I have already done two posts on Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner (see here and here), but I wanted to give you a more proper review of it. Warner’s book is not a tome, but, as I said previously, it is dense at parts and I felt at times as if I had to wade through it. I suppose in the greater scheme of things it may be a shorter history, but do not think from its title that it is a short, easy read. At points I found it fascinating and it definitely made me think (see those earlier posts), but at other points I felt like giving up on it altogether.
Warner begins by defining fairy tales. They are, she says, “one-dimensional, depthless, abstract, and sparse; their characteristic manner if matter-of-fact” (Kindle Loc. 196). The characters in fairy tales are ordinary people (as opposed to myths which are inhabited by superheroes and gods). They also face ordinary problems, though it may not seem so at first glance. They reflect the time and place of their origin and are meant to help ordinary people cope with troubles they face:
“Fairy tales used to transmute the horrors by setting them once upon a time and far away, and in this way did not directly raise the spectre of a killer nest door but smuggled their warnings under cover of magical storytelling.”
The messages of fairy tales are ones of resistance, hope and escape.
Fairy tales have changed over time; they have also been reinterpreted. Often, it seems, these two things are intertwined. Those who interpret the tales do so not detachedly but adapt the tales for their uses. There are definitely parts of this book which are unsuitable for children (not that it is intended for them by any means) as Warner discusses Freudian and feminist interpretations of the tales. She spends quite a lot of time, on and off, in this book on what may be loosely termed “women’s issues.” As she says, so many fairy tale villains are women — wicked queens and stepmothers abound– that it is hard to avoid the idea that there are some real gender-related issues going on here. I am left wondering at the end, however, whether this is because it is the females themselves who need the tales or whether it is because males are trying to create a certain depiction through them.
Ultimately, for Warner fairy tales are a means of conveying truth. These truths are adapted to their time and place and yet they are also in many ways timeless. She has a quote I love: “‘A lie hides the truth, a story tries to find it'” (Kindle Loc. 2534). What this saysto me is that we can often say more truth through fictional tales.
In the end, however, I do not think Warner is coming at fairy tales form the same place I am. Her concluding paragraph says that:
“We are walking through the dark forest trying to spot the breadcrumbs and follow the path. But the birds have eaten them, and we are on our own. Now is the time when we all must become trackers and readers of signs. Fairy tales give us something to go on. It’s not much, but it’ll have to do. It is something to start with.” (Kindle Loc. 2555)
I suppose two things come out to me from this last paragraph. First, that Warner, like so many of those whose work she reviews, is not dispassionate about her subject. This is not an unbiased recounting of scholarly thought on a topic. It probably would have been much less interesting if it were. But still, one must take into account as one reads it that the author has her own attachment to fairy tales and one presumes her own interpretations of them.
The second thing I am struck by is that this is not a biblical understanding. I know some Christians will avoid all such tales and I am not among them. I do think that we can learn a lot from fictional stories; we can explore ideas and learn about ourselves. Jesus taught through stories and God revealed Himself through His people’s stories. But Warner’s langauge at the end is quite hopeless. We are not alone nor are we so lost as she says. And, above all, we also have other things to go on, namely the Word of God.
I suspect if we met in person, Warner and I would not have much in common and there were parts of this book that I found dry and when I wanted to give up on it. But I am glad I didn’t. There was also quite a bit here to make me think. I would recommend this book. I would not hand it over to my children but it is a decent read for anyone who in interested in fairy tales and children’s literature and who is able to think critically about them.