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Fairy Tales According to Marina Warner

Fairy Tales According to Marina Warner

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June 7, 2024

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

I have always had a difficult time separating myth and fairy tale. They seem similar to me, and in fact, according to historian, critic, and writer Marina Warner, they do share similarities. They often incorporate flat characters. Plots do not need to be elaborate. Both tend to be from oral traditions. Additionally, they frequently include the intervention of a meddlesome character such as the gods (in the case of myth) or witches and magicians (in the case of fairy tale). A main difference might be that fairy tales revolve around individual decisions, whereas the actions of a myth are predestined or fated.

I found Warner’s description of the difference between myth and fairy tale very helpful, especially in light of the Epilogue to her book Once Upon A Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale. In the Epilogue she mentions that fairy tales are fluid. As they travel, tales ebb and flow with cultural shifts. An easy example would be “Little Red Riding Hood” which has endless variations, some of which focus on the girl and some on the wolf. Sometimes she wears a cape and sometimes a hat and sometimes merely a coat. Little variations might lead to interesting revelations. For example, the difference in Little Red’s outfit might have something to do with environmental differences between the places that the tale has traveled. This tells us not only about the weather of some specific place, but also that the place has some connection with the story and the surrounding cultures. Fairy tale is rarely about one person’s perspective, but rather about the culture as a whole. When a story changes, the shifted material might express cultural norms, environmental differences, and religious or moral disapproval. What gets edited out from previous versions versus what remains is always of interest.

Despite their uniqueness, Warner posits that fairy tales are trending towards being devalued. She suggests that, as a result of devaluation, they are beginning to appear more like myths. In other words, rather than simple answers and magical potions, contemporary retellings succeed when the story contains a moral. Warner suggests that this moral-making transfers the tales into the realm of myth.

If we are to imagine that fairy tales are a sort of road map which draw a line between the past and the present, then what are we to make of their current path? Warner suggests that fairy tales have often been scripted or written by the lower classes with imaginative leaps at the center of their purpose. They contain cautionary tales, not in the sense of an afterlife, but more about how to survive earthly perils. Perhaps mythology has always had religious aims, which indicates a more regulated frame always centered around a moral. Regardless of their intentions, it is curious to note the ways that each has been subsumed by culture at large. For example, fairy tales circulate in vast amounts of young adult fictional retellings, whereas planets and spacecrafts are named after mythological beings. This example might underscore that fairy tales offer practical advice while myths explore big, unanswerable questions.

Though I have more questions, I will conclude with a portion of the Epilogue from Once Upon A Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale. Warner writes:

“Fairy tales are stories that try to find the truth and give us glimpses of the greater things – this is the principle that underlies their growing presence in writing, art, cinema, dance, song. The tales used to be light in the midst of darkness. But dislike of shallow promises and easy solutions in times of conflict, eco-disaster, and other difficulties are clipping the wings of the fairy tale; hope can seem a deliberate falsehood. Disneyfication has become a dirty word – synonymous with mendacity – though it’s not altogether the case that his early films are so saccharine or sanitized as charged. The ‘realisation of imagined wonder’ which Tolkien saw as the aim of fairy tale, isn’t bright and shiny any more; its skies have clouded over. The stories used to be distinct from epic and tragedy, but renderings today are moving closer to those forms of storytelling. A few dissenting voices still consider fairy tales childish and foolish, but on the whole, they have been widely accepted as a most valuable and profound creation of human history and culture; they have come to be treated as scriptures from an authentic inaugural time of imaginative activity, a narrative blueprint when it was all set down, right and true.

“For these reasons, fairy tales are gradually turning into myths: stories held in common about the deepest dilemmas, no longer aiming at being optimistic or consoling, but rather bearers of wisdom, deep, thought-provoking, and illuminating. Maria Tatar writes about ‘the ignition power’ of fairy tales, ‘the ability to kindle our powers of imagination so that the mind’s eye begins to see scenes created by mere words on the page’, and with this vivid summons of hitherto unknown dimensions of experience, the world of faerie stimulates sensations and emotions – fear, pleasure, dread, gratification. The most difficult task has now become how to make a story of child abandonment and cannibal witches bearable for small children at Christmas, as well as for those older and more knowing, in order to keep faith with the truth-telling inside the stories. Increasingly, the tendency now is to leave them to us, the grown-ups.”

Photo credit: Shutterstock/ tomertu

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