Marina Warner

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.



I think I’m about done with reading folktale theorists. No, that’s not true – I still have stacks more theory books to read. What’s more, I want to read them, because they’re interesting (well, yeah, I guess I’m weird that way). But there’s only so much I can manage, being human and all, with a finite amount of time and brain space. So I had to pick & choose which ones I’d focus on for the work I’m doing right now, and just to get the selected ones sorted in my mind, I’m going to give a quick-ish summary of them.

Here’s the books in question:

Bruno Bettelheim: The Uses of Enchantment;

Joseph Campbell: The Hero With a Thousand Faces;

Vladimir Propp: The Morphology of the Folktale and Theory and History of Folklore;

Jack Zipes: Breaking the Magic Spell and The Enchanted Screen (etc. etc.);

Clarissa Pinkola Estés: Women Who Run With the Wolves;

Marina Warner: From the Beast to the Blonde;

Maureen Murdock: The Heroine’s Journey.

As I see it, those books fall into several different categories, based on the authors’ approaches to the tales.

Right off the bat, Murdock’s The Heroine’s Journey, despite the tantalizing title, doesn’t really fit the lineup; I don’t know if I’ll actually use this book in my studies. The reason is that it’s not really about stories or tales as a whole; she engages with Campbell, but not with fairy tale theories, and not in general, with universally applicable ideas. Her book, published in 1990, is a psychological exploration of women’s journeys very specifically in the late 20th-century Western world. So, The Heroine’s Journey is primarily psychological – quite interesting, but not as relevant to my topic as I had hoped.

Two others who fall into the “psychological” rubric are Bettelheim and Estés. Bettelheim, of whom I was told back in my high school term paper days that “no paper on fairy tales is complete without a reference to Bettelheim”, is far less useful than I had anticipated. His book is all about a Freudian interpretations of fairy tales, and how exactly “the child” understands the tales and what they do for “him”. Seeing as I’m not a “he”, and as a child reacted very differently to fairy tales from what Bettelheim says should have happened, his ideas really don’t make much sense to me, and his dogmatic tone very much rubs me the wrong way. It might be different if I had a better understanding of Freudian teachings, but, well, I don’t (the concept of the Oedipus complex as a universal human experience still has me scratching my head, and don’t even get me started on penis envy…).

Unlike Bettelheim’s prescriptive pronouncements, Estés speaks in many cases from direct experience of how “Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype” (the subtitle of her book) are relevant to women’s lives. A psychologist and professional storyteller, Estés explores “The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales” (Bettelheim’s subtitle) with regards to women, always referring to concrete tales and extrapolating meaning in the context of the female reality. (The contrast between Estés and Murdock is that the latter refers very little to folktales and focuses only on modern Western women’s lives, while Estés bases her whole work on folktales and deals in universals, on realities of women’s lives throughout history.)

Marina Warner also deals in feminist folktale theory. From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers describes the origins of fairy tales as stories told by women. She explores the importance of the female voice in the transmission of tales, from the sibyls of antiquity to Dorothea Viehmann, one of the Grimms’ chief sources for their stories. I’m not entirely done with Warner’s book, so can’t quite give the one-sentence synopsis yet, but I would say that Warner fits into both the “feminist” and the “historical” categories of theory (and is bloomin’ fascinating, to boot).

Another “historical” book is Vladimir Propp’s Theory and History of Folklore. Propp is a little difficult to deal with, as he was a Russian writing in the heyday of the Soviet Union. It’s a tad annoying when he squishes in quotations by Lenin and Engels, which he did just to keep the Soviet censors assured that he was being a good comrade and not letting Western thought corrupt his scholarship (they’d given him a hard time for citing Western scholars before, so he was covering his butt). However, Propp is one of the granddaddies of folklore studies, so he can’t be overlooked.

What’s particularly important is Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, the tale-dissection study I was talking about a few weeks ago. He takes the Russian “wondertale” and demonstrates that each tale follows a predictable pattern, thirty-one steps which always occur in the same sequence (they don’t have to all be present in each tale, but their order doesn’t vary – at least that’s what he claims, and many other folklorists seem to believe him). Propp, in the Morphology, is strictly about the tale as the tale – not about its meaning, its usage, or its origin, just about what it says, and how most folktales (or all, if you buy into his theory) follow the same pattern, tell the same story.

That, of course, is precisely what Campbell says in his Hero with a Thousand Faces, as well. Campbells monomyth or hero’s journey isn’t quite as detailed as Propp’s thirty-one steps, which to my mind makes it more universally applicable (and easier to understand) than Propp’s theory. However, the point has been made (notably here) that Propp’s functions can fit quite neatly into Campbell’s hero’s journey; in other words, they’re just two ways to express the same idea. Campbell is not quite as drily analytical as Propp; with his exploration of archetypes he crosses over into the realm of psychological theories again.

Which brings me to Jack Zipes. I’ve left him for last because he’s the hardest to summarize. A lot of that has to do with his incredibly prolific output: thirty-three books (authored or edited) between 1979 and 2012, and at least half of them look like something that could be relevant to this study. Sigh. However, I’ll make a stab at stating very simply what stuck out from his writing, specifically Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk & Fairy Tales (1979/2002). What’s different from the other writers I’ve read so far is that Zipes comes at folktales from a socio-political angle. The oral folktale, he says, was a way to subvert the realities of peasant life under feudalism, give people hope that things could change. Once the stories were written down, turned into literary fairy tales, that began to change, and they became more and more used to bolster the systems of authority rather than work against them, until today’s (Disney) fairy tale films which are a tool of the culture industry for keeping people sedated and making them spend lots of money. Well, at least that’s what I understand Zipes to be saying. He’s another bloomin’ fascinating writer, too, and quite easy to read.

So, just as a quick summary: Bettelheim and Estés: psychological. Estés and Warner: feminist. Warner, Propp and Zipes: historical. Propp and Campbell: analytical. Zipes: socio-political and cultural.

There is a quote by Campbell which quite struck me:

Mythology has been interpreted by the modern intellect as a primitive, fumbling effort to explain the world of nature (Frazer); as a production of poetical fantasy from prehistoric times, misunderstood by succeeding ages (Müller); as a repository of allegorical instruction, to shape the individual to his group (Durkheim); as a group dream, symptomatic of archetypal urges within the depths of the human psyche (Jung); as the traditional vehicle of man’s profoundest metaphysical insights (Coomaraswamy); and as God’s Revelation to His children (the Church). Mythology is all of these. [Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, New World Library 2008. 330.]

“Mythology is all of these.” I think the same could be said for fairy tales. Is their significance psychological, historical, feminist, political, sociological, or cultural? I believe it’s all of the above.