Saturday, January 31, 2015

Once Upon A Time - Marina Warner

'A Short history of fairy tale'...

I've bought a couple of Marina Warner's in the last couple of years but not quite got round to reading them yet - they're imposing looking things which will clearly demand both time and concentration neither of which are always easily come by. When OUP sent me 'Once Upon a Time' I was delighted not just because I'd already had my eye on it but also because it keeps it's promise of being short. It's a delightful pocket sized book with a 180 pages of text (with almost 20 more of further reading and index) and illustrations which break down into very manageable chapters. A serious book that arranges itself in such a way that it can easily be read on buses and tea breaks is a precious thing especially when the gaps between reading allow a good bit of time for consideration.

'Once Upon a Time' is basically a lecture series; each chapter is broken down into further subheadings and each is an introduction for more reading and research. I find the best way I can describe it is as a map of the fairy tale world - there are dozens of paths to explore, all helpfully signposted (each chapter has it's own comprehensive reading list) and all in a style sufficiently accessible to make those unread books by Warner seem much less daunting. 

Fairy tales are such an integral part of childhood that it's impossible to remember a time before familiarity with Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Cinderella, Rumpelstilskin, Beauty and the Beast, Hansel and Gretal and so on. Hans Christian Anderson came into my life a little later but his stories (I'm thinking of the little match girl and the red shoes specifically) were so depressing that I didn't much enjoy them as a child - but bits of them are still embedded in my memory. I'm equally unclear as to how they entered my life as an adult, probably through A.S. Byatt and Angela Carter but I think I started to take an active interest in fairy tales at about the same time I became interested in food history. It's domestic (rather than restaurant or proffesional) cooking that interests me - the sort that connects you to generations of cooks before you, sets a rhythm to the day, and captures something of a places history in it's combination of ingredients - some local, others imported, and always evolving. 

Warner argues that fairy tales reflect the every day reality of the people who told them without specific reference to history - though there have been efforts to tie some of them to actual people (Snow White and Bluebeard) they remain to elusive for that. The great thing with fairy tales is their adaptability. The stripped down, darkly violent, tales the Grimm's finessed out of their collectings didn't even remain static in their own books but were constantly edited into ever more refined versions for later editions - and haven't stopped since. 

Helen Parry (from 'a gallimaufry') wrote an excellent review of 'Once a Upon a Time' for Shiny New Books Here, I agree with her that this is a book to treasure. It really is the perfect introduction to the subject, as well as being a very good introduction to Warner's work generally. I've ordered a couple of books from the reading list for further exploration and am revisiting some I already have. It's been an invigorating, inspiring, start to my reading year. 


  1. Oooh, I've just seen this! Thanks for the kind words, you've made my week! I'm really glad you enjoyed it too and yes yes, I agree that the gaps and the arrangement make it ideal to pick up and put down and consider.

  2. For such a short book there really is a lot to think about in it, been reading fairy tales solidly since I put it down.

  3. This sounds so tempting - I have noticed that, as I age, I spend more time thinking about folktales, pondering about how they age or do not age as time goes by.

    Hence this one might both fit into my interests and inspire me to put at least some of my ponderings into words (or at least into drawings)