Non-Fiction Reviews

Once Upon A Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale

(2014) Marina Warner, Oxford University Press, £10.99 / US$18.95, hrdbk, xxiv + 201pp, ISBN 978-0-198-71865-9


'From beautiful princesses, elves, monsters and goblins to giants, glass monsters, the characters and images of fairy tales have cast a spell over us all for centuries, and in Once Upon a Time Marina Warner argues that fairy tales have an inextinguishable power to enchant us and rekindle our imagination' so says the back cover of this book, under a sole red apple. But what of the front cover? Well, that shows a small wood and a house within it, alone and apart, and covered in words. The house glows, draws attention to itself. Why? To bring you closer, but what waits inside? Treasure, riches, your wildest dreams, or something darker, more deadly? Do no go down to the woods and don't stray from the path, isn't that what some fairy tales tell us?

Fairy tales are everywhere, they are all pervasive. As I write this, I have already seen the trailer for the live-action Disney remake of Cinderella directed by Kenneth Branagh, no less, and starring Cate Blanchett as the wicked stepmother and Into The Woods played in cinemas recently. Fairy tales are such a staple of children's television that we do not even think about them, bit do think of popular culture in general. The games, the movies, the comics, the television shows, think of shows like ,cite>Grimm, or Once Upon A Time whose very titles give away what they are about, and how many long-running series like Charmed, or Buffy, or The X-Files, and Supernatural used fairy tale tropes? Even that modern day Bogeyman, the serial killer, like Dexter and Hannibal, could be the Bluebeard of our time.

But what are fairy tales? What are their purpose? What was their purpose and is it still relevant today? Are they merely stories to be told around a fire, or are they morality tales, tables, warnings? They are clearly no longer confined to the printed page or something that rolls off the storyteller's tongue, and why do variations of the same tale appear in different countries, sometimes centuries apart?

Once Upon a Time is more than a pocket guide to fairy tales, more than a bluffer's guide. Marina Warner is an expert in this field and has previously written best selling books about them, particularly From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers. While only 225 pages long, the book is actually much shorter given that there is an index and a further reading section so Warner is trying to do a lot in only ten chapters, so we get is an examination of key elements of the fairy tale from the different fairy realms, to their magical content including the use of a wand and the ability to change people into...something; how these tales were inspired by real-life incidents, and how these stories were gathered, and who gathered them, and changed them; and other more recent interpretations on stage and on screen.

Throughout the text are dotted sixteen illustrations ranging from a painting of Baba Yoga from the Russian tradition to William Blake's 1786 rendition of dancing fairies. Illustrations of the works of the Brother's Grimm dominated the sixteen and these are particularly striking, especially Arthur Rackham's 1917 illustration to their story 'Little Brother and Little Sister' showing a woman wooed by a living tree, that looks almost human, were it not rooted to the ground. The fourth illustration is particularly striking as it is not a painting but a photograph of painted earthenware figures from Iran of the all-powerful Jinn. The dark side of those who populate fairy tales is shown in the fifth illustration of a wicked wizard wearing the dead skin of a crocodile including the head, long snout and rows of teeth, and just to make sure you know that he is a bad ‘un, the wizard carries a wand of writhing snakes. Paulo Rego's 'Secrets and Stories' painting from 1889 shows the Chinese whisper effect of telling tales from person to person and how the tale can be changed and embellished. Other illustrations give us more familiar and traditional subjects such as Bluebeard and Sleeping Beauty and Alice. Some also show fairy tales as opera, namely Prokofiev's 'The Love for Three Oranges' and the 2012 film Blancanieves inspired by Snow White, but the award for most disconcerting illustration of them all has to go to Gustave Dore's accompaniment to Perrault's version of 'Little Red Riding Hood', showing a little girl carrying bread and milk through the woods whose personal space is being invaded by an almost snake-like wolf who almost seems to be standing on its hind legs - shudder.

This book really is a little gold mine, and pretty essential if you have an interest in fairy tales and are looking for inspiration to write one given the unusual facts that Warner presents. For example, I certainly didn't know of the 1926 film 'The Adventures of Prince Achmed' made by Lotte Reiniger which was the first-full length animated film, beating Disney by a decade, and it would be interesting to see her 1922 film Cinderella if it still exists, which Warner considers to be a comic, but grisly masterpiece, quite a timely nugget of information given the new version that will be flooding cinemas soon, I think.

Ian Hunter

[Up: Non-Fiction Index | Top: Concatenation]

[Updated: 15.4.15 | Contact | Copyright | Privacy]