and transgression, but rather with nature: it belongs to nature’s totality (107).

Rostock American Studies scholar Andrea Zittlau finds her topic in the history of German medical cabinets, or cabinets of curiosities, as they contributed to the construction of deformity. As such, the museums of anatomy and pathology founded during the Enlightenment but surviving until the 20th century participated in the process of enfreakment, connecting “the medical collections to the freak shows that were popular entertainment sites during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century” (152). Medicine and the freak show discourse came to be entangled, both foregrounding difference as pathological.

Filip Herza, graduate student in anthropology at Charles University, Prague, examines a particular exhibit of extraordinary bodies, “Lilliputians, giants, Siamese twins, and other freaks,” displayed in Prague during the mid-war years. The Lilliputian show Singer’s Midgets enjoyed huge success among other performances involving bearded ladies, giants, “armless wonders,” and other “natural curiosities” (196). Herza explains this success by the way it combined physical otherness with infantility and high social status, wonder with satire, bringing about a rhetoric of difference fusing the wondrous with the grotesque and the satirical.

Anna Kérchy, English Studies and Gender Studies scholar at the University of Szeged, reads two pieces of life-writing by Jewish dwarf comedians famous in mid-war Budapest, both intertwining amusement and misery in a manner characteristic of the times. By combining trauma-, disability-, Jewish, and popular entertainment cultural studies, Kérchy traces in these reminiscences the entanglement of pathological othering with Nazi ideology, while also showing that the comedians’ response to this ideology by narratives of their own fantastic lives appears as a subversive discursive device. Clown Zoli Hirsch, who died in Auschwitz, used what Kérchy describes as the fantastification of the self, merging aggrandizement and wonder, fairy tale and fantasy techniques, as a hoped-for technique of survival “to protect one’s life, sanity, and humane dignity against traumatizing events” (218). The subjects of the other piece of life-writing, the Lilliputian musicians of the Ovitz-family, also saw in their disability a divine gift marking them as the blessed ones. Having survived Auschitz as Dr. Mengele’s favorite research subjects (or objects, rather), they could argue convincingly that in their case extraordinariness indeed saved them from annihilation. Self-fictionalization takes full circle here, since it is a narrative not only of Nazi ideology’s traumatization and enfreakement but also of being saved, ironically, by this same Nazi ideology. Thus life-writing becomes survivor-testimony.

These collections of essays are moving, powerfully subversive reads. The editors must be applauded for their courageous job.