Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner - review by Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel


Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale


Oxford University Press 201pp £10.99

In that most compelling of autobiographies Father and Son, Edmund Gosse tells of how works of fiction were not admitted into his parents’ stern Plymouth Brethren household:

Never in all my early childhood, did anyone address to me the affecting preamble, ‘Once upon a time!’ I was told about missionaries, but never about pirates; I was familiar with humming-birds, but I had never heard of fairies. Jack the Giant-Killer, Rumpelstiltskin and Robin Hood were not of my acquaintance, and though I understood about wolves, Little Red Ridinghood was a stranger even by name. So far as my ‘dedication’ was concerned, I can but think that my parents were in error thus to exclude the imaginary from my outlook upon facts. They desired to make me truthful; the tendency was to make me positive and sceptical. Had they wrapped me in the soft folds of supernatural fancy, my mind might have been longer content to follow their traditions in an unquestioning spirit.

As Gosse discovered, fairy tales are not untrue, even though they don’t address the truths of our reality through factual and rational considerations. Their vantage point is the realm of the uncanny, the geography of the imagination set free. From high above the turrets of enchanted castles and deep down in the burrows of Elfland, they allow us to contemplate our secret joys and unavowed terrors, our mad dreams of adventure and our dread of the unknown. Under fairy guises, they display for our discernment the absurdities of our social conventions, our family politics and our relationships with authority. In the daily business of our world, whatever magic we discover receives a scientific or bureaucratic explanation and every death we experience is forever. And yet, underlying every factual, no-nonsense answer lurks a brood of dark, insidious questions that urge us to distrust these complacencies. Dante called such fictions non falsi errori – ‘mistakes that are not untrue’.

How then can we explain our fascination with fairy tales, everywhere and always? Why do we enjoy the promise of ‘Long, long ago, in a far-off land’? Why do we want to hear, again and again, the sagas of beautiful princesses, valiant heroes, crafty animals who can speak, voracious wolves and hairy ogres, kind crones and evil witches? Marina Warner’s elegantly concise answer is: ‘fairy tales express hopes’.

Warner is a longtime explorer of Fairyland. Her seminal book on the subject, From the Beast to the Blonde, was first published two decades ago, followed four years later by No Go the Bogeyman, which expanded her research into the realm of ghosts and goblins. Now she has pulled together her thoughts in a 200-page fairy-size hardback titled, obviously, Once Upon a Time. It is a remarkable achievement.

Warner suggests that there are four characteristics that define a veritable fairy tale: first, it should be short; second, it should be (or seem) familiar; third, it should suggest ‘the necessary presence of the past’ through well-known plots and characters; fourth, since fairy tales are told in what Warner aptly calls ‘a symbolic Esperanto’, it should allow horrid deeds and truculent events to be read as matter-of-fact. If, as Warner says, ‘the scope of a fairy tale is made by language’, it is through language that our unconscious world, with its dreams and half-grasped intuitions, comes into being and its phantoms are transformed into comprehensible figures like cannibal giants, wicked parents or friendly beasts. In a talk given in April 2006 at the Beckett Centenary Conference in Dublin, Warner remarked that ‘words summon presence … and they also possess the power to animate the inanimate, to quicken toys with imaginary life, to throng the playroom with imaginary company’. That is, words bring what we think we don’t know into being.

In her introduction to the splendid anthology Wonder Tales, Warner wrote, ‘wonder has no opposite; it springs up already doubled in itself, compounded of dread and desire at once, attraction and recoil, producing a thrill, the shudder of pleasure and of fear.’ This paradoxical aesthetic is apparent in the German term Wundermärchen, which distinguishes, in the general realm of fairy tales or Märchen, the genuine folk stories from the literary fairy tales, Kunst-märchen, the latter born from efforts to rescue the former. The nationalist movements of the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe led to determined searches for original folk material that would define in some way the soul of nascent or coalescing countries. The Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Andersen and Madame d’Aulnoy are therefore the guiding spirits of this book, though quite a few pages are dedicated to the talents of Italo Calvino and Angela Carter, who, of her contemporaries, Warner considers to be among the most lucid successors to those venerable precursors.

The Brothers Grimm and their comrades-in-arms procured their tales from village storytellers and elderly servants, mainly women. These storytellers had themselves heard the tales told by their elders, and would then embroider and alter them according to their own particular circumstances and inclinations while performing them for their audiences in different voices and with identifying gestures. When the Brothers Grimm and the other seekers of ‘authenticity’ transcribed them, they once more changed the texts into what they judged to be a truly popular style, inventing for this purpose a narrative voice that came to be identified with the fairy-tale genre.

The popularity, influence and prevalence of these fairy tales, in their edited and published versions, were immense, not only helping to define what, beginning in the 19th century, began to be called ‘children’s literature’, but also demonstrating that it was possible to tell the kinds of stories found in serious fiction in a ‘popular’ way. The Brontës, Manzoni, Lermontov, Proust, George Sand, Oscar Wilde and many, many more owe a literary debt to these collectors and retellers. Dickens especially wrote under their influence and his novels (as Chesterton rightly observed) are all in some sense fairy tales. When Scrooge is carried away by the first of the spirits, he sees his young self abandoned in an empty classroom at Christmas, surrounded by the characters of the fairy tales he is reading: Valentine and Orson of the Carolingian romance, Ali Baba and the genies of the Arabian Nights, even Robinson Crusoe and his parrot, all transformed in the child’s wishful imagination into inhabitants of Fairyland.

Running through the book is a larger question. What do fairy tales, with their repeated motifs and recurrent characters, told and retold from ancient China and India to Victorian Europe and contemporary America, have to say about the human condition? Does the fact that the story of Cinderella appears in one guise in 9th-century China and another in 17th-century Naples, a different one in France in the 1690s and yet another in Scotland a hundred years later, point to a common ancestral human unconscious, or is it proof of intercultural communications and influences stronger than even the most travelled of scholars would have suspected? Historians of folklore have tried to find the roots of certain stories in actual events (Gilles de Rais as the inspiration for Bluebeard, the Beast of Gévaudan for Little Red Riding Hood’s wolf), but their terrain of exploration is far from clear. In her earlier introduction to From the Beast to the Blonde, Warner wrote: ‘But even when the teller is known and the circumstances of the telling are clear, fairy tales are still rebarbative as historical documents: the transmission problems make them resemble an archaeological site that has been plundered by tomb robbers.’ Psychology labours in a similarly nebulous area: the symbolic vocabulary of our psyche (that ‘our’ betrays an intuition of universality) is read according to the conventions of the tribe to which each individual belongs. Who can say whether these different translations of images of fear, love, family, courage and trust stem from a common unfathomable original? No investigative reading of fairy tales can provide a single, indisputable explanation; after all the efforts to dissect and analyse their workings, and place each one in a neatly labelled category, the fairy tales themselves escape intact, ready to be retold. Nothing seems to be able to explain away their fantastical landscapes, fraught as they are with bloody chambers and dark, menacing forests. And nothing seems to destroy the promise of hope that, as mentioned, Warner finds in them: ‘the sense’, she writes, ‘that an alternative world has been created where goodness can brighten us, lighten us.’

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