BOOK REVIEW / Elite fairies at the bottom of the jardin: 'Wonder Tales' - Edited by Marina Warner: Chatto, 14.99

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The Independent Online
JUST LIKE the beanstalk, the fairy tale is walking tall these days. Great writers such as Borges, Calvino and Angela Carter alerted the modern world to the allure of folk stories by delighting in fanciful passions and ideal quests. Calvino even produced a sunny collection of Italian tales and confessed to the mania that can overtake fairy-hunters: 'I would gladly have given all of Proust in exchange for a new variant of the 'gold-dung donkey'.'

Scholars have also worked hard to expose, collate and tag the stealthy assumptions that lie behind many of these old parables. It is now obvious that the transcription of Europe's storytelling tradition - by men such as Perrault, Grimm and Andersen - was an act of muscular, and at times gross, cultural interference; so it is, um, wonderful to see the originals come blinking into the light again. Marina Warner's large study of fairy tales will be published in October; but in the meantime she offers us this engaging amuse-gueule. The stories have been translated from French by writers such as John Ashbery, A S Byatt and Gilbert Adair, so the collection does have a faint tang of the literati on a day-trip to the magic garden: a sort of Six Go Mad In Wonderland.

The stories themselves, though, pleasantly contradict the received idea of what a fairy tale. might be. They are crammed with fairies - you can't swing a white cat without hitting one - but are also quite ornate and worldly, with exhilarating plots that topple and teeter into other plots and somehow keep a marvellous balance. Warner calls them 'wonder tales', a term she thinks 'frees this kind of story from the miniaturised whimsy of fairyland to breathe the wilder air of the marvellous'. It's a nice distinction, though whether it applies to these six stories is another question. They incorporate classic fairy twists - bottomless wells, beasts that turn out to be beauties, pilotless boats - and archetypal plots: true love will out, ugliness is no obstacle, wrongdoers get their comeuppance. But the thing we notice most is their self-conscious urbanity.

There is little of the fierce bloodshed we find in Grimm: when one princess cleaves a head in two with an axe it comes as a genuine shock. The stories were composed by women - in one the men stay home and feed the babes while the women wage extremely civil war by chucking crab apples at each other. And Warner is keen to argue that the stories are revolutionary - defiant feminine responses to the austere, manly age of Racine.

To the extent that they relate the adventures of cunning female heroines, and take a much more open, amused glance at sensual matters, this is true. In 'The Subtle Princess' the virtuous sister outwits and ridicules a vile seducer, and it is as if Cinderella has rolled her sleeves up, or Cordelia has turned into Batman. It is highly satisfying, like any story in which good turns the tables on ill - and we are thrilled when she is rewarded with the prince of her choice.

But ages are rarely one-dimensional, and these tales spring, as Warner explains in her introduction, from a specific elite in 17th-century Paris - clever, rich, sophisticated aristocrats who can't easily be corralled into the pen marked 'Oppressed womanhood'. Their arch, teasing fables feel like after-dinner entertainment for Les Liaisons Dangereuses - we can almost hear the rustle of fans and the tittering applause for each new courtly elaboration.

The ravishing silks and brocade and endless diamonds seem like decor, and what Warner calls 'frank eroticism' at times seems, if we're honest, like coy giggling. Princes 'press home their advantage', and princesses scream when they glimpse their nocturnal lover, the great green worm, 'with his long, fronded mane standing on end'. But then they go mushy:

'O my dear snake, can this be truly you?

And do I see again my heart's desire?'

Nudge, nudge, say no more. Is this frank, or just libertine graffiti in the 17th-century equivalent of the ladies' loo? As Jack Zipes points out in Beauties, Beasts and Enchantments, a spacious compendium of French fairy tales which includes two of Warner's six, guests used to turn up at the salon dressed as satyrs and nymphs. Apart from anything, these tales belong to a whirl of powdered wigs and fake beauty spots.

They also vibrate with literary self-knowledge. One character refers daintily to the 'genus faerium'. Another remarks: 'Can it be possible that you have such simple faith in fairy tales?' A princess called Starlight had 'improved her mind', we learn, 'from reading fairy tales; indeed all the intelligentsia of that country spent their time studying nothing else'. This is post-fairy tale, and close to parody; there are many classical allusions - one story is a reprise of Pysche and Cupid, one princess falls for Sionad (an anagram of Adonis); certain ghoulish Roman punishments are mimicked - barrels full of razor blades - and everyone has an allegorical name: Richcraft, Finessa, Lackadaisy, Loquatia and so on.

Most striking of all are the florid asides to the audience: 'Now you may be forgiven for supposing, Reader, from what I've just said, that these princesses were in danger of starving to death. Nothing of the kind. Care was taken to fix a pulley to one of the tower's windows: a rope was slipped through it, to which a basket was attached, and that basket lowered at least once a day for provisions.'

Excuse me, but pulleys . . . ropes . . . baskets . . . provisions - what on earth are these for? We readers weren't remotely worried about diet: we know perfectly well that in fairy tales you can knock up a fantastic feast with a couple of mouse droppings and a moonbeam. At the very least we would expect a magic fruit tree to lean in through the window and drop melons on the floor. We don't need Heath Robinson contraptions to hoist 'provisions' for our fairy heroines. Wonder? I wonder.

Don't get me wrong: these tales are never dull: on the contrary, they are lively, engaging, and astonishingly fresh. But they are full of narrative procedures which do not seem to have wonder as their object. Angela Carter once characterised fairy tales as being a king going to see another king to get a cup of sugar - no whys, no wherefores, certainly no you-may-be- forgiven-for-supposings. These French stories are bloated with marvels - gilded wagons drawn by canaries, princesses cloaking themselves in bearskins and growing paws - yet they are part of a genre that feels fanciful and baroque. And because of all the obvious allegorical and sociological comments in these works, they do not always seem mysterious; they make us nod - the point well made, the dart well aimed - but rarely make us gasp.

Of course it is lovely and salutary to read stories that disrupt the cute, sentimental feeling that fairy tales are for children - innocent virginal things full of untainted or picturesque rustic beauty. Some very uninnocent impulses, we can now see, lay behind this pose. But wonder flees from a jaded adult voice. These stories are 'fairy tales for grown-ups', but even John Ashbery seems guided by a nostalgia for medievalisms - he uses lots of words such as 'lest', 'betook' and 'tarrying' in 'The White Cat'. There are many transformations - a white princess turns into an Ethiopian, a boy-dressed-as-girl falls prettily in love with a girl-dressed-as-boy, a cat turns into a queen, a worm into a king - and they are intriguing, pregnant and fun. Is it wrong that their very suaveness makes us hanker, unreasonably, for simplicity, for the odd rough edge?