Jessica Tiffin. Marvelous Geometry: Narrative and Metafiction in Modern Fairy Tale. Detriot: Wayne State University Press, 2009. 253pp. $29.95, bibliographical references and index (pbk. Alk: paper).
Marvelous Geometry is a book on literary adaptations of traditional fairy tale forms, and while useful to a folklorist with a literary background, seems to be mainly intended for people with a literary focus, and an interest in folklore and fairy tales. This is not strictly a folklore text, and gives background on folklore scholarship for those unfamiliar with the field. Said background is handled admirably, and this book would be useful for anyone studying literary fairy tales, feminist reinterpretations of fairy tales, popular reinterpretations of fairy tales, or anything along that line.
Marvelous Geometry opens a particularly interesting discussion about the “texture” of fairy tales, in which Tiffin explains the inherent difficulty of studying fairy tales which are considered easily recognizable, but not easily definable. Tiffin goes on to explain how fairy tales have motifs with resonance rather than meaning. That is, fairy tales focus less on the one-to-one symbolism of events, and more on the attributes in and of themselves. Tiffin also has a running theme regarding the power of narrative and power within narrative throughout the different stories she describes.
Marvelous Geometry is a journey through the forms of modern fairytales; the second chapter goes into detail about structure and form, focusing namely on the work of James Thurber, but mentioning several authors that are explored in later chapters. The main section of the book seems to focus on feminist fairy tales and feminist responses to fairy tales. Her focus mostly resides, for this section, on the work of two authors: Angela Carter—whose stories were marked by their connection to a pornographical focus on sex, rape and bestiality—and A.S. Byatt, her work focused on the power of narrative as being integral to feminine empowerment or entrapment. Bryatt’s work is also structurally and formally closer to that of traditional fairy tales and rather than changing the fairy tale to reflect a more feminist mindset, she sought out existing female archetypes to explore.
Tiffin moves on from chapters that focus deeply on the work of particular authors (notably two feminist authors) to parodic fairy tales and popular novels. However, in this she first discusses the “popular” and how fairy tales and popular coincide in a modern culture. Before actively discussing the popular novels that she notes in the chapter title, Tiffin makes mention of other forms of popular media, including Disney. Her parodic focus is popular author Terry Pratchett, and readers of fantasy who might not have been familiar with the more conventional literary works previously discussed, will find many familiar names and works in this section.
Although she goes into further detail about Disney after her discussion of popular novels, Tiffin finishes the book by discussing non-Disney films’ relationship to fairy tales, explaining how film is a new form of adaptation, one with very strong connection to oral traditions, but with vital differences, and how visual media is specifically well suited to fairy tales (as they are creations that utilize the visual, even if it is visualization instead of physical vision). Tiffin describes examples of films, including parodies like Shrek and Happily N’Ever After.
Marvelous Geometry is a well-articulated exploration of the fairy tale and what the fairy tale is and means. As for the utility and usefulness of Marvelous Geometry, I would say that unless it is deliberately being used for gender or conventional literary studies, the bulk of what is salient is located in the last three chapters of the book. Those chapters address a more popular body of literature. As a whole Marvelous Geometry is more of an overview of fairy tale inspired fantasies than a thorough in depth analysis of any in particular, and more literary with a folkloric interest, than folkloric with a literary interest.