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From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers Hardcover – September 1, 1995
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One dare not even call it seminal, yet in this ground-breaking work, English novelist and historian Marina Warner casts herself as the female Joseph Campbell in a fascinating and lively book that opens with the observation that "storytelling makes women thrive -- and not exclusively women," and then lifts the veil on both tellers and tales ranging from Sibyl to the late, great Angela Carter, from Lot's daughters to Disney's "Little Mermaid." She finds a not-so-hidden history of women, sex, power, fear -- and even healing -- lurking therein. An eye-opening reworking of our common myth pool.
From Publishers Weekly
Notwithstanding the prominence of the Grimm Brothers and Charles Perrault, most narrators of fairy tales, asserts Warner, have been women?nannies, grannies, 18th-century literary ladies, sibyls of antiquity. In this richly illustrated, erudite, digressive feminist study, cultural historian Warner (Alone of All Her Sex) argues that instead of seeking psychoanalytic meanings in fairy tales, we must first understand them in their social and emotional context. In her analysis, "Bluebeard" and "Beauty and the Beast" reflect girls' realistic fears of marrige in an era when women married young, had multiple children and often died in childbirth. Her delightfully subversive inquiry profiles reluctant brides, silent daughters, crones, witches, fates, muses, sirens, Saint Anne (image of the old wise woman), the biblical Queen of Sheba and Saint Uncumber, who grew a beard to avoid marriage but was crucified for her rebellion. Angela Carter's fiction, surrealist Leonora Carrington's comic fairy tales, Walt Disney movies and French aristocratic fairy tales of veiled protofeminist protest by Marie-Jeanne L'Heritier and Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy provide grist for her mill.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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That said, with From the Beast to the Blonde, Marina Warner really does bring something different to this already crowded table. Her book focuses upon fairy tales and myths (or wonder tales, as they are sometimes called) as cultural projections. Warner argues here that the frequently occurring archetypes in fairy tales tell us a great deal about their tellers, which in turn reveal a great deal about the societies from which these tales and their narrators spring.
Warner specifically focuses here on stories and storytelling, and how these activities reflect the lives of women in their societies. According to Warner, storytelling is a particularly female art. Though many of the fairy tales that have come down to us today-- the famous Brothers Grimm, Perrault, the tales of Andrew Lang, and others-- Warner notes that the original stories themselves often originated from females. These stories often sprung from the lips (and the minds) of females; the Brothers Grim et. al. merely committed them to paper.
From the wealthy courtier ladies who amused themselves in their ample free time by spinning (or merely repeating) fairy tales to the gnarled old rustic ladies (Juliet's nurse, mother goose, and countless others are, if Warner is to be believed, sprung from this archetype) who maintained their usefulness and societal value by spinning tales in a society that had little use for them, fairy tales were often a female prerogative. Marina Warner reflects how stories and other forms of female communication-- including old rhymes, chants, even common gossip-- were both central to female survival and a sort of subtle subversion for women. (She includes one horrifically misogynistic tale from medieval France in which, fed up with their wives wicked gossiping and even more infernal backtalk, the menfolk of one village contrive to have all of their women's heads chopped off. The man selling the beheading services advertises the headless bodies of these women-- devoid of brains and the ability to talk back-- as "the perfect wives.")
Though storytelling a other forms of communication have been important for women of all ages in all levels of society, Warner argues that the most prolific and famous storytellers are often aged women of the lower classes. Perpetuated positively as Mother Goose and far more negatively as nasty old crones and gossips, old ladies often protected, amused, and honored themselves for spinning tales for those around them, including their younger and often richer employers.
One way fairy tales became all the rage in Paris during the 17th century was because, Warner informs us, many of the upper class French men and women spent most of their childhood isolated from their true parents and cared for a nurse of the lower classes, often an older lady. How did was time spent between these nurses and their charges? Often in the telling of the countless fairy tales and wonder tales so well known to us today, Warner argues.
Warner also illustrates how fairy tales reflected the reality of women's lives and their situations. Is the inordinate amount of blame and vitriol directed at evil queens, wicked stepmothers, and usurping lady servants really inspired by fear against some sort of universal smothering mother, as psychoanalysts have argued in the past? Warner argues that this is not the case; and that the frequent misogyny in fairy tales can more accurately be attributed to the messy reality of women's lives in the past. Oppressed by their patriarchal society, many women were forced to unfortunately persecute and compete against each other. Not for nothing does the evil stepmother occur, again and again. With limited resources in rural areas and the high mortality rate attached to childbirth, young stepmothers nearly as young as the children they were looking after was a recurring common place. The fact that these women were all too often prone to favoring their own offspring in matters like inheritance and patrimony is proof of not so much wickedness, but maternal devotion and severely limited resources.
Split into two sections--focusing both on the tellers of fairy tales and how the tales themselves reflected the lives and situations of these tellers--this book explores both the people who tell the tales and the recurring themes and motifs within the tales themselves. For instance, why is the heroine always blonde, and why is blondeness something that is often focused on and pivotal to the plot? Why do wicked stepmothers so often show up? Why is the tale of a young beauty and her romance with an ugly or beastly male a commonplace throughout so many disparate cultures and time periods? Where are the mothers in most fairy tales, anyway?
All these questions and more are answered by Warner, as she gives us the background behind various storytellers, and uses recurring archetypes and themes found throughout fairy tales to illustrate the realities they revealed about women's life in the past. This book is filled with erudite information and little known facts; and presents a splendid overview of fairy tales and their cultural meaning and context.
So why only the three stars? Simply put, this is a difficult book. Dense in every respect, it is chalk full of information and ideas, which, while well organized and presented thematically, can sometimes get confusing in their author's presentation of them. Warner's prose style is similarly dense, even somewhat gnarled and knotty. A wonderful fabulist and cultural critic, Warner is a somewhat less than stellar prose stylist. The sheer weight of information conveyed in her dense prose can sometimes weigh down the reader, and make the ideas she has just communicated unclear. (Personally, I found rereading certain passages once or twice to be necessary for full comprehension.)
This book is also very specialized. Fairy tales have become en vogue as of late; there are numerous books focusing on the cultural or psychological meaning of these tales. Some of these books--such as Catherine Orenstein's brief, racy and fun Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked--make for such light reading that they could be safely recommended to anyone, even those without a firm interest in the subject of fairy tales.
However, Warner's work here is not such a book--though deeper and more profound and in many ways better than the light, fast paced work of Orenstein and others, it is also complex and makes for heavy reading. In order to enjoy this book, I'd wager that most people would have to have a fairly strong initial interest in the subjects that it explores--namely fairy tales, and their meaning and history. I myself have a deep interest in these subjects and enjoyed this book immensely, yet even I had some trouble getting all the way through it. It took me a month to complete it, rather than the general 4 to 7 days it takes me to finish most books. Over the course of that month, I put aside the book several times, always coming back to it eventually. In the end, it was well worth the effort for me, however, those uninterested in the subjects the book covers--fairy tales, feminism, stories and storytelling, folklore, and history--might not feel the same way.
In the end, if you are looking for a light, easy, or suspenseful read, look elsewhere. If, however, you are looking for a complex, intricate study that gives unique new perspectives on fairy tales and their meaning and history, you should given From the Beast to the Blonde a try.
Author, Southern Exposure, Wings ePress,Inc.