Once upon a time, people sat around fires and told stories. What they didn’t know was that these stories would outlive them by millennia, taking on a life of their own. The stories changed and, like a mirror, reflected societies back at themselves. That has been the standard narrative in fairy-tale study over the past 300 years, and it has become rather old. Like a number of academic disciplines, there’s too much solipsistic navel-gazing, too little knowledge-building. Once upon a time, in a previous life, this humble columnist embarked upon an ill-fated postgraduate foray into the study of fairy tales, and learnt an important lesson: sometimes quitting is the best choice. My problem was the only people who would read my thesis were my supervisor, my mother and, possibly — if I was lucky — the person I was dating. Blue-sky research is fundamental to building our knowledge as a society, but staring at a single stitch without connecting it to a larger tapestry is a waste. That’s what ...

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