From the Beast to the Blonde

From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, by Marina Warner. London: Vintage, 1995. First published in Great Britain by Chatto & Windus Ltd, 1994.

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(Winner: 1996 Mythopoeic Scholarship Award, General Myth and Fantasy Studies)

Review by Edith Crowe

Judging by the last several years of the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award’s long list, the topic of fairy tales is a very popular one for scholarly study and analysis. I suspect part of the reason is the opportunity for the scholars in question to study something rather more fun than postmodern language games. Fairy tales are also susceptible of analysis from a wide variety of disciplines and perspectives–folklore, anthropology, literature, psychology (Jungian and Freudian), sociopolitical (especially Marxist and feminist), and pedagogical. Marina Warner, a novelist, historian and critic whose publications include historical/mythological studies on the Virgin Mary and Joan of Arc, alludes to almost all of the above in a rich, complex, scholarly but thoroughly readable book.

Warner concentrates on an aspect of the transmission of fairy tales that she considers insufficiently studied, “the female character of the storyteller.” The book is divided into halves, “The Tellers” and “The Tales.” In the first half, Warner discusses the sometimes contradictory attitudes toward women’s speech in the Christian West. Silence was generally considered a virtue in women, and such speech as women uttered was often trivialized. In one of many fascinating linguistic side trips, she traces the shift in meaning of the word “gossip” (and its Italian and French equivalents) from its original meaning of a baptismal sponsor (male or female), to a term used to describe female friends invited to a christening, to its present perjorative meaning.

Gossip and old wives’ tales “carried knowledge of secrets, of intimate matters–including illicit information about sex, contraception and abortion”. Adding to this societal prejudice against old and “useless” women, exacerbated by episodes of witch-hunting, and it becomes clear how the voice of the crone acquired its negative aura. A particularly interesting chapter on “Game Old Birds” discusses the symbolic significance of birds, especially geese and storks, and how these became associated with fairy tales–from the French contes de la cigogne (tales of the stork), another term for fairy tales, to our own familiar Mother Goose.

Counteracting the general disapproval of old women as transmitters of information were two traditions that reverenced such tellers. The belief that the Sybils of Classical times were pagan prophetesses who foresaw the coming of Christ (which explains their inclusion on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel) portrayed old women as a source of truth and wisdom. Another important influence was the cult of Saint Anne, mother of Mary. Based on legend rather than Scripture, devotion to the Saint included a strong tradition that portrayed her as the teacher of Mary. Her cult was particularly strong in France in the seventeenth century, the same era as the rise of the literary fairy tale in that country.

One of the most interesting sections, because it was so new to me, was several chapters discussing the massive body of legendary attributes that became associated with the biblical Queen of Sheba–both Eastern and Western, Islamic and Christian. Another woman of wisdom, she is placed in the camp of the Sybils by her ability to recognize that a piece of wood used as a footbridge on the way to Solomon’s court is a scion of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, and destined to become the Cross of Christ. She refuses to set foot upon it and wades across the stream instead. A large body of Islamic legend gives her a non-human foot: sometimes unspecified, but often that of a bird, which Warner relates to her previous chapter on the association of bird-women and fairy tales. Of particular interest in Tolkienian terms is the Queen’s association with the riddle game. Although the Bible’s description of her questioning of Solomon is attenuated, legend has her posing a series of riddles to him.

Having prepared the ground by discussing the often circuitous ways that various attributes became attached to the tellers of fairy tales, Warner goes on to discuss some of the major tales themselves. Although she delves into literary history, symbolism, and psychology, her primary interest is in reconnecting these tales to their historical context. One of the questions she is attempting to answer is why, in a genre largely told by women, is there such a plethora of female evil? She asserts that is not all the fault of male interpreters, although the Grimms tended tone down the father’s villiany and substitute wicked stepmothers for the biological variety. However, the basic elements of story like Cinderella go back over a thousand years (a Chinese version was well-established when it first saw print around 850-860 A. C. E.). Something else must be going on.

Warner is greatly concerned that psychological interpretations, and the overwhelming influence of the modern media versions (Disney’s name comes up more than once) “leeches the history out of fairy tales” and gives them a falsely archetypal and universal character. This reinforces prejudices (such as the evil stepmother). She presents historical statistics that show the absent mother of the fairy tale arises from a historical reality in which women often died in childbirth, widowers remarried frequently, and widows rarely. She argues convincingly that many of the familiar situations in fairy tales can be traced to their growth in a culture in which patrilineage, female exogamy, competition for dowries, arranged marriages and the like were a fact of everyday life. “Fairy stories…reflect the difficulty of women making common cause within existing matrimonial arrangements.” Sisterhood may be powerful, but it doesn’t pay the rent in a society where men hold practically all the political and economic cards.

Women telling such tales could be fulfilling a number of different roles. In such societies, aging and unattached women were particularly vulnerable. An elderly widow, servant or maiden aunt might well find some practical use in telling a tale in which “a useless old woman reappears in the form of a beggar…and turns out to be a powerful fairy in disguise.” The tellers could also be teaching, or warning, or protesting to their listeners about very real situations in the form of a story. The grisly tale of Bluebeard may be realistically pointing out the dangers of marriage and childbirth when the latter had such a high fatality rate. Warner credits the virtual disappearance of “Donkeyskin” from the fairy tale canon in the nineteenth century not only to the bowdlerization accompanying the tales’ transformation into nursery literature, but also to discomfort with a theme too close to reality for comfort.

The first literary versions of “Beauty and the Beast” were created by Frenchwomen, such as Mme de Villanueve, who spoke against the custom of marrying off very young girls to virtual strangers; Charles Perrault was a supporter of these women as well. But this tale, which seems to be a particular favorite of Warner’s, has a rich range of meaning. Another strand in the tangled history of this tale stresses Beauty as a femme fatale and “men’s anguish in the face of female indifference.” In more modern versions of the tale, it is Beauty who needs the Beast. This stems partly from women’s wish to claim their own desire, their “animal” nature, and partly from a significant transformation in the relationship of humans to the animal world. Creatures once feared are now admired, and carry a very different symbolic meaning than they did centuries ago. Warner discusses several modern retellings–in Angela Carter’s stories, Cocteau’s film, the Disney animated version, and the Ron Koslow television series.

Warner concludes that the “corporate fairy tale,” with its lack of historical context, tends to stress misogynist themes (“The Little Mermaid” being a particularly egregious example) and feminine evil while downplaying “the danger of men.” Nonetheless, there have always been two sides to fairy tales. Sometimes they have reinforced “traditional aspirations” but they can also “challenge traditional ideas and raise questions” and serve as a “site of reconciliation and reversal for ostracized and condemned figures.”

It is difficult to do a book like this justice in a short review. Given its incredible density–allusions and asides on matters historical, literary, linguistic and legendary come thick and fast–it is surprisingly readable. An extensive bibliography and detailed notes give references to numerous sources whose breadth and depth approaches the staggering. The illustrations are profuse, various, and truly illuminate the text. Illustrations from modern fairy tales mingle with paintings, woodcuts, broadsides, movie stills, even a fascinating 1921 photograph of a woman nursing a bear cub. All are well chosen to reinforce points the author is making, or to serve as examples of the many themes and issues she discusses.

Even the reader who would sooner leap unarmed into a nest of orcs that read scholarship with a feminist bent might find this book interesting for the wealth of sources it unearths and intriguing connections it makes. Seldom does one find a book with such an impressive scholarly apparatus that is such a pleausure to read, partly because the author’s enjoyment of her subject is so pervasive and contagious. Anyone who is interested in fairy tale, legend, and such underpinnings of the mythopoeic imagination would be well rewarded by From the Beast to the Blonde. This is a work well deserving of this year’s MSA.

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