(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

“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 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 entire section is 1864 words.)