In her book From the Beast to the Blonde, Marina Warner examines the meaning of fairy tales. She does this by looking at the social and historical context in which the tales have first gained currency and how they have been passed on by generations of storytellers and writers.
Chapter 2 is titled The Old Wives’ Tale: Gossips I and begins with a short excerpt from a poem by Liz Lochhead that points to the nuances in women’s conversation—they “tattle,” “titter,” “prattle,” “waffle,” “giggle,” and “niggle,” while men merely “talk.” This takes us straight into the territory of gossip and the old wives’ tale, which is the main focus of this chapter. Recalling the playwright George Peele of late sixteenth century England and the emergence in France of the literary fairy tale in the seventeenth century, Warner points out how “commentators connected old women with fantastic tale-telling.” Thus, fairy tales belong to the domain of stories told by nurses to children in their care for serving a “moralizing and socializing” function.
Warner cites references from the Greek philosopher Plutarch and from The Golden Ass, a second century A.D. work by the Latin writer Apuleius, to show how fairy tales may sometimes be used to distract a person from their pain by dwelling instead of the ordeals suffered by another. The character of Charite in Apuleius’ work, who has been captured by bandits and separated from her husband, is distracted by an old woman who tells her the story of all the difficulties Psyche had to undergo before she could be with Cupid. Pointing out that the very phrase used by Apuleius to describe such a story is an “old wives’ tale” or anilis fabula, Warner then looks at the etymology of the term “fairy tale” and connects it to the Latin feminine word fata, referring to fate and a goddess of destiny, and the past participle of the word fari, referring to all that is spoken. The three Fates, who represented the pagan idea of past, present and future, became the fairies of fairy tales.
These classical Fates metamorphose into the fairies of the stories, where they continue their fateful and prophetic roles. But fairy tales themselves also fulfil this function, quite apart from the fairies who may or may not make an appearance: ‘Bluebeard’ or ‘Beauty and the Beast’ act to caution listeners, as well as light their path to the future.
Acknowledging that the exact time and place of the origin of a fairy tale cannot be pinned down, Warner looks at the nineteenth century collectors of fairy tales who have occasionally recorded their sources. She points out that the female character of the storyteller had a lot to do with the transmission of fairy tales. She cites Italo Calvino and the Czech writer Karel Capek who have made mention of this in their works. She writes,
So, although male writers and collectors have dominated the production and dissemination of popular wonder tales, they often pass on women’s stories from intimate or domestic milieu …
The fairy tale came into fashion in Paris in the seventeenth century, and Warner looks at the work of Charles Perrault, published in 1697, crediting his tales to Mother Goose, and at Perrault’s intellectual opponent, the pamphleteer Abbe de Villiers, who denounced fairy tales for being “ignorant and foolish.” Perrault’s cousin, Mile Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier de Villandon, defended fairy tales against such criticism by emphasizing their “moral” features. However, such a defense was not by itself enough to remove the pejorative connotations around fairy tales. As the phrase “old wives’ tales” continued to carry connotations of ignorance, false counsel, and error, so “fairy tales” continued to have some connotation of escapism, fantasy, and romantic notions.
Regretting that Walter Benjamin in his essay on The Storyteller has not imagined at any place that his storytellers may be women, even as he has written about storytelling as an “artisan form of communication,” Warner cites the work of the Scottish poet Liz Lochhead once again, using it to point out how storytelling by women has often been done to the accompaniment of women’s activities like the spinning of cloth from flax or knitting. She also emphasizes the orality of the tradition, its essentially moralizing character, and how it served to link the worlds of literary and print culture with the oral, illiterate culture of the people.
Chapter 14 is titled Wicked Stepmothers: The Sleeping Beauty, and, like the rest of the chapters in part 2 of the book, looks more closely at the tales themselves. It makes a series of important points that emerge from the tales concerning the relationships women have with each other and the larger society in which they live.
Pointing out that the word for stepmother in French, belle-mere, is the same as that for mother-in-law, Warner reveals that, in many fairy tales,
The mother who persecutes heroines like Cinderella or Snow White may conceal beneath her cruel features another familiar kind of adoptive mother, not the stepmother but the mother-in-law, and the time of ordeal through which the fairytale heroine passes may not represent the liminal interval between childhood and maturity, but another, more socially constituted proving ground or threshold: the beginning of marriage.
Warner presents the different versions of the tale of Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault and Giambattista Basile. In Basile’s version, the king who chances upon the Sleeping Beauty is already married. She continues to be in a deep sleep when he sees her for the first time, but bears the king’s twins. One of the suckling infants draws out the poison that has put his mother into a deep sleep, thus waking her. When the king returns one day and finds them, he takes his family back with him to his palace, where his jealous wife plots to have the children cooked and served to him at dinner. However, her designs are thwarted by a kind-hearted cook. The jealous wife then has a huge pyre prepared to burn Talia, the twins’ mother, but the king arrives to rescue her in time, and he orders for the flames to extinguish the wicked wife instead. The Perrault version goes a step further, transforming the jealous wife into the King’s mother after she has been extinguished by the pyre. Now this mother, who is of the race of ogres, wants the daughter-in-law to be cooked and served, along with the children. But when her plan backfires again through the intervention of a kind cook, she leaps into the pot containing toads, vipers, eels and snakes that she had had prepared for her daughter-in-law and her children.
In such stories, as in others like Rapunzel, Warner points out the workings of women’s struggles within the domestic space when confronted by jealous mothers-in-law. In fact, she notes that Rapunzel’s “imprisonment” is a reflection of conditions where women were given in marriage by their guardians with no consideration of their own desires.
Is Little Parsley-flower or Little Rampion the victim of a rapacious and cruel foster mother, who wants to keep her for herself, or has the old woman been allowed to take the daughter away from her real mother, install her in her own house to do her bidding, and then rob her of her freedom and denied her lover access to her? This is what the story relates, and such a reading tallies with common experience in medieval and early modern society, when a daughter-in-law worked under the direction of her husband’s mother, to whom she had been handed over often by family arrangement in tender youth, even childhood.
However, the inter-generational strife shown between women in fairy tales and their vying for the attention of the young prince has a flip side, when it is seen as expressive of a guilt that a younger woman feels towards older women who may be weak and dependent on her. When the narrator is a younger woman, she may portray the widowed mother of her husband as a wicked stepmother clinging on to control. Warner substantiates this with a discussion of how women outlived men and the social conditions in Europe from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century which made it imperative for sons and their wives to look after their dependent mothers.
Older women who represented a threat to society were not always stepmothers or mothers-in-law. They could be spinsters or old nurses and servants who were aging and vulnerable. Such women appear in fairy tales as beggars or crones met by chance who provide a prophetic insight or reward virtue. While this is seen as a transparent appeal by the old that they can still be of use to the young, such older women are sometimes shown to be malevolent and tyrannical. This brings out a different reason for their presence in the fairy tales. Warner considers the social conditions that affected the stature of wet-nurses up till the mid-nineteenth century and shows that “the targets of narrative hatred begin to fit into the economy of family life.” This means that stories begin to be crafted showing the person who wields more power or social influence in villainous terms when the narrator is placed at a social disadvantage to them.
She also points to another function of why some older women are painted as having extra powers.
… the instrumental character of storytelling means that scaring children can be useful, too. Nannies use bogeymen to frighten children into obedience, and a woman storyteller might well displace the harsher aspects of her command on to another woman, a rival who can take the blame.
In the final portion of the chapter, Warner describes fairy tales containing the lived and remembered experiences of women that bear out the social, legal, and economic history of marriage and the family.