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Enchanted by beastly tales

From the Beast to the Blonde: on Fairy Tales and Their Tellers By Marina Warner, Chatto amp; Windus #163;20, 0 7O11 3530 1.

Neil Philip and William Feaver investigate the darkness within fairy tales and nursery rhymes.

R D Jameson, in his Three Lectures on Chinese Folklore published in 1932 put his finger on a recurring problem for anyone reading widely in the field of folklore: "Many of the folklorists who are not mad are foolish."

There is, perhaps, something mad, or foolish, or both, about looking for meaning in the stories, sayings, beliefs and customs of the uneducated - the imaginative world of Mother Goose, and the rustic butt Dull in Love's Labour's Lost. Of him, the pedant Nathaniel says, Sir, he hath never fed of the dainties that are bred in a book.

He hath not eat paper, as it were; he hath not drunk ink.

His intellect is not replenished; he is only an animal, only sensible in the duller parts.

And such barren plants are set before us that we thankful should be, Which we of taste and feeling are, for those parts that do fructify in us more than he; For as it would ill become me to be vain, indiscreet, or a fool So were a patch set on learning, to see him in school.

Marina Warner's new, marvellously illustrated, study of the fairy tale embraces this madness and foolishness and comes out the other side, into a new understanding of the wisdom of the unreplenished intellect. Marina Warner defines fairy tales as "the language of the imagination, with a vocabulary of images and a syntax of plots."

Folk tales are on the surface naive, both in content and narrative technique. They contain no abstract, no "disembedded" thought. They base their depiction of the world as a whole on the tensions of the family. They contain no effective critique of economic or political affairs. They offer simple wish-fulfilment fantasies. They accept magic, and reject the observed laws of causation. Their characters are cyphers, their plots are collections of improbabilities, their recorded texts are often crude, contradictory or deficient. In many ways it seems reasonable to reject them, with an 18th century pamphleteer, as "Maggots in a Madman's Brain".

Yet, in truth, oral narratives provided uneducated people with an immensely fluid and resonant means of encoding their deepest perceptions in story. With no fixed text but with inbuilt self-correcting devices that kept them both fresh, and true to themselves, such narratives retain their power today, for both a naive and a highly sophisticated audience.

In this new study, Marina Warner shows how fairy tale motifs still permeate modern culture, drawing examples from film, television, pantomimes, and postcards to enliven her examination of the printed texts. Though her work is scrupulously scholarly, she is refreshingly unpompous about her subject, defining storytelling as a branch of "the tradition of gossiping and eavesdropping."

This definition shows one of the ways in which Marina Warner tries to reclaim the territory of the folk and fairy tale for women. Her archetypal storyteller is a mother or grandmother, who, like the storytelling mother recalled by John Clare in The Shepherd's Calendar, fits stories round the bustle of everyday life: Things cleared away then down she sits And tells her tales by starts and fits Not willing to lose time or toil She knits or sews and talks the while.

Oddly, though, Warner does not pursue her argument about woman as the prime storyteller so far as to examine the creative gifts or narrative styles of any of the great female tradition bearers whose repertoires have been recorded. There is no mention, for instance, of the lrish storyteller Peig Sayers, or the Voronezh storyteller, Kupryanikha, or the English gypsy Eva Gray. This lack of reference to and quotation from the narratives of named oral storytellers is one of the book's weaknesses, and it reflects a literary bias that seems to me a serious flaw.

Marina Warner's central argument is about "the weight of male power in the wondertale." She constructs it around a consideration of the 11 fairy tales of Charles Perrault, published in the 1690s as "tales of Mother Goose." While admiring what she elegantly calls Perrault's "flashing and humorous concision", she suspects him of having appropriated women's narratives to male ends. The most satisfying part of her book is her detailed comparison of Perrault's handling of his tales with the contemporary fairy tales of women such as Marie-Jeanne L'Heritier and Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy, whose work can be sampled in Warner's own anthology Wonder Tales (Chatto amp; Windus, 1994), or in Jack Zipes's more substantial Beauties, Beasts and Enchantments: Classic French Fairy Tales (Meridian, 1991). She makes a powerful case for these two women in particular as artists of considerable originality.

But of course all these writers, Perrault included, while drawing on folktale sources are not storytellers in the folk tradition. Making Perrault her cornerstone values the written over the oral, handing the fairy tale back from the Dulls of this world to the people of "taste and feeling". In doing so, Warner fatally compromises her argument about the sexual politics of the fairy tale. In many ways her book might be seen as the theoretical counterpart to Angela Carter's two joyful and irreverent Virago Books of Fairy Tales (Virago 1990, 1992), yet she ignores the evidence those books provide of the subversive wit and confident strength of women's role in much oral tradition.

By ignoring what doesn't fit her argument, Warner sets up Perrault as an Aunt Sally, and the same is true elsewhere. She finds room, for instance, for a lengthy discussion of Hans Christian Andersen's story "The Little Mermaid", with its savage retribution exacted on female ambition and sexuality, but none for his masterpiece, "The Snow Queen", with its triumphant succession of strong and self-possessed female characters.

Nevertheless, this is an exciting, fascinating book, full of sharp insights and intriguing speculations. It attempts, perhaps, to cover both too much ground - rocketing furiously from one arcane reference to another - and too little, confining itself in the Cabinet des fees with Perrault and his contemporaries when it could have joined Angela Carter on her exhilarating ride through the rest of the world's folk literature.

On Carter's own inspired reworkings of Perrault's themes, collected in The Bloody Chamber (Virago, 1979), Warner writes with real insight. I suspect many readers of From the Beast to the Blonde would have welcomed more in this vein, and less of the obscure classical and medieval material that clutters and sometimes hampers the flow of Marina Warner's central argument.

No one can ever have the last word about a fairy tale, for the nature of such stories, which are cast in a poetic stream of images, is like the oracle at Delphi, neither to declare, nor to conceal, but to give a sign. The interpretation of such signs is an art in itself. Marina Warner writes in her introduction that "metamorphosis defines the fairy tale", and it is this awareness, retained from childhood, that fairy tales offer above all "the possibility of change" that keeps her interpretations from being reductive or simplistic.

This book, the product of a subtle and alert intelligence, joins the small shelf of indispensable critical works on the fairy tale, alongside those of writers such as Bruno Bettelheim, Max Luethi, Vladimir Propp, and Jack Zipes. Marina Warner, it seems, is neither mad nor foolish; perhaps she isn't really a folklorist at all.

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