I have been a huge fan of Marina Warner since I first read No Go, the Bogeyman, a history (as the subtitle would have it) of ‘scaring, lulling and making mock’ which explored the dark realms of ogres, giants and other figures of male terror. From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers was written prior to that, and is widely regarded as a landmark study of the history and meaning of fairy tales, but I have only gotten to it now.
Warner is an exceptional academic writer, and wears her learning lightly. Unfortunately its density makes it difficult to do justice to in a short review, given that it ranges across several centuries of fairy tales (or ‘wonder tales’) and the cultural context from which they sprang. Although the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, and Charles ‘I even got a Google Doodle’ Perrault are the famous tellers of fairy-tales, it comes as no surprise that the dearth of women in this cannon is merely the result of masculine appropriation of stories that were told, retold and shaped by women. Unlike the majority of fairy tale studies, Warner is not here for psychoanalysis but rather to illuminate the tellers of these tales and then reattach those tales to their historical context.
The book is divided into two sections ‘The Tellers’ and ‘The Tales’. In the first we learn much about how female voices and wisdom were perceived in the Christian west, including how old woman began to be denigrated to crones as they carried secret knowledge about sex, contraception and abortion while simultaneously Saint Anne, mother of Mary, became ever more venerated. In one of many fascinating asides Warner unpacks the etymology of ‘gossip’ – from the Old English godsibb meaning ‘godparent’ (in Old English sibb could mean kinship, relationship, love, friendship, peace, happiness’ while sibling meant any relative or kinsman); to the c.1300 meaning of “familiar acquaintance, friend, neighbour – especially women friends invited to attend a birth” to the 1560s meaning of “anyone engaging in idle talk”.
In the second part we discuss the tales themselves, including looking at the fascinating question of why, if these tales were primarily told and spread by women, are there so many evil female characters. Warner shows how it was a historical reality that women often died in childbirth, widowers often remarried and widows rarely – arranged marriages, constrained finances, and competition for dowries drive fairy tales to “reflect the difficulty of women making common cause within existing matrimonial arrangements”. The flattening of the complexities of these tales by more modern, sanitised, reproductions is decried as is the increasing prominence of more misogynist themes as the dangers of men are downplayed in favour of Prince Charming always being the end goal.
Ranging from the Chinese ‘Cinderella’ story (which goes back over a thousand years) through the Queen of Sheba to the Disney Corporation and Angela Carter, a lot of ground gets covered here. Despite the huge quantities of information, this book is a rattling good read, not least because Warner’s boundless enthusiasm and affection for her subject is so contagious. As she says “”[t]he faculty of wonder, like curiosity, can make things happen; it is time for wishful thinking to have its due”. Although it’s a text book, it became my night time reading! The illustrations are widespread and fascinating – from traditional woodcuts to movie stills. Be you folklorist, historian, fairy-tale enthusiast or feminist – if you care about stories you should make time for this one.