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Jack Zipes

On Re-Reading William Steig’s Book Shrek!

While most people, children and adults, have seen the three Shrek films, very few have read the marvelous picture book, which William Steig published with an exclamation mark—Shrek!—in 1990. In keeping with the postmodern spirit of the last twenty-five years, Steig modestly produced one of the best examples of how the fairy tale has been fractured and continually transformed, indicating its radical potential in our digital age, especially with the production and success of the twenty-first century digitally animated films. Since very few reviewers of the film have paid attention to the book Shrek!—not to mention book reviewers—I would like to summarize the plot briefly and comment on the great wry morality and humanity of the tale.

Steig’s Shrek! is very different in tone and style from the film. The title is based on a Yiddish expression that means “horror” or “terror,” not “fear” as some reviewers have said. Schrecken in German and Yiddish means to scare, terrify, or horrify, and the ogre Shrek on the cover of Steig’s book is a scary figure. He has a green face with protruding ears and a bald head with a pointed top. His face is spotted with black stubbles; his eyes are red; his nose large and round; and his teeth, sharp and crooked. He is tall and barrel chested. His fingernails on his green hands are long. He wears a multi-colored violet tunic with a belt around his midriff and striped pants. The color combinations change at times throughout the book, but not his features and character:

His mother was ugly and his father was ugly, but Shrek was uglier than the two of them put together. By the time he toddled, Shrek could spit a flame of full ninety-nine yards and vent smoke from either ear. With just a look he cowed the reptiles in the swamp. Any snake dumb enough to bite him instantly got convulsions and died.

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