From the Beast to the Blonde

by Marina Warner

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1864

“Once upon a time . . .” These are among the best-known words in human culture, well worn in literature both written as well as oral, yet perhaps they are too familiar, so that people seldom pause to wonder or to question just who is the speaker and what might be the meaning of this well-worn incantation. From the nameless figures of antiquity through the eponymous “Mother Goose” to more historical presences such as Charles Perrault and the brothers Grimm down to Walt Disney on the motion-picture screen and the parent at bedtime, tellers and retellers of fairy tales have presented visions of what it is like to be an abandoned child, a despised stepsister, an endangered wife, or an enchanted prince. Yet the essential questions have remained largely unasked and therefore unanswered: Who have been the tellers of these tales, and what do they mean?

In From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, Marina Warner makes those questions the central concern of her study and in doing so follows in the path of students of the genre such as the noted scholar Bruno Bettelheim and the modern preeminent student of myth Joseph Campbell. Warner’s purpose, carefully framed and admirably performed, is to see exactly what it is, in these tales of the seemingly fantastic and magical that at the same time blend into the blandly quotidian, that tells us so much about what it means to be a human being, especially a human being in the midst of society. In a sense, as Warner clearly shows, fairy tales are less about fantastic visions or magical realms than about human psychology and social organization. The beast and the blonde do not reside in some never-never land; instead, they are here in the everyday world and with us at all times. In a sense, they are us.

Yet as Warner shrewdly notes and amply documents, the truths that fairy tales tell have been viewed with disfavor and dismissed with prejudice by authorities throughout the ages. For the most part of Western cultural history, such tales have been regarded not as proper narratives at all but as “old wives’ tales” or stories told by a goose, that silliest of birds. The antiquity of the stories is matched by the attacks upon them. Perhaps the earliest reference to such an attack comes in Plato’s Socratic dialogue Gorgias, where such stories are dismissed asmythos graos, or old wives’ tales, told by old women and nurses to amuse and frighten children—and, by implication, adults foolish enough to be seduced by them. A few centuries later, the Latin author Apuleius echoed the Greek philosopher, calling such a story an anilis fabula—literally, an old wives’ tale.

The Bible itself, in the New Testament, weighs in against the genre, as Paul sternly warns his readers in 1 Timothy not to hearken to “profane and old wives’ fables” (4:7). As far back as classical antiquity and then into the Christian era and later, Warner warns readers, if there is any truth to these stories, it has been systematically disguised, debunked, and discredited by those in power, by those who have the most to lose should the powerless (in particular slaves, the poor, children, or women) achieve and maintain a voice.

Precisely that struggle—to achieve and maintain a voice—is one of the major functions of the fairy tale. As Warner points out, it is no coincidence that the fairy tale is the traditional narrative of those strata of society that have the least power in social situations: the poor, the...

(This entire section contains 1864 words.)

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uneducated, and isolated rural inhabitants. Her most telling points come, however, when she considers the condition of women, in particular older women, throughout most of the history of Western civilization. Mother Goose and the fairy godmother of the Cinderella story are not only sisters under the skin but are linked with all women whose voices have been stilled except when they speak through lullaby or fairy tale.

In some cases, that voice has been the only instrument of power, even of survival, left to a woman. Consider, Warner suggests, Scheherazade, who spun out the tales of the Arabian nights under the knowledge that if she failed to amuse and entertain the despotic yet easily distracted sultan, she would be dead by morning. Or ponder the fate of the Cumaean Sibyl, who was granted her wish of eternal life but neglected (as forgetful characters in these tales do) to seek the additional boon of perpetual youth. Ancient, withered, caged in a bottle suspended in the temple of Hercules at Cumae near Naples, the Sibyl could forecast the future and reveal the secrets of all those who came to her, but when questioned as to her own desires, she could only reply, “I want to die.” Yet she lived, even if in her voice alone—and that voice is representative of generations of women denied the right to full participation in society. That voice is found in fairy tales throughout the world, preserving those who have been pushed to the edge of society and culture.

As further evidence of this, Warner points out that those cultures or societies that have been marginalized by colonial or imperialistic ventures have been rich sources of fairy tales and magical stories. The residents of the Caribbean islands and of Scotland, both long sufferers of imperialistic domination, have been outstanding contributors to the annals of folklore. The poor and uneducated in rural France provided Charles Perrault with the raw material for his seminal collection of Mother Goose tales (Contes de ma mere l’oye, 1697). The noted writer Italo Calvino gathered his justly celebrated collection of Italian folk stories along the country people of his native land. The prototypical hunter-gatherers of fairy tales, the brothers Grimm, pestered old women from Bremen to Bavaria for their collection. As Warner wryly notes, women have kept the tales alive and have been forgotten, while men have collected and published them to become famous.

The semi-underground nature of these tales, passed on from women to children (another marginal group in traditional Western society), was couched in the phrases most natural to them. Since in many ways they not only endured but prevailed, these tales and their origins have entered, in a disguised form, into the more accepted realm of literary scholarship, so that critics comment on how authors “spin a tale” or “weave a plot,” referring, in many cases unwittingly, to the occupations of the original tellers who created and re-created their stories while engaged in the most mundane of domestic enterprises. Warner’s volume brings new recognition to this fact, but it would have not been a surprise to William Shakespeare, who incorporated “fee, fie, fo, fum” into King Lear (pr. 1605-1606) and mentioned “the poor cat in the adage” in Macbeth (pr. 1606). As Warner amply demonstrates, the line between the fairy tale and the classic is blurred, if indeed there is a line at all.

One major reason the line is blurred (and perhaps nonexistent) is that classics and fairy tales are concerned with the same universal subjects of human existence: life, sexuality, love, childbirth, families, loyalty and betrayal, and death. The incest theme found in the classic Greek dramaOedipus the King by Sophocles runs as deep, perhaps deeper, in the fairy tale Donkey Skin (in the French of Charles Perrault, who first published it in 1641 as Peau d’ane), where the father wishes to marry his own daughter. Perhaps it is the same story, seen from a different perspective. Perhaps it is an entirely different story that otherwise might not have been told at all.

That is a question that Warner’s work addresses again and again on multiple layers of concern: artistic, social, moral, and philosophical. In essence it could be reduced to this: Are fairly tales only fairy tales, mere diversions—Plato’s mythos graos, the anilis fabula of Apuleius—or are they instead legitimate bearers of truths that would not, perhaps could not, be articulated through any other means? Warner makes a powerful and persuasive argument that fairy tales constitute an important, perhaps even vital, shaper of human beings’ cultural and psychic environment. The tales of Mother Goose and the passed-down traditions recounted by the brothers Grimm remain—even when transmuted and perhaps reduced by modern artists such as Disney—an integral and essential part of how people encounter, view, and embrace the world around them. When those who know the stories (such as nursemaids or old women) tell them to others (children and other women) who share in their powerlessness, the therapeutic strength of the tales becomes all the more important.

Yet beyond their power to console people about the state of the world, at their best fairy tales have the potential to change that state, first by questioning its accepted order and then by offering an alternative to that order. As Warner writes:

Storytelling can act to face the objects of derision or fear and sometimes—not always—inspire tolerance and even fellow-feeling; it can realign allegiances and remap terrors. Storytellers can also break through the limits of permitted thought to challenge conventions; fairy tales, I have argued in this book, offer a way of putting questions, of testing the structure as well as guaranteeing its safety, of thinking up alternatives as well as living daily reality in an examined way.

This is the difficult, imposing, and very important task that Marina Warner has set for herself in From the Beast to the Blonde. In essence, she has sought to examine how the anonymous yet unforgettable, powerless yet omnipotent, despised yet indispensable authors of what are often dismissed as “fairy tales” have become an essential part not only of literature but indeed of life. She has attempted to show how they have given a voice to the voiceless, articulating an intricate, complex and often incredibly subtle vision of the human world and society. She has succeeded.

Perhaps, given this view of the world, it is fitting to turn again to Saint Paul, who dismissed the “old wives’ tales,” and remember that in 1 Corinthians he also wrote that “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty” (1:27). Since Marina Warner has indeed chosen the foolish and the weak things of this world for her study, perhaps for this essay, the temptation is to end with the traditional “And they lived happily ever after.” Yet this is a critical review, not one of the fairy tales studied in From the Beast to the Blonde. Even in those stories, not everyone manages to achieve a happy ending.

Sources for Further Study

Boston Globe. October 29, 1995, p. 42.

London Review of Books. XVII, March 23, 1995, p. 12.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 29, 1995, p. 1.

The Nation. CCLXI, November 20, 1995, p. 612.

New Statesman and Society. VII, November 11, 1994, p. 39.

The New York Times Book Review. C, November 5, 1995, p. 7.

The Observer. October 23, 1994, p. 21.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, August 28, 1995, p. 96.

The Spectator. CCLXXIII, November 19, 1994, p. 54.

The Times Educational Supplement. December 23, 1994, p. 18.

The Times Literary Supplement. November 18, 1994, p. 25.

The Washington Post Book World. XXV, October 29, 1995, p. 5.