Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner

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Reviewed by Helen Parry

Once Upon a Time Marina Warner

Is it fair to claim that Marina Warner is the reigning British queen of fairy tales? I believe so. Her best-known book on the subject, From the Beast to the Blonde, remains relevant and popular twenty years after its first publication; since then she’s continued to publish work on fairy tales – including Stranger Magic, about the Arabian Nights – as well as on myths, symbols, monsters and culture. She is also a novelist, and has written children’s fiction and libretti for operas; this experience surely informs the rich, allusive prose with which she writes her non-fiction.

Her latest book, Once Upon a Time, is much shorter and smaller than her previous books: it is a prettily produced little hardback with a gorgeous cover illustration by Su Blackwell. Inside is a cultural and social history of the fairy tale, an elegant synthesis of current and earlier scholarship on fairy tales’ origins and transformations, glittering with Warner’s own insights. While the synthesis makes for a useful introduction to the understanding of fairy tales for those who haven’t read anything about them before, it’s these insights and Warner’s insistence on treating fairy tales as fluid, shifting entities, constantly being adapted to fit the times, which made this book really stand out for me.

The origins of most fairy tales are obscure because they are oral; it’s only really once they have been written down that their histories can be mapped with any certainty. Yet every teller leaves their mark on a tale, adapting it to fit their own ideologies and aesthetics, and this accounts for there being many versions of some of the best-known stories. The first print collections of fairy tales were Italian, produced in 1550–55 by the Venetian Staparola and in 1634–36 by the Neapolitan Giambattista Basile. Warner describes these collections as wittily irreverent, outlandish:

often in fantastic, exotic, and luxurious settings; their adult material flows through baroque, sophisticated, yet demotic prose, packed with fanciful imagery and proverbial turns of phrase; mandarin ironies, high-flown emotions fuse with crude jokes and japes to create a hybrid text, where preposterous entertainment meets lacerating cynicism about humankind.

They included versions of stories such as ‘Puss-in-Boots’, ‘Donkeyskin’, ‘Rapunzel’ and ‘Cinderella’. Later in the seventeenth century, there was a blossoming of fairy-tale writing in France: the most famous of these authors was Charles Perrault but in fact the genre was dominated by women, who used their witty and elaborate tales to obliquely protest against misogynistaspects of their society (and some of them were severely punished for doing so). In 1707–17 the Arabian Nights were first translated into French and shortly after into English, quickly becoming a craze. Just under a century later, in a land occupied by Napoleonic forces, the Brothers Grimm started collecting tales intended to demonstrate the indigenous culture of the German Volk. In fact many of the tellers were middle class or aristocratic and with French connections, and Wilhelm Grimm worked the tales into something more literary than oral. While Wilhelm’s approach might draw criticism from modern anthropologists and folklorists, it is the Grimms’ versions of the tales, with their dark forests, wicked stepmothers and ‘flat’ narratives, which have most influenced our current concept of what fairy tales are. During the nineteenth century, fairy tales – both retellings and new stories such as Hans Christian Andersen’s – were more pointedly directed at children, but in the twentieth century writers including Anne Sexton and Angela Carter have reclaimed them for adult readers.

But Warner’s history is not just an account of how the stories came to be written down; she’s also interested in their ingredients and has written fascinating chapters on pre-modern beliefs about fairies, our desire for what W.H. Auden called the ‘secondary worlds’ of the unfettered imagination, and the question of whether some stories, Bluebeard, for instance, were based on a real people or events. She examines how the stories have been subsequently interpreted, drawing on the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Walter Benjamin, Sigmund Freud and A.S. Byatt, and laying into Bruno Bettelheim. She doesn’t have much time for the theory of the universal unconscious, either, and finds systems for classifying fairy-tale types and motifs, such as Vladimir Propp’s and the Aarne-Thompson-Uther index, to be of limited interest:

the universalizing method which ipso facto looks for resemblances, not distinctiveness, erases historical and social conditions; the comparisons and sets do not allow for differences in reception according to changing contexts, and they give no clue to the pleasure the fairy tales inspire or the reasons for that pleasure.

The setting-down of the tales in print is, for Warner, only one moment in their lives. Most of them had already been told and retold many, many times, and even after appearing in print they have continued to be reinvented. Fairy-tale elements have been appropriated by Lewis Carroll – it seems that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was originally marketed as a fairy tale – Charles Dickens, Edith Nesbit, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Child readers have been offered beautifully illustrated copies, and Warner argues that artists such as Henry Ford and Arthur Rackham have been central to interpretations of fairy tales and to their popularity. She widens her discussion from books to embrace fairy-tale retellings and motifs in puppetry, opera, ballet, panto and film (including, whisper it, Disney), claiming convincingly that these stories are not confined to the written or spoken word and indeed not only feed but are fed by these other media.

Of course a short history cannot encompass everything. Perhaps inevitably this one is focused on British literature and western European fairy tales, yet Warner’s reach is as always impressive and touches on mediaeval China, modern Latin America, Shakespeare’s England and Soviet Russia. It’s best to consider it as an introduction to the forest by a brilliant and entertaining guide, rather than a comprehensive exploration of every glade. Perhaps the shadow of Angela Carter, wonderful and important though she was, falls a little too long; perhaps occasionally I felt that Warner’s fascination with the forest of material drew her away from the trail of white pebbles and we lost sight of where we was going. But these truly are minor complaints. Whether you love fairy tales and want to find out more about their background, or you are someone who already knows quite a bit but appreciates fine writing and fresh insights, this is a book to treasure.

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Helen Parry fancies herself as a princess (in heavy disguise) and blogs at a gallimaufry [http://gallimaufry.typepad.com/blog/].

Marina Warner, Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 978-0-19-871865-9, 201pp illus., hardback and e-book

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