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Rediscovering fairy tales: how well do we really know Jack?

Rediscovering fairy tales: how well do we really know Jack?




As a popular folk-champion of children’s literature, the often resourceful and plucky Jack has been a powerful contributor to the complex formation of young people’s identity and codes of conduct. In particular, and perhaps due to its supposed status as the archetypal English fairy tale, ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ has continued to reign as the most well-known narrative of Jack’s fantastic adventures. However, fairy tales are far from simple adventure stories and, while drawing on an extended and perhaps unfamiliar range of Jack narratives, this talk will teach students to approach such literature critically to reveal its underlying significance.

Why this is important?

Many students will be familiar with the classic fairy tales of their childhood, but these apparently innocent and simple stories are much more complex and problematic when read critically. By learning to look more deeply at this particular genre, drawing on literary methods to illuminate its fascinating texts, students will develop skills in critical reading and literary interrogation. Simultaneously, they will develop their understanding of how children’s literature can have an influence on our conceptions of morality and what constitutes acceptable behaviour within a supposedly civilised society.

Key descriptors:

Fairy tales, children’s literature, identity and race, morality, culture

Suggested age range:



Matthew Ryan-East

Matthew completed his Masters degree at the University of Cambridge where his research explored the applications of the fairy tale in the English classroom. In particular, Matthew investigated the genre's effectiveness for developing A level students' awareness and understanding of critical theory to aid transition from secondary to higher education.

Matthew's current doctoral research at the University of Southampton focuses on the collections of English Fairy Tales of Joseph Jacobs, published during the last decade of the nineteenth century. Specifically, Matthew is interested in issues of national and racial identity, the development of folklore studies, late nineteenth-century society and culture, attitudes towards the 'Other', and the fairy tale’s relationship to evolutionary theories and social progress.

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