Once upon a time: a short history of fairy tale

Nicola Weideling, Marketing Operations Manager, reviews Once Upon a Time: A short history of fairy tale by Marina Warner

9780198718659Fairy tales are woven into the fabric of our childhood. Either being read to us or reading them to ourselves, the stories enchant us as children and stay with us as adults. Little Red Riding Hood, the dog with eyes as big as saucers, Baba Yaga, Ali Baba, Prince Charming – all instantly recognizable characters.

In Once Upon a Time, Warner covers the origin of the fairy tale, how the stories were shaped over the years and why, and what they represent today. Writing thematically rather than chronologically, Warner uses popular characters, motifs and plot devices from fairy tales to explore their social, cultural and political influence, as well as the changing linguistic, psychoanalytic and feminist interpretations over the years. Each of the ten chapters can stand alone as a short essay, which makes it a great book to dip in and out of.

As well as covering the well-known Grimm, Anderson and Perrault collections, Warner also introduces us to lesser-known fairy tale ‘collectors’ and eastern fairy tales, not just tales from the western canon. What I found particularly interesting in Once Upon a Time was Warner’s chapter covering the emphasis on the oral tradition within fairy tales. She highlights the importance of speech and rhyme and the power of words in fairy tales: words open doors, reveal true princes, cast spells, break spells.

Fairy tales can be subverted, they aren’t static. They are reinvented and reinterpreted to suit the collectors’ views e.g. Grimm changed mothers to stepmothers, when interpreting the folk stories, believing that mothers should not be portrayed harming their children. The Victorians made them overtly moral and removed the sexual overtones. Modern authors, who want to tell them from a different ‘angle’, to give the victims a voice, have also reclaimed fairy tales. One of my favourite examples of this approach is Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber.

Even if we no longer believe in fairies, the fairy tale tropes are used time and time again in our modern films and novels; as Warner tells us, we still need the ‘heroic optimism’. Fairy tales continue to inspire: Disney’s endless production of animated films e.g. ‘The Little Mermaid’, ‘Frozen’, ‘Snow White’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’; Phillip Pullman recently published retelling of 50 Grimm tales and Jack Zipes’ new translation of the original Grimm tales which puts the ‘blood and horror’ back into them.

Erudite, well-researched, and the distillation of years of research into a handy little book, this is a fascinating read and I love the decision to print as a small hardback, it feels like a storybook! General readers with a love of fairy tales, as well as students of English literature and literary studies will enjoy this. And I guarantee that you will be inspired to go back to read their favourite fairy tales from childhood – I know I have been!

Marina WarnerMarina Warner is a writer, historian, cultural critic, and novelist; Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford

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