Workers’ Tales: Socialist Fairy Tales, Fables, and Allegories from Great Britain

Workers’ Tales: Socialist Fairy Tales, Fables, and Allegories from
Great Britain. Edited by Michael Rosen. 2018. Princeton: Princeton
University Press. 316 pages. ISBN: 978-0-691-17534-8 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Simon Poole

This edited collection offers a tripartite selection of tales that
use traditional stories or traditional story forms; allegorical fairy
tales and fables; and moral tales. All of which were originally
published in various British periodicals between 1884 and 1914. It
also includes fairy tale illustrations and political images of the
period, which add some further interest but are not critically
examined in any way. The tales or socialist stories themselves are
presented unaffectedly yet clearly, allowing the reader to engage in
a period and cultural form that had a defined political intent: to
make socialism attractive and intelligible to children. It is this
very intention, and the possibility for it to be critiqued, that this
publication enables. The richness of metaphor in the tales, the
shared tropes of the socialist movement, and the explicit — or as
Rosen describes it — emblematic and symbolic language is exposed to
reveal clear and moving links between art, education, and politics.
It is within the copulae of these ideas that the stories of
resistance still echo in our time, and why this publication is an
unnervingly apposite read given the current political climate.

Rosen also provides thorough and illuminating concluding sections,
which provide explicative notes on aspects of the tales; citations
for the tales; alphabetically listed, biographical information on the
authors; and contextual information on the journals that first
featured the tales.

Before chronologically presenting these tales (some written by
luminaries such as William Morris), the work contextualizes their
original manifestation and historical usage by way of a detailed and
persuasively written introduction. Persuasive, that is, in regards to
the contemporary potential of the works. As Rosen points out in his
concluding paragraph, displaying or exposing societal structures and
processes through story allows the listener or reader to see how
these structures and processes “make the majority of people’s lives
such a struggle” (18).

The introduction is an innovative means of recontextualizing the
tales for the politics of our age; it offers them as a
counterculture, an alternative perhaps to what might be described as
a media-driven, late-capitalist society that otherwise imbibes
political standpoints from seemingly and increasingly extreme or
polarized perspectives. The book as a whole, then, while indubitably
being a fascinating and thorough piece of research in itself, could
also be used pedagogically in the classroom. The value would be to
open up debate; to present alternative perspectives; to challenge the
means by which politics is communicated to young people as a static
given.

There is, of course, a situation in which the book might have less or
become of doubtful value or success. This would be if it were read
entirely as an ad hominem argument for a political ideology. Although
it should be stressed it does not read as if it were written with
this intention, to explain, I would call upon the reasons for which
folklorist Herman Bausinger wished to ally folkloristics more with
sociology than with any other discipline. Writing just after the
growth of nationalism and fascism of the Second World War, Bausinger
(1961) recognized that a balance was desperately needed that
disconnected folklore and political nationalism; that they had had a
long and at times unfortunate relationship. The manipulation of
cultural tradition and folklore into differing political ideologies
through the ages had in his view caused tragedy after tragedy. In
short, when folkloric items are misrepresented as the “spirit of the
nation,” often through a humanistic yet romantic lens, they can be
used in a nefarious manner, irrespective of the leaning of the
political machine willing the connection.

Nonetheless, the presentation of the works in this book successfully
avoid this pitfall, due to the careful rendering of the political in
a historical way. Ambiguously, though, the tales are not entirely
historicized, in that they are highlighted as relevant still today.
As such, they could be used or positioned in a methopedagogic sense
or within a framework of critical pedagogy to consider, for example,
the governmental mandate for primary schools in the education system
of the United Kingdom to teach “British Values.” As stimuli for
debate on this topic alone, the tales have great worth.

All in all, this publication is a timely yet time-honored evocation
of the enduring issues of inequality, injustice, and exploitation.

Work Cited

Bausinger, Hermann. Volkskultur in der technischen Welt. Stuttgart:
W. Kohlhammer GmbH, 1961.

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