I finished reading Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers. It’s an excellent book – I think my favourite of all the theory books I’ve read so far, next to Jack Zipes’ work.
I do, however, dislike the title and cover image. From the Beast to the Blonde really doesn’t convey anything about the book, in fact, it usually generates a “Huh?” reaction (as it did with me, and anyone who saw me reading it). The cover image of the copy I have, a Henry Fuseli painting of a scene in Midsummer Night’s Dream called “Titania Awakens”, also has not much to do with the book’s content. I would never have picked up that book if my prof hadn’t told me to read it, and I would have seriously missed out. I respectfully suggest that a better title would be something like Sybils, Maidens and Crones: Of Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, and the cover image a collage of, perhaps, H. J. Ford’s illustrations to Lang’s Fairy Books, a sculpture of the Cumean Sybil, and Emil Grimm’s portrait of Dorothea Viehmann. But I see that the current cover image of the copy offered on Amazon has dispensed with Titania and Bottom, and has a picture of a sybilline-looking person instead, so I guess that’s okay; and there’s really nothing that can be done about the title now. Oh well.
So what does that title have to say to anything? “From the Beast to the Blonde” refers to what Warner has to say, on the one hand, about the “beast” characters in fairy tales, the animal bridegrooms to whom reluctant brides are handed over, or even the animals that young women themselves turn into under enchantments or to protect themselves, and on the other hand the significance of blondeness, golden hair, “fairness” (as in, “the fairest in the land”, not fairness as in “justice”). (It’s interesting that English has the same word for “beautiful” and “light-skinned-and-haired” – “fair”. In German that’s not the case; “schön” has no connection to any particular colouring or looks.)
But that’s just one part of the book. All told, this is a densely-packed, reasonably large (420 pages of a full-sized book) treatise on “fairy tales and their tellers”, or rather, to go with the order in which it is presented in the book, on fairy tale tellers and the tales they’ve spun (the first half of the book is on the tellers, the second on the tales). It looks like it’s all about women. Well, no, not all, of course. But women play a tremendously large role in the making and telling of tales. You might almost say that Warner puts women back into their rightful place in the development, dissemination and content of tales.
Reading Campbell, Bettelheim and Propp, you come away with the impression that folktales are all about men and boys – heroes, in the masculine – and that the writers of fairy tales were men, as well (Grimms, Andersen, Lang…). Women, according to these male theorists, had the tale function of revolving around men, perhaps seducing them or cursing them (in the role of the wicked witch) and/or being handed to them as the reward of the quest in the end (as the princess). Even an entirely female-focused story such as “Snow White” is, according to Bettelheim, all about the women’s rivalry for the male, in this case Snow White’s father – even though once you take a close look at the story, he is most conspicuous by his absence. We know he existed, because he fathered Snow White and married the wicked queen. But that’s all he does; the tale loses all interest in him after that and never mentions him again. And so far from existing for the male, in this story the male only exists for the female – it’s the prince who is handed to Snow White at the end by way of a reward for her virtue; he doesn’t do anything else.
Warner puts these stories back into perspective. Tales such as “Snow White” which turn on the stepmother/stepdaughter relationship, Warner points out, are metaphors for and ways of processing the relationships of women in pre-industrial societies. Mothers dying in childbirth were a daily reality, which more often than not (in 80% of the cases, in fact) led to the father’s remarrying, for sheer economic reasons if nothing else (men needed women as housekeepers nearly as much as women needed men as breadwinners). Stepmothers were normal.
But also, there is a matter of terminology: until the middle of the nineteenth century, an alternative word in use was not “stepmother”, but “mother-in-law”. (Austen still uses it in that sense, when she refers to Mrs Dashwood as Henry Dashwood’s mother-in-law.) And yes, the stepmother fairy tales can also be read as stories about mothers- and daughters-in-law. Again, a reality of pre-industrial societies: aging women were dependent on their children, particularly their sons, to care for them. The son’s wife would naturally be in the position of the usurper, evicting the mother from her position of power in the household, if not evict her altogether (again, the storyline of Sense and Sensibility is a prime example).
The stories women told, and told to children in particular, process these issues – they propose solutions, they reinforce the norms of the times, and perhaps in some cases, they simply allow the teller and hearer to state or restate for themselves what the realities of their lives are.
Of course, there is lots more to Beast to the Blonde than these brief points. It’s packed with historical information on the backgrounds of the stories and interpretations of some of the well-known and lesser-known tales. (An example of the latter is “Donkeyskin”, which both Warner and Zipes claim to be among the canon of best-known tales, but which I had never heard of until this study. Judging by a casual survey of my friends, I’m not alone in that; most of the people I asked were unfamiliar with it.)
Women told tales, women are part of the tales. Marina Warner reinstalls women in their rightful place in the cycle of fairy tales and their telling.