That which is spoken

Marina Warner

  • The Virago Book of Fairy-Tales edited by Angela Carter
    Virago, 242 pp, £12.99, October 1990, ISBN 1 85381 205 6
  • Sisters and Strangers: A Moral Tale by Emma Tennant
    Grafton, 184 pp, £12.95, July 1990, ISBN 0 246 13429 1

The poor man’s wife flourishes, the Sultana gets thinner and scrappier by the minute. So the Sultan sends for the poor man and demands the secret of his wife’s happiness. ‘Very simple,’ he replies. ‘I feed her meat of the tongue.’ The Sultan buys ox tongues and larks’ tongues; still his wife withers away. He makes her change places with the poor man’s wife and she immediately starts thriving, while her replacement soon becomes as lean and miserable as the former queen. For the tongue meats that the poor man feeds his wives aren’t material, of course. They’re stories, jokes, songs; in this fable from Kenya, this is what makes women thrive.

Not all fairy stories tell the truth, and many of them turn on questions of fantasy and disguise, masks and treachery. ‘The tale is over: I can’t lie any more,’ says the Russian story-teller at the end of the day: ‘it’s nothing but a fairy-tale’ means it’s a pipedream. But the message of the Tongue Meat fable is borne out by the volume Angela Carter has edited: the jokes and exempla and folk-tales here will be meat and drink to women (and maybe to other people too). She writes in her introduction that ‘this is a collection of old wives’ tales, put together with the intention of giving pleasure, and with a good deal of pleasure on my own part.’ They succeed in their intention brilliantly, and her own pleasure breathes through the tales till they glow. She has sifted them from a variety of folklorists and ethnographers, yet her choice bears throughout the stamp of her mind: ranging far and wide through Europe, Asia, Africa and the USA, with eldritch examples from the British Isles, an eerie ghost story from China, downhome wisdom from Arkansas and Africa, and bizarre fantasies from the Inuit, the whole volume reflects the dry wit, the mischievousness and the frank sexual wisdom of the author of The Bloody Chamber and Nights at the Circus. Many familiar stories turn up in different guises: a gold clog for the Iraqi Cinders, a ‘foxy gentleman’ as the American Bluebeard. The editor’s taste often takes her into the sharp air of the far North: the version of Cupid and Psyche she chooses is the beautiful Norwegian ‘East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon’; and it is the ‘Eskimo’ peoples who provide her with her richest source – seven startling tales of survival and sex out on the ice floes or even inside the whale. On the whole, she avoids the sultry or mannerly styles of the Mediterranean and resists the pedagogic; not all the material here would be considered suitable for children, which is as it should be with fairy-tale. Commenting on an African story, Angela Carter writes: ‘Swahili storytellers believe that women are incorrigibly wicked, diabolically cunning and sexually insatiable; I hope this is true, for the sake of the women.’ There can rarely have been more diverting footnotes to a volume of folklore.

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