I loved this little book, Once Upon A Time A short history of the fairy tale, by Marina Warner. I love the dense way in which it has been written, the beautiful black and white illustrations, the breadth of the knowledge and delightful way the small hardback book can be held in my hand. This book not only discusses the elements and variety of fairy tales but in its form echo the fairy tales about which Marina Warner is writing.
I have learnt such a lot about reading fairy tales and that this translates into reading fantasy fiction. Indeed, according to Warner, ‘fairy tales have grown out’ of being considered children’s literature and ‘have gained a new stature over the last twenty years, both as inspiration for literature , and for mass lucrative entertainment.’ In this small volume she refers to a huge range of fairy tales, considers their provenance, the collectors, the commentators and creators of the current fairy tales. In the beginning of Once Upon A Time she cites Tolkien’s essay, ‘On Fairy-Stories’ which says ‘the Cauldron of Story (especially of fairy-stories) has always been boiling, and to which have continually been added new bits, dainty and undainty.’ Towards the end she assesses the stunning effect the cinematic version of fairy tales. She refers to how ‘Ariel, Disney’s flame-haired Little Mermaid , has eclipsed her wispy and poignant predecessors, conjured chiefly by the word’s of Anderson’s story.’
I think that I enjoyed the latter part of the book most. In the chapters ‘On the Couch’ and ‘Double Vision’ Warner discusses the way that fantastic stories propagate certain cultural bias. This leads people, such as feminists or anti-colonialists, to talk back at fairy tales; Angela Carter emancipates the female in the fairy tale, Kafka answers with even darker fables and Voltaire utilises marvels to mock society. They are cleaned up and watered down. Warner considers how the fairy tales were altered to express the value of the collectors and illustrators. She even claims that fairy tales provide camouflage for political rebellion.
She bewails the tendency of the current fairy tale to follow the dark paths and overthrow the creation of that alternative world where there is a happy ending.
The extensive list of references to other scholars writing about fairy tales and fantasy alone makes this book a little gem. Warner strives to distill the characteristics of fairy tales and in so doing makes us realise how many other forms of artistic expression including ballet and opera draw upon these elements. But it is her sentence about how ‘the helplessness of humans in the grip of chance count as the sharpest message of fairy tales’ that resonates most strongly with me.