Once upon a Real Time

Wendy Doniger

  • From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers by Marina Warner
    Chatto, 458 pp, £20.00, October 1994, ISBN 0 7011 3530 1

If women are the ones who tell fairy tales, why do fairy tales paint such ugly pictures of women? Or, as Marina Warner puts it, ‘If and when women are narrating, why are the female characters so cruel? ... Why have women continued to speak at all within this body of story which defames them so profoundly?’ Or again, what sort of woman would tell that sort of story about that sort of woman? The traditional proto-feminist answer to this question has been: ‘Not a woman at all, a man, that’s who, buster.’ And indeed, most of our ancient texts (Greek, Hebrew, Sanskrit), and even dominant modern tellings (Perrault, the Grimms, Disney), have been transmitted by men in one way or another. But Warner demonstrates beyond doubt that the proto-feminist answer is no longer valid, that the old wives’ tale about old wives is true, that women often were the tellers of the tales. And if the storyteller in the story speaks as a mother, what sort of a mother is she?

In tackling these questions, Warner tells the story of the stories that women have told, and that men and women have told about women who tell stories. Like her previous studies of the Virgin Mary, Joan of Arc, and Tzu’hsi, the ‘Dragon Empress’ of China, From the Beast to the Blonde is a work of enormous erudition and care, and like those books and her works of fiction, it is also a pleasure to read. Though its focus is on the sub-genre that the 17th-century French called contes de fées and that we call ‘fairy tales’, it traces these back to their earliest recorded Classical tellings and up to the latest Disney revisions, while the superb illustrations, ranging from obscure medieval illuminations to contemporary cartoons, provide a parallel history of visual images of women both inside and outside the frame of the tale.

Outside the frame. ‘The Tellers’ (the first part of the book) gathers together a coven of Gossips, Old Wives, Sybils, Mother Goose, Saint Anne, Little Red Riding Hood’s Granny and the Queen of Sheba. Inside the frame, ‘The Tales’ (the second half) casts a feminist gaze over Cinderella (aka Donkeyskin), Sleeping Beauty, Bluebeard’s wives, the Beast’s Beauty, the Little Mermaid and the Blonde. On every page, off-beat and often surprising variants challenge our assumptions about these old chestnuts.

‘As the beast is to the blonde, so the webbed foot or ass’s hoof of the storyteller is to Cinderella’s glass slipper.’ This wonderfully condensed summary of the book suggests one of its many virtues: its ingenious digressions into such seemingly peripheral themes as feet. Feet run through the text, the illustrations and, fittingly, the footnotes. Thus the Queen of Sheba (an ancestor of Mother Goose) was said to have had webbed feet (‘a recurrent sign of contrariness, and, in women, of deviancy’), while witches (aka old wives) had cats’ paws or horses’ hooves. Warner suggests that feet functioned as a metonymy for the genitals, as well as telltale marks of identity (most famously in the story of Cinderella). I would add (following Carlo Ginzburg) that the idea of the identifying foot may also be linked with the earliest morphologies, the footprints of animals followed by prehistoric hunters – a habit enshrined in Aristotle’s, and our, classification of animals as quadrupeds, bipeds, six-legged insects etc; and that the foot is often the locus of mortality (Achilles’ heel, the bruised heel of Eve on the exit from Eden), and of art (the lame blacksmith Hephaestus, the wounded foot and compensating talents of Chiron, Philoctetes, Byron and Edmund Wilson). The move from four animal to two human feet is the move to humanity standing upright, to the use of the hand (art) that we purchase at the price of the wounded foot (or, in our day, chronic lower back pain).

Some, but not all, of Warner’s inspired insights into the symbolism of the foot (and much else) are historically specific, for she is concerned with the uses and meanings of these stories for both their time and ours. She locates the telling of the tales not in the ‘once upon a time’ generally assumed to be the site of both the telling and the tale, but at a specific time and place in history – France in 1697 – when the fairy tale became a literary form for children, in Perrault’s Contes de ma Mère l’Oye.

To defend social context over against ahistorical structures is to choose empiricism over imagination. The Enlightenment brought a resurgence of what I would call (though Warner does not) Euhemerism, the belief (named after an ancient Sicilian called Euhemerus, who demythologised the Greek gods) that myths and fairytales are based on true stories about real people. Warner notes, for example, that versions of Cinderella in which the widower father attempts to commit incest with his daughter – where he is the one with a ring, once his wife’s, that fits only Cinderella – were blatant in France up until the 18th century, when the incest theme began ‘to stir anxiety in the disseminators of fairy tales’, with consequent tinkering, evasions and suppression. Similarly, the Grimms, in 19th-century Germany, ‘were too squeamish’ to include incest in the story. Why was the motif suppressed then, and there? Warner suggests that it was harder to accept in psychologically accurate stories precisely because incest ‘could actually happen, and is known to have done so’.

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