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 But Warner demonstrates beyond doubt that the proto-feminist answer is no longer valid, that the old wives’ tale about old wives is true, that women often were the tellers of the tales.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’.

There is much truth in this argument, but it places too much faith in the power of magical motifs to mask the truth and not enough in the power of group tellings to de-fang even brutally direct versions. True, magic provides a kind of screen onto which we can project the story at a safe distance even in full force, and we pull our punches when the story cuts too close to the bone of reality. But fairy tales are always about experiences that actually happen and vivid incestuous episodes are found in both realistic and fantastic variants of the Cinderella story all over the world, not just in modern Europe. Often, highly disturbing themes like incest are made effable even in realistic forms by myths and folk tales told in group settings which diffuse the sense of dange’ and guilt (a bit like contemporary self-help support groups). Bruno Bettelheim noted (in The Uses of Enchantment) the comfort that even a solitary telling can bring to a child who realises that other people have told and heard the tale and, presumably, have also experienced the threatening fantasies.

When Warner tells us that, at this time in Europe, ‘the story of a father’s unlawful love begins to fade from collections of fairy stories as well as from narratives dealing with actual experience,’ we naturally think of Freud – surely the greatest of the 19th-century Euhemerists. Warner, too, thinks of him, and casts valuable new light on the much debated connection between Freud’s change of heart about the actual or fantasised nature of paternal incest, his relationship with his own daughter, and his study of the tale of the three caskets (an element of the Cinderella story that Shakespeare uses in The Merchant of Venice and King Lear). In condemning ‘the distortions that Freud’s interpretation of incestuous testimony have produced’, Warner opts, as she does throughout the book, for fantasy’s basis in actual experience. But she offers what seems a wiser and deeper insight into the power of fantasy when she goes on to suggest that the incestuous variants of ‘Cinderella’ yield a common insight into ‘erotic fantasies on both sides, the father’s and the daughter’s, conscious as well as unconscious’.

Warner’s concern with actual conditions in Enlightenment Europe is balanced by her recognition of the fact that, since stepmother stories (and stepmothers) are found outside of 18th-century France, only one level of their meaning can be explained in terms of what happened historically. Cautiously, she extends her boundaries, noting, for instance, that the theme of the absent mother and the evil stepmother reflects ‘a feature of the family before our modern era, when death in childbirth was the most common cause of female mortality, and surviving orphans would find themselves brought up by their mother’s successor’. Here, the context of the story is no longer one particular moment in history but lived life (as opposed to imagined life) in general throughout pre-modern history (and perhaps throughout the contemporary Third World).

Further, Warner grants that ‘really compelling fairy tales ... wear seven-league boots,’ that ‘a storehouse of narrative in common’ allows us ‘to communicate across spaces and barricades of national self-interest and pride. We share more than we perhaps admit or know, and have done so for a very long time.’ Thus, ‘the enmity of stepmothers towards children of earlier unions marks chronicles and stories from all over the world, from the ancient world to the present day.’ She quickly qualifies this bold statement, however, with down-to-earth social data: ‘They exhibit the different strains and knots in different types of kinship systems and households, arising from patrilineage, dotal obligations, female exogamy, polygamy.’ And she wisely combines a respect for variations with a respect for enduring meaning, arguing that changing attitudes to the Beast provide a gauge ‘of the meaning of what it is to be human, and specifically, since the Beast has been primarily identified with the male since the story’s earliest forms, what it is to be a man’. This assumption that male Beasts prevail over female ignores, however, the more ancient and equally widespread motif of the animal bride. The Beast theme is less clearly gendered than Warner implies, but it is, like most tales (as she herself rightly notes about other themes), asymmetrically gendered: when you tell the ‘same’ story about a man and then about a woman, different things happen.

Warner may bridge the gap between the historically unique and the universal, but she passionately disavows the archetypal. Her Euhemerist emphasis on social conditions snatches the (lived) universal experience from the jaws of the (fantasised) archetype. What Warner is calling for is history not in the narrow sense (one moment, one place) but history in contrast with myth: history in the sense of actual human practices, however recurrent and widespread. Thus, despite the varying patterns of inheritance customary in different times and places, the tension between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law remains ‘the acute lesion in the social body’, and ‘certain structural elements remain’ even in variant versions of stories about them. These broader human concerns make this a bigger, better book than her historicist claim leads us to expect; like another closet universalist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Warner establishes principles that apply far beyond her stated subject.

Oddly, or not so oddly, it is Freudians, rather than Jungians, who attract her anti-archetypal fire. ‘An archetype is a hollow thing, but a dangerous one, a figure or image which through usage has been uncoupled from the circumstances which brought it into being, and goes on spreading false consciousness.’ Thus fairy-tale conventions become sticks with which to beat young women, clichés ‘used by moralists to enforce discipline (and appearance) on growing girls’. Warner scolds Bettelheim for making the evil stepmother seem natural, even intrinsic to the mother-child relationship’, thereby in a sense justifying that evil. But since the acts of cruelty on the part of women in the stories represent ‘not an ineluctable or Oedipal condition’ but social stratagems, ‘mothers or stepmothers today need not be inculpated en masse.’ So, too, ‘as individual women’s voices have become absorbed into the corporate body of male-dominated decision-makers’, the misogynist depictions of wicked stepmothers, bad fairies, ogresses, spoiled princesses, and ugly sisters have ‘come to look dangerously like the way things are’.

It is by no means the case, however, that what we regard as archetypal, universal or even natural is immutable or desirable; it is merely given. And we can change what is given; indeed it is easier to change it if we acknowledge that it is given. ‘I have seen the enemy, and he is us’ is surely true of archetypes. If, as Warner persuades us, the great storytelling themes are social, rather than biological (or psychological), they are not built into the brain, and they can be changed. Moreover, as Bruce Lincoln has shown, stories do not merely reflect the eternal archetype or even the present Zeitgeist, but can subvert the dominant paradigm. Warner shows her awareness of both edges of this sword when she points out that, although traditional storytellers, ‘negotiating the audience’s inclination, may well entrench bigotry’, they may also oppose prevailing prejudice. The retellings she documents demonstrate, once and for all, the many, many ways in which storytellers may, like Judo wrestlers, use the very weight of archetypes to throw them, and with them to throw the prejudices that have coloured them for centuries. Call it deconstruction, call it subversion, or just call it creative storytelling.

Concentrating on specific tellers at a specific moment in history does, however, lead to valuable new insights. When Warner summarises Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy’s spirited variants of stories better known from Perrault, and reads them in terms of the story of d’Aulnoy’s own marriage, the many husbands who are beasts ‘lose their fairy-tale outlandishness and become metaphorical, darkly humorous reflections on the circumstances of her life’. Many women writers identified themselves with Psyche and saw the beast as symbolic of ‘the crucial choice in a growing woman’s life: to leave family (as the word implies, the familiar) for the unknown and unfamiliar’. But here, Warner’s Euhemerism flattens her vision. Whatever the story of Beauty and the Beast is about, it must also be about beasts (indeed, about supernatural beasts), about our tangled relationships with animals and our love-hate relationship with the animal parts of ourselves. If even the granddaddy of all Euhemerists could admit that, sometimes, a cigar was just a cigar, surely, to turn the tables, Warner might grant that a beast is, sometimes, ‘just’ a beast – or, to put it differently, more than a husband.

Moreover, since the lives of women authors often reveal only what their tales meant to them, not what they might mean to us, Warner extends this boundary, too. She encourages us to imagine the storytelling situation even in those instances where we have no way of knowing what was going on in ‘real life’. She begins with an observation about differences between two specific male tellers, Italo Calvino (who ‘reveals the porousness of stories to their tellers’ temper and beliefs’ and whose telling is ‘bright with energetic rebellion and peasant cunning’) and the Grimms (‘eerie, volatile, and curiously unfocused socially and politically’). She then goes on to enrich and extend our understanding of the possible meanings of the tale as told by anonymous tellers. First, she takes to task psychoanalytical and even ‘historical’ interpreters of fairy tales for regarding them as unauthored and (therefore?) interpreting the underlying message from the protagonist’s point of view – that is, taking the protagonist as a kind of step-surrogate for the author. The internal evidence leads Warner to suggest we view the stories from other angles (just as Laura Bohanan once suggested we might gain if we viewed Hamlet, as her African informants did, from the standpoint of Claudius), that we empathise with the points of view of women storytellers who themselves may well have empathised with characters other than the official heroine.

Other women’s concerns may also be transformed into stories. When, for instance, a child listens to the story of Cinderella told by an old woman, a nurse or a governess, the narrator may be offering herself as a surrogate for the vanished mother in the story. So, too, nurses may tell children stories about bad mothers in order to make the children love them (the nurses) more than their mothers, or may just use bogeymen to frighten children into obedience – even though it is not self-evidently in the teller’s interest to insist on the wickedness of women. Or, if the teller is a grandmother or a mother-in-law, the tale may express her fear and resentment of her daughter-in-law or daughters-in-law; the disappearing mother ‘may have been conjured away by the narrator herself, who despatches her child listeners’ natural parent, replaces her with a monster, and then produces herself within the pages of the story, as if by enchantment, often in many different guises as a wonder-worker on their behalf, the good old fairy, the fairy godmother’.

These are often ambivalent agendas. ‘Hatred of the older woman, and intergenerational strife, may arise not only from rivalry, but from guilt, too, about the weak and the dependent. The portrait of the tyrant mother-in-law or stepmother may conceal her own vulnerability, may offer an excuse for her maltreatment.’ And, just as the incestuous variants of ‘Cinderella’ expressed the fantasies of both the father and the daughter, so, too, stories of wicked stepmothers may express ‘the tensions, the insecurity, jealousy and rage of both mothers-in-law against their daughters-in-law and vice versa, as well as the vulnerability of children from different marriages.’ The same two-way royal road may produce the ambivalence that Warner imagines in the mind of another storyteller: ‘Even as the voice of the fairy tale murders the mother who is her rival for the children, she remembers how she herself was maltreated: how she entered the house of another as an outsider and was reviled.’

From the Beast to the Blonde encourages us to imagine not only different sorts of point of view in different sorts of teller, but different sorts of audience, such as an audience of women ‘who fully expected to be given away by their fathers to men who might well strike them as monsters’. That might be found not merely in 18th-century France, but throughout the world, at all times. Warner’s idea that different sorts of women would not only tell but hear the story in different ways goes a long way to explain why female storytellers might not only depict evil stepmothers but even sympathise with them. The ‘female hatred and cruelty’ in these stories engage women both outside and inside the frame, and as both participants and targets, victimises and victims. Misogyny is both subject and object in many of these tales.

This returns us to one of the questions with which I began: How can we know when women’s voices are speaking? How can we distinguish the male ventriloquism of false consciousness from the female ventriloquism of women’s voices closeted within patriarchal texts? Warner points out a particularly Machiavellian reason why male authors of the tales might make women the speakers within them: ‘Attributing to women testimony about women’s wrongs and wrongdoings gives them added value: men might be expected to find women flighty, rapacious, self-seeking, cruel and lustful, but if women say such things about themselves, then the matter is settled. What some women say against others can be usefully turned against them.’ On the other hand, the attribution of female authors on the outer frame, as tellers, might invalidate their testimony against women: ‘If fairy tales are mere old wives’ tales because they are told by women, is then what they say necessarily false, a mere trifle, including what they say about women? Or does the lowness of the genre, assumed on account of the lowness of its authors, permit a greater degree of truth-telling, as the jester’s cap protects the fool from the consequences of his frank speech?’

Warner suggests that ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Cinderella’ are women’s stories because they reflect both women’s predicaments and women’s points of view. But predicaments and viewpoints, objects and subjects, may not coincide. She cites Bengt Holbek’s observation that men and women often tell the same tales in characteristically different ways: the difference often lies not in the teller’s moral or political stance but in the themes that are expanded or deleted. The late A.K. Ramanujan defined women’s stories not by their attitudes but by their concerns, such as childbirth and women’s tasks, or an emphasis on the adventure that begins after marriage, in contrast with men’s tellings, which emphasise the events leading up to marriage. On the other hand, many folklorists have noted that women’s tellings often don’t subvert the patriarchal point of view at all (a consequence of false consciousness perhaps), but merely offer ways either to satisfy or to evade it. Warner herself offers an example of this (perhaps inadvertently) when she says that women’s voices may be heard in those tellings in which there is ‘a softening and sweetening of the character of the Beast from whom the heroine flees ... The ferocious father, the lustful suitor, have been transformed or made to disappear.’ She also argues that when women’s voices are appropriated by male redactors, the wicked stepmother becomes a hallowed, inevitable symbol, while ‘the Beast bridegroom has been granted ever more positive status.’ Clearly this has advantages from a male point of view. Perhaps, like the stories of women vying for the prince’s love, ‘the effect of these stories is to flatter the male hero ... which may be the reason why such “old wives’ tales” ... have found such success with mixed audiences of men and women, boys and girls.’ Ultimately, all texts are androgynous.

The great virtue of the book lies in the astonishing scope of the stories and the brilliance with which they are interrelated and interpreted, but the pity is that Marina Warner, fine storyteller though she is, never actually tells a fairy tale. She mentions (and contextualises) thousands of them, but never obeys Humpty Dumpty’s wise injunction to start at the beginning, go on to the end, and stop. Even when she summarises a story, she introduces editorialising phrases like ‘of course’ and ‘at this point in the story’ and ‘the story often ends at the stake.’ She teases us with pieces of the plot, never stripping it down to the naked text. But there is one tale that she does tell in all its fascinating detail, and that is the real story of the women who tell the stories.