BOOKS / Women who tell tales: Family secrets and real history lie behind the fairy stories we all know, according to Marina Warner, whose book takes a new look at stock villains and wicked stepmothers

Michele Roberts
Sunday 30 October 1994 00:02

MARINA WARNER is one of the great synthesizers and bridge-builders. As much as she deconstructs the myths of Western culture (the Virgin Mary, Joan of Arc, the female warrior, the ambiguities of allegory and virtue posed as female) she reassembles them so that we can not only see how they're made but enjoy their lasting power and knowledge. She steps from scholarship to popular culture and back again. She brings the fruits of scholarly labours, her own and others', to a wide modern audience. She bestows these gifts of understanding and insight with tremendous enthusiasm. Her arguments are never cold and dry, but persuasive, cajoling, even seductive. She writes so beautifully that I am sure even her VAT returns are a joy to behold. Just like the tale-tellers she celebrates in this mammoth study, From the Beast to the Blonde, she's a weaver of enchantments, each sentence a silken knot charming you further into her web of meanings which she ravels and unravels with dizzying speed and skill. For the sheer pleasure of its prose alone this book is hard to beat.

Angela Carter is its presiding fairy godmother. She appears on the opening pages, invoked as an exemplary, witty anthologist of fairy tales who can offer others nourishing and delicious 'meat of the tongue', and she pops up in the closing paragraphs to stress the collective nature of the genre's creation: 'Ours is a highly individualised culture, with a great faith in the work of art as a unique one-off, and the artist as an original, a godlike and inspired creator of unique one-offs. But fairy tales are not like that, and nor are their makers. Who first invented meatballs? In what country? Is there a definitive recipe for potato soup? Think in terms of the domestic arts. 'This is how I make potato soup . . .' '

The appeal for Warner is, she happily admits, a personal one. Fairy tales 'seemed to offer the possibility of change, far beyond the boundaries of their improbable plots or fantastically illustrated pages . . . like romance, to which fairy tales bear a strong affinity, they could 'remake the world in the image of desire'. That this is a blissful dream which need not be dismissed as totally foolish is central to the argument of this book.'

This argument is a historical one: that if we wish to understand fairy tales, then far from eliciting some transcendent timeless essence they supposedly possess we need to investigate first of all 'the context in which they were told . . . who was telling them, to whom, and why'. Furthermore, the thrust towards universal significance has obscured the genre's equal powers to illuminate experiences embedded in social and material conditions.

These are subject to change over time, and ultimately more capable of redress than the universal lessons of greed, lust and cruelty that fairy tales give us; in one sense, the historical interpretation of fairy tales holds out more hope to the listener or the reader than the psychoanalytical or mystical approaches, because it reveals how human behaviour is embedded in material circumstance, in the laws . . . when these pass and change, behaviour may change with them.' For anyone who in the past has relished Jungian interpretations of fairy tales by analysts such as Marie- Louise von Franz and Nor Hall, this certainly makes you take a second and third look at Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and the rest of that girls' gang, at just what the perils were that they were negotiating.

But before we get on to the cake of Bluebeard and Donkeyskin's incestuous dad and all those evil stepmothers in Part Two, first of all we must eat our bread and butter in Part One. Very rich and filling it is too, far from a nursery tea unfit for sophisticated tastes. From the start, Warner reassures us that though fairy tales may appear to evoke childish matters for childish audiences they are extremely artful and complicated in both content and telling: 'there is nothing in the least childlike about fairy tales, and this, together with the suspect whiff of femininity hanging around them, attracted me to study them.'

That 'suspect whiff' sounds as though it might be quite sexy, and indeed turns out to be so. Female sexuality was a pivot for contemporary fantasies of the story-tellers themselves, and the urgently expressed power politics of their tales. Of course, women were not the only traditional tellers of fairy tales, but Warner argues convincingly that to read the narrator as female allows the tales to express all sorts of feminine concerns and obsessions. Female experience, female dreads and desires form the core, and sex is the pip in the apple: good sex and dreary sex, marital sex and illicit sex. It comes dressed up in a myriad disguises, as we know from our dreams: 'elements of Greek romance, Roman moralities, Arabian nights, animal fables, medieval jests, pious saints' lives jostle and unite with unbuttoned lack of inhibition. The nature of the genre is promiscuous and omnivorous and anarchically heterogeneous, absorbing high and low elements, tragic and comic tones . . . '

The narrators who could handle all these demands on their technique ignored an ancient injunction laid on women: hold your tongue] Women's speech, imaged by anxious patriarchs as licentious and anti-authority, had to be controlled, just as women's sexuality did; one pair of lips opening and closing mirrored another pair. For Warner, fairy tales, intimately connected to women talking, are part of a complex web of relationships of taboos, myths and jokes around the idea, let alone the practice, of women creating art out of words. She whisks us into a story-tellers' labyrinth where we encounter sibyls, nurses, Fates, old wives, gorgons, precieuses ridicules, muses, Gammer Gurtons, Mother Geese, gossips, godmothers, midwives, storks, crones, witches, monsters, Saint Anne and the Queen of Sheba.

In successive chapters we meet and get to know these figures, and then Warner, whom we have trusted all along as our Ariadne, reels in her connecting thread and winds us out again, ready to hear the tales themselves. Just occasionally, wandering along these archive corridors, I did get lost in the minutiae of detail, even though the succeeding paragraph made things clear again. Warner is such a generous writer that she pours her conclusions over the reader, eager to share not only her ideas but her process of discovery. Just listen to this passionate exposition on geese as emblematic creatures for gossips: 'In French, the verb cacarder is used for the noise made by a goose; caquet or chatter . . . means women's talk as well as the goose's cry. Not as onomatopoeic as the English 'honk', cacarder does catch the coprological side of infantile existence more than 'cackle'. However, the associations of the bird do not end there. Geese strike erotic not just scatalogical resonances; they were sacred to Isis as well as to Aphrodite, who uses them as her flying steeds, standing on an outstretched bird in a dish from Boetia of the sixth century BC, and riding most gracefully sidesaddle on a particularly beautiful white ground kylix made around 460 BC (though it must be said that it is not always possible, in the silence of monochrome artefacts, to tell geese and swans apart). The goose was specifically sacred to Peitho, the nymph who personifies Persuasion and stands at Aphrodite's side in scenes of seduction - the embodiment of her sweet-talking tongue. In France la petite-oie, little goose, was used of fripperies of dress, and, by extension, of favours begged and received by lovers.'

In Part Two, Warner looks at the stories themselves, probing all the old favourites to reveal the disturbing themes at their heart - the dilemmas posed for and by beauties and beasts, reluctant brides, runaway girls, silent fathers, anxious stepmothers, silent daughters. These chapters re-distil the powerful magic of what we can no longer call archetypes; Warner shows how these protagonists may be deeply enmeshed in particular histories. For example, if women marry young, keep having children, and often die in childbed, then men marry and re-marry and re-marry, so all the anxieties of Bluebeard's newest wife of necessity parade themselves in the bloody chamber, which is womb and marital bedroom and memory all at once, and which may link cradles to coffins in all too real a way. Nightmares are grounded in reality; fairy stories examine and attempt to dispel them.

Crucial aspects of the tales, Warner suggests, circle the insecurity experienced by older women. For example, in the Rapunzel story, 'the old woman's desire for the baby girl corresponds to material needs for helping hands at home, and reflects the arranged transfer of girls to other families as prospective wives, or surrogate domestic servants. Her furious intervention between the girl and her suitor would then relate the conflicting, simultaneous fears of redundancy growing in a widowed woman whose son's marriage has made her insecure in what used to be her home, under her control. The vilification of older women in such interpretations belongs in a long tradition . . . Hatred of the older woman, and intergenerational strife, may arise not only from rivalry, but from guilt, too, about the weak and the dependent. The portrait of the tyrant mother-in-law or stepmother may conceal her own vulnerability, may offer an excuse for her maltreatment . . . A mother-in-law had good reason to fear her son's wife, when she often had to strive to maintain her position and assert her continuing rights to a livelihood in the patrilineal household.'

The heart of the book consists of Warner's lengthy, learned and infinitely tender dissection and defence of the secrets in families which give birth to fairy stories. She makes us look again at 'the stock villain, the wicked stepmother' who may not even be a step- mother at all but a wetnurse or helper, while 'the evil she does is not intrinsic to her nature, or to the strict maternal relation, or to her particular family position. It cannot and should not be extended to all women, for it arises from the insecurity of her interests in a social and legal context that can be changed, and remedied . . . Nannies use bogeymen to frighten children into obedience, and a woman storyteller might well displace the harsher aspects of her command on to another woman, a rival who can take the blame. But this is a social stratagem, not an ineluctable or Oedipal condition, and mothers or stepmothers today need not be inculpated en masse. As remarriage becomes more and more common, stepmothers find they are tackling a hard crust of bigotry set in the minds of their new children, and refreshed by endless returns of the wicked stepmother in the literature of childhood.'

Just so. In the same way, few of us today would wish to dub all fathers and step-fathers incestuous beasts and rapists, yet daughters running away from sexuality (their own and their fathers', when too painfully tangled together) will still find the Donkeyskin or Peau d'Ane stories helpful and consoling. I have indicated only a few of the riches of this marvellous book, which is for all of us, just as fairy tales are; revealing the healing powers of the imagination and showering us with its delights.

'From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers' by Marina Warner is published by Chatto & Windus at pounds 20 (Photograph omitted)

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in