Once Upon a Time by Marina Warner
Subtitled ‘A short history of fairy tale’, Warner’s compact volume belies its small size. It’s a tiny hardback, but within its 200 or so pages, the author recounts the rich history behind the beloved fairy tales we all know from their most common (often arguably via Disney film or Ladybird book) versions today and some we don’t. She delves into the origins of these tales and tells us how they’ve evolved over the centuries, the originals often being far removed from the latest incarnations – for fairy tales continue to evolve and be reinvented as new authors add their takes to traditional stories.
In the extended prologue to this book, she discusses what makes a fairy tale:
What are the defining characteristics of a fairy tale? […] fairy tales are familiar stories, either verifiably old because they have been passed on down the generations or because the listener or reader is struck by their family resemblance to another story; they can appear pieced and patched like an identikit photofit. The genre belongs in the general realm of folklore, and many fairly tales are called ‘folk tales’, and are attributed to oral tradition.
She goes on to develop this further, looking at the need for elements of the past, and storytelling language. Then we reach the thorny area of fairies – obviously many of our favourite tales don’t involve faery folk at all. They do all involve some aspect of the supernatural though, of magic, even if it is only implied, and their settings are ‘zones of enchantment’. Natural magic is a large part of the fairy tale tradition.
Magic in European fairy tale works along lines closer to magnetism and the pull of the tides or the silence of the eclipse, because it reflects a vision or organic correspondences that developed in early modern society. It was in the fifteenth century, for example, that Paracelsus, the Swiss physician and alchemist, first classified elemental beings: he called them gnomes (earth), sylphs (air), salamanders (fire), and undines (water). Each was destined to spark the narrative imagination to such an extent they now appear generic fairytale characters.
Another major theme in fairy tales is that of want – Warner puts it bluntly:
In fairy tales, want stalks everyone, and the word’s double meaning matters: both desire and lack.
I could go on and on quoting from this little book. Instead, I’ll direct you to read Helen‘s review of it for Shiny here, and if you’re a fairy tale fan and haven’t yet read this book for yourself, I’m sure you’ll want to – if only as a jumping off point for further reading. There are super reading lists for each of the themed chapters too. Accompanying the text are a selection of lovely (but monochrome only) illustrations from Rackham to Blake; Doré’s classic picture of Red Riding Hood (right). (10/10)
P.S. And speaking of Little Red Riding Hood – Dean at The Strange & Ordinary has written a fantastic long essay on the myriad versions of this particular tale here. One last comment, I also learned where Philip Pullman has probably got the title for the second volume of the Book of Dust, The Secret Commonwealth from… (Andrew Lang used the phrase in retitling a book on fairies by a Scottish Reverend in 1893).
Tinder by Sally Gardner, illustrated by David Roberts
What better way to follow reading Warner’s history, than to read a new version of an old tale. I chose Sally Gardner’s Tinder from 2013, written for older children and beautifully illustrated in black and white with splashes of red by David Roberts. Sally took her inspiration from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Tinderbox, updated to show more of the trauma of war and its lasting effects on those caught up in it.
A wounded soldier called Otto is nursed back to health by a mysterious half-beast stranger who disappears leaving him with a pair of dice which will always show the way forward. Deserting the army, and following the dice, he hides up a tree from a werewolf, and this is when he meets the Lady Safire, disguised as a boy. It is love at first sight for the two of them, but she disappears leaving the lovelord Otto wandering. When he comes to a strange castle in the woods, he goes inside, and against the dice’s advice he stays being forced to do a favour for the Mistress Jabber who has left her tinderbox in the underground caverns. Otto is forced to retrieve it by setting free the monstrous wolves who dwell in the three caves full of bronze, silver and gold. He retrieves the box, tricks the crone, and discovers the box’s secret – can he use it to bring the Lady Safire back?
As I’ve come to expect from Sally Gardner, she tells her story very well, but David Roberts’s evocative illustrations bring a whole new level of appreciation, matching the power of the storytelling with stunning visuals. They conjure up a bloodthirsty world, with werewolves and ghouls and death stalking the pages, it oozes despair. How unjust it is to subject the already traumatised Otto to losing his great love too.
A beautiful book, and a captivating novel-length version of a classic fairy tale, this is a volume I’ll treasure. (10/10)