When Professor
Bill Gray
launched the
Sussex Centre
for Folklore, Fairy Tales and
Fantasy, it was the realisation
of a long-held ambition.
Brought up on fairy tales
read by his father, he studied
the Brothers Grimm and other
German storytellers while
reading modern languages
at Oxford and went on to
publish a well-received book
on the work of JRR Tolkien,
CS Lewis and Philip Pullman,
among others.
But Gray, who is professor
of literary history and
hermeneutics at the University
of Chichester, wanted
to explore these ideas more
widely. “It’s always been
important to me that what
I worked on as an academic
was relevant to ‘ordinary
people’ – perhaps a legacy of
growing up in Glasgow and
trying to explain to punters
in a bar what the heck I was
doing at university!”
Students had been eager
to sign up for a course he ran
on fantasy literature at the
university and he guessed
(correctly) that if they were
interested, people outside
higher education would
be too. The Sussex Centre
for Folklore, Fairy Tales
and Fantasy opened at the
University of Chichester in
2010; “I felt I’d been waiting
all my life to do something
like this,” says Gray.
Sussex was the perfect
location. “It’s a county rich
in folklore, fairy tales and
fantasy. There are major
works of fantasy and myth
by Sussex residents such as
Mervyn Peake [the writer
of Gormenghast lived
and worked for a time in
Warningcamp, near Arundel]
and Neil Gaiman [who lived
for many years in East Grinstead]
and there are fantasy
and fairy tale elements
not only in prose works by
Kipling, Wilde and Wells but
in the poetry of Blake, Keats,
Shelley and Tennyson, all
of whom have connections
to Sussex.”
The centre has become
a hub for a wide range of
research, talks, projects and
media enquiries, from assistance
on a recent exhibition
of Mervyn Peake’s work,
to input into discussions on
popular fantasy series such
as George RR Martin’s
A Song Of Ice And Fire.
Gray was recently enlisted as
mythic and folklore adviser
on Hollywood film Snow
White And The Huntsman,
which stars Kristen Stewart
as Snow White and Charlize
Theron as the Evil Queen.
Gray’s role was to assist
with the symbolism of the
film and give it depth. “I
think they wanted to convey
that this wasn’t just another
purely money-orientated
Hollywood blockbuster but
a respectful reworking of the
Grimm fairytale.” Among
the suggestions he made was
rechristening the dwarves.
Rather than those in the
script, Gray chose names
inspired by Ogham – the
medieval “Celtic Tree
“This was my first
experience of advising on a
Hollywood film and it was
a real eye-opener,” he says.
“The sheer scale of the
enterprise was incredible.”
What did he make of the
end result? “I think the
film mostly pulled off the
balancing act of appealing
to different audiences. It
was both action-packed but
magical and even moving
at times, with some deeper
messages woven in if you
care to look for them.”
The film is one of a number
of fairytale adaptations
headed for our cinema
screens – Guillermo Del Toro
is set to direct a version of
Beauty And The Beast, while
actress Gemma Arterton is
slated to star in next year’s
Hansel And Gretel: Witch
Gray is delighted. He
worries that fairy tale and
fantasy – like children’s literature
– are often undervalued
by the literary establishment,
when in fact these genres can
teach us a lot. “They are a
place where we can articulate
very basic human issues that
elsewhere might be too basic
or crude for ‘proper’ grownup
literature and film, for
example, being lonely or
lost or frightened to death.”
As to what is driving
the revival, he suggests the economic downturn as a
major factor. “These socalled
fairy tales are often
about surviving a (murderously)
dysfunctional family
in a harsh situation. Don’t
forget, the Grimms created
their book when Germany
was an occupied country
under French rule. Life was
harsh; people did starve to
death. Fairy tales take you
out of the harsh demands of
real life but are also about
finding solutions, finding
hope, in hard times.”
In September, the centre
will mark the bicentenary
of the publication of Jacob
and Wilhelm Grimm’s first
book with a conference set
to be attended by “all the
big names in the world of
fairy tale”, including Marina
Warner, Jack Zipes and,
potentially, Philip Pullman.
While it is one of several
such conferences being held
across the world this year,
his is different, he says, for
emphasising the importance
of storytelling alongside
the “academic stuff.”
The famous fairy tales
have had a “huge” influence
on our culture, says Gray.
“Fairy tales are to do with
the unconscious and how
influential is the unconscious
on our culture? One reason
film adaptations can work so
well is that they’re playing
with our sense of self.
Cinderella, for example,
has influenced literature
and films from Jane Eyre to
the Harry Potter series.
“Most of us can relate to
the story of the downtrodden
girl sleeping in the cinders, or
the downtrodden boy sleeping
under the stairs, who gets her
or his own back. She or he is
the hero of a thousand faces,
making good in a dysfunctional
family, which is how
all families must feel, at
least some of the time.”

*After Grimm: Fairy Tales
And The Art Of Storytelling
is at Kingston University, in
London, from September 6
to 8. For more details, visit