Monday, 26 September 2016
ONCE UPON A TIME by Marina Warner, reviewed by Celia Rees
I'm following on from Penny Dalton's review of Katherine Langrish's excellent Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, re-connecting with things Faery. A Short History of Fairy Tale, it says on the cover of Marina Warner's study and a very good one it is. The perfect introduction to anyone who has yet to fall down the rabbit hole into the world of Faery and a useful guide and aide memoire to those of us who are already there.
Marina Warner explores the history and meanings of fairy tales from many different traditions. Her map of story extends from North to South, West to East, from Germany, Denmark, France and Italy, the Celtic fringes to Russia, the Middle East and beyond. Her book is both a guide and an exploration: even familiar tales appear different, others are there to re-discovered, having slipped or been pushed into obscurity and still others are there to be found for the very first time.
She focuses on the tales themselves and how they have been recorded and recieved from first collection and publication; their transmigration from oral tales to the printed page and on to stage and screen and she deftly shows how each age tells the tales differently. Archetypal in their universality, they are nevertheless infinitely malleable. The stories have been changed, bowdlerised, re-told and re-interpreted, given feminist slants, toned down and toned up, depending on who is doing the telling and why. They have mined for meaning, analysed and re-analysed, catalogued and categorised, traced across cultures and continents, but they have never lost their primal fascination from Brothers Grimm to Maleficent. They have provided a well spring, a never emptying cauldron of ideas and inspiration for generations of writers of fantasy and magic realism, from J.R.R. Tolkien to Jeanette Winterson, by way of Angela Carter, Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, Philip Pullman and a host of others.
Marina Warner wears her considerable erudition lightly and writes with an elegant, easy style, but her scholarship shows on every page. Her great skill is to be able to distil her deep knowledge into less than 200 pages; to press a wide ranging and comprehensive survey that covers every conceivable aspect of this enormous subject into a slim volume that can be slipped into handbag or pocket, that could be consumed at one reading, but which provides the reader with everything he or she could wish to know. In this she has performed her own kind of magic. The density of meaning she packs into these pages echoes the brevity and resonance of some of the most powerful fairy tales. A small volume containing infinite riches. It could have come from one of the stories themselves.