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.

She might have been expected to transform the stories, as ‘The Company of Wolves’ utterly changes Perrault’s ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, but she has resisted displaying her own originality and skills and has not even edited the texts, let alone reshaped them. Whereas as a writer she practises the high art of the literary fairy-tale, she wants us to feel here the energy of the oral tradition, and to listen to the voice of the anonymous storyteller, of ‘Mother Goose’, the repository of popular wisdom, who stands aside from the world of letters and learning. ‘The dead know something we don’t,’ Angela Carter writes, ‘although they keep it to themselves.’ She regrets the acceleration and disconnectedness of the industrial world, and finds in these unauthored stories a portrait of human passions and trials that the more sophisticated literatures of the world do not attempt precisely because the stories originate among those who are for want of a better phrase called ordinary folk, many of whom are women and children. Fairy-tale is the literature of the illiterate, who form the vast majority of the world, in the present as well as the past. One story published here that hasn’t been printed before was told to the author by a six-year-old who had it from her babysitter in Italy: a kind of Rapunzel, but with the old witch passing herself off as a nun.

It’s tricky, reprinting stories originally told aloud – they tend to be full of repetitions and dialect and fold on the page; even the wonderful Rose, Green, Red etc Fairy Books of Andrew Lang, on which Angela Carter was brought up, and which she invokes as her model, have their tedious moments, perhaps because the ladies Lang employed to collect and transcribe improved them in the modest fashion of the day, erasing some of the raunchiness and matter-of-factness essential to the genre, and certainly found in fairy-tales written down before the 19th and earlier 20th centuries. But in this collection, the touches of overheard speech are vivid, eloquent: ‘So the sick son married the well sister and the well sister married the sick son,’ concludes one story, ‘And they all lived happy and died happy, and never drank out of a dry cappy.’ There is no danger of a yawn either: a wife cooks her hare lover and serves him to her husband rather than be found out; a mother-in-law makes love to her son’s wife in his absence with the help of a penis of sealbone.

Fairy stories rarely feature fairies, and very few do here. (Nor does their appearance automatically define the work as fairy-tale – Pericles is more of a fairy story than Romeo and Juliet or The Tempest, in spite of Queen Mab and the presence of Ariel.) In this book, witches, ghouls, humans spellbound in animal shape, talking beasts, lamias, giants and giantesses, the Russian ogress Baba Yaga and her house that runs about on chicken legs, perform magic exploits for good and ill. But even these supernatural elements don’t of themselves turn the stories into what we mean by fairy-tale. As the Czech fantasy writer Karel Capek remarked, ‘supernatural beings and forces appear ... so frequently because within the unreal world of the fairy-tale there is ample room for them ... A fairy story cannot be defined by its motif and subject-matter, but by its origin and function.’

The oral origins are crucial: even the most courtly and prosy literati, like the contributors to the 18th-century Cabinet des Fées, always claimed they had taken down the tales direct from their nurses or grannies. The very word ‘fairy’ may be related to Latin fari, ‘to speak’, which gives fata (Italian for ‘fairy’) and fée (French) as well as the words for Fate in various languages: ‘that which is spoken’. Fairy-tales tell how people cope with the hand they are dealt, and they often give unusual emphasis to the power of speech to alter destiny. The heroines of this collection solve riddles, produce verses, defeat Tsars and other potentates with their ready tongues and storytelling gift, like Clever Gretel (one of the two Grimms’ tales reprinted here) who eats up all the food in the kitchen but outwits her master and foils his anger. As a fairy-tale riddle recorded by Goethe puts it: ‘What’s more magnificent than gold? Light. What’s more exhilarating than light? Speech.’

There is, however, one significant casualty in these stories, at the end of the volume: the Russian wife who loved fairy-tales above all else, whose husband beat her till she never wanted to hear one again. Her punishment discloses one function of fairy-tale, for the relation between women and stories might well enrage a patriarch to violence, if the evidence of this book is anything to go on. Medieval moralists inveighed against women idling and gossiping instead of doing their duty, but the issue goes deeper than time-wasting. The genre provides a User’s Manual to Life, provoking sorrow and pity but more often laughter. For the tendency of the kind of folklore Angela Carter has chosen is to mock authority, to predict an end to oppression, to mete out justice. Fairy-tales deal in ‘heroic optimism’, they promise happier times, and while doing so, pass judgment on the conditions of the present. Angela Carter is interested in the way women’s trials are recorded by the stories, and comments acutely on such tales as ‘The Cat-Witch’ from America, about a frightening vodun figure of a soucouyant or witch; her depredations take on a different cast when she turns out to be a rich white mistress and her victims black slaves who survived to tell the tale. The many wicked stepmothers, brothers, husbands and even mothers (the Armenian Snow White is pursued to death by her own mother) reflect tensions in families all over the world, especially when mortality in childbirth is high. One West African tale ends with the storyteller’s threatening moral, in which a genuine plea can be heard:

The second wife must look after the dead woman’s child better than after her own children. And this is why one never mistreats orphans. For once you mistreat them, you die. You die the same day. You are not even sick. I know that myself. I am an orphan.

The rise of interest in fairy-tale has coincided with the rise of the writer as cynosure; with fame comes responsibility, it seems, for even bad boys like Martin Amis speak of their world sorrow, while, elsewhere, playwrights and poets take power. Long gone the days of anti-social surrealist anarchy among writers, when Breton and his kind acclaimed psychotics as heroes and spat on morality, private and civic. Consequently, the fable has returned to fashion, and didacticism has ceased to be considered a grave fault in a writer of fiction. Salman Rushdie has written Haroun, an allegory in the form of a fairy-tale; Emma Tennant also strikes a deliberate nursery note with Sisters and Strangers, with Grandmother Dummer (dumber than a goose?) as narrator and two little girls as her audience, learning from her the pitfalls and pleasures that await them when they are grown-up women. Granny tacks her satire of contemporary sexual politics to a mythological framework: Adam and Eve and Lilith and assorted Biblical and fairy-tale characters rollercoaster through the gender roles prescribed them. Eve shifts shape from dreamboat lover through to single mum, Madonna (blue-mantle variety rather than blue-velvet), whore, Jackie Collins/Shirley Conran, power-dressed overachieving brain surgeon: she samples the splendours and the miseries of a present-day courtesan, for the Eve of today still cannot find an identity apart from Adam. This is She-Devil territory, and Weldon has dealt more savagely with similar material. Emma Tennant’s fable takes swipes left and right, with hit-and-miss casualness, itself rather like an easygoing mum with an unruly gaggle of children. The author is often funny: Eve is evicted to make way ‘for an Inland Marina and a Pizza Piazza project, designed by an architect by appointment to the Prince of Wales to resemble the gingerbread cottages inhabited by plantation slaves in the West Indies at the end of the 18th century’. She tackles the pleasure women readers find in romance, and denounces Cinderella as ‘a pack of lies’ encouraging passive, brainless dreaming in little girls in order to keep them ‘little girls ... until the day they die’. Fairy-tales often discover happiness, as Angela Carter points out, in the comforts of a full belly and a warm fire (and sometimes a willing mate): the genre often tends to conformity, its protagonists kick against the pricks but their desires remain modest, conventional. Sisters and Strangers sketches a more heroic and austere ambition for its young women, against the current of fairy-tale security. This is a difficult aim, for the book as well as its heroines, and there are some moments of glibness: ‘For to be liberated, as she has discovered, is to be free for no one at all. Especially, of course, if you are a woman and successful.’ With the corpses of traditional role-models lying all about the stage at the end, the book looks forward, somewhat forlornly, to the making of ‘a new Eve’. But Eve doesn’t have to be made over new: if you know where to listen, the old tales show that new Eves lie all about us in our infancy.