Once Upon a Time:
A Short History of Fairy Tale

Marina Warner

Oxford University Press 2014
A book review by Danny Yee © 2015 https://dannyreviews.com/
Once Upon a Time is a wide-ranging survey, taking a broad view of fairy tales and covering their reception, critical and popular, as well as their form and content. Its nine chapters do follow on from one other, but they are also largely self-contained, almost short essays, making the work easy to read but also a little disconnected.

A prologue touches on the "thorny hedge" of definition, then "The Worlds of Faery: Far Away and Down Below" traces the history of fairies and fairy tales in Britain — and their connections with folklore and "nationalist antiquarianism" — going back to the 13th century Thomas of Erceldoune, through Shakespeare and the Romantics, down to Yeats and Tolkien. "Few people believe in fairies, now, but they featured powerfully in the belief systems of the past, and not always benignly."

"With a Touch of Her Wand: Magic and Metamorphosis" considers the role of magic, looking in turn at animals, the natural world more broadly, inorganic objects, metamorphosis, and the magic of words. "The storyteller adopts the devices of verbal magic; the animate forces ascribed to the world of phenomena by fairy tale as a genre are infused into the individual stories themselves."

Focusing on switching between written and spoken forms, "Voices on the Page: Tales, Tellers, and Translations" is a potted history that touches on, among others, Charles Perrault, Catherine D'Aulnoy, translators of the Arabian Nights, Giambattista Basile, the Grimm brothers and their emulators in other countries, and Andrew Lang. "The fairytale genre does not possess a precisely delineated literary form, but is as fluid as a conversation taking place over centuries."

"Potato Soup: True Stories/Real Life" considers the reality of poverty, rape, lice, starvation, and dysfunctional families captured in story, with Bluebeard's possible antecedents in Breton commander Gilles de Rais as a case study. "On the whole, though, the historical reality that can be excavated from fairy tales does not carry the memory of extreme horrors, specific tragedies, or individuals, but rather dramatizes ordinary circumstances, daily sufferings, needs, desires — and dangers, especially of dying young." Warner also touches on consolatory tales and heroic optimism.

"Childish Things: Pictures and Conversations" describes the Victorian transformation of fairy tales into a children's genre: "Dickens was not heard. After the transformation of the Grimms had taken place, many other fairytale collections were similarly de-fanged." It also touches on the importance of illustrations. (Reproductions of sixteen of these, attempting to represent the most significant illustrators, are scattered throughout Once Upon a Time.)

Turning to psychoanalysis, "On the Couch: House-Training the Id" looks at Freud but above all Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment and the debates it has engendered. "Psychological readings are far more popular than any socio-historical analysis, and have excited a vast secondary literature of therapy, self-help and how-to books, the personal growth industry and academic literary criticism." It concludes with a glance at "the problem about boys and fairy tales".

This leads on naturally to "In the Dock: Don't Bet on the Prince", which touches on some of the feminist critiques and rewritings of fairy tale: the material hidden by the Grimms, Gilbert and Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic, Angela Carter's reworkings in The Bloody Chamber, and Eva Figes' Patriarchal Attitudes. "[Carter] was a utopian and a satirist, and a fight between idealism and despair flourished, unresolved, inside her."

"Double Vision: The Dream of Reason" looks at anti-tales and parody, touching on theorists and writers such as Todorov, Kafka, Calvino and Carter. "A literature that does not make false claims about its truthfulness, but owns up to its fictive condition, fitted [Calvino's] idealism more surely than literary attempts at faithful imitation of life."

Opera, ballet and Disney naturally feature in "On Stage & Screen: States of Illusion", but here Warner also takes in a few less familiar topics: the censorship of the East German film The Singing Ringing Tree (1957), for example, and a shift back to adult audiences exemplified by the Spanish film Blancanieves (2012). "Twenty-first century films have broken with the chief defining principle of fairy tales that they should end happily."

Warner's approach is not at all theoretical and doesn't assume any background in critical theory. On the other hand, she does assume a general familiarity with European history and literature. Despite its pocket-size format and bare two hundred pages, Once Upon a Time manages to fit in a surprising amount, treating some less familiar topics as well as the more obvious ones. It touches on a broad range of works and critics and forms and ideas, and while sweeping in its scope it makes good use of quotes and illustrations and rapid but probing excursions. Some big ideas and many details were entirely new to me.

Overall it is a bit of a potpourri, but that helps Once Upon a Time capture the diversity of the genre and its study. It's an excellent introduction, and there are twelve pages of further reading suggestions, divided up by chapter, for those who want more.

March 2015

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%T Once Upon a Time
%S A Short History of Fairy Tale
%A Warner, Marina
%I Oxford University Press
%D 2014
%O hardcover, index
%G ISBN-13 9780198718659
%P 201pp