The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Ed: Jack Zipes; illus Natalie Frank) Princeton University Press 2017
Hb, 480pp, illus, bios, bib, ind, list of tales, ISBN 9780691172651 Jack Zipes is no newcomer to fairytales, and brings insight, experience and nuance to the subject. Having covered subjects such as Little Red Riding Hood, the Brothers Grimm and Mary Poppins, he now turns his attention to the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
The book is divided up into four sections, starting with Zipes’s introduction ‘Why Magic Matters’, followed by collections of humiliated apprentice tales, rebellious apprentice tales, and Krabat tales. As well as exploring the differences between them, he thoroughly explores their nature. This is particularly relevant to forteans when he outlines the idea of the memeplex; how “one basic text or tale type becomes stable and more fit to survive under all social and cultural conditions than other memetic tales as it is adapted or adapts itself through diverse modalities. In the process it spawns variant memes that surround the stable type to form a memeplex.”
This idea of a memeplex in the way stories are transmitted and are carried forward is well argued and supported through examples.
Zipes also puts forward a good argument for Childism in these story types, which Young-Bruehl describes as “a belief system that constructs its target group, ‘the child’, as an immature being produced and owned by adults who use it to serve their own needs and fantasies.”
Zipes identifies this theme running through the different types of sorcerer’s apprentice story, in the way the apprentice is traded into service, and then is sold to raise money for the family. This is an informative take on the story type, particularly looking at how the Disney version has an unquestioning acceptance and the implications that has for the abusive treatment of children around the globe.
So what of the stories themselves? Zipes divides them into three types, tracing each back as far as possible. As the
stories come chronologically closer to our time, there seems to be a flattening out in the variation, but it never feels like Zipes’s editorial voice is overwhelming the individual character of the story.
The final section explores the Krabat stories, a particular cycle of tales in the Sorbian and German tradition of folk tales coming out of Lusatia. They are heavily tied to ideas of resistance and local identity, and form a very discrete group with shared characteristics such as the Satanic mill, use of oats to conjure soldiers, and the damage to a church steeple (normally in Kamenz). The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a nuanced and fascinating exploration of a group of stories that might at first glance seem familiar.
Zipes succeeds in bringing out a lot more detail. The implications of the lessons in the stories, particularly on how we treat children, and his ideas about how stories are transmitted via the memeplex mean that The Sorcerer’s Apprentice deserves a wide audience.