Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Library Essentials Month: From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers by Marina Warner

From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellerswas another book that I acquired during the first stage of creating SurLaLune. (My brain has been attacking this theme chronologically to start, but that will change in a few more days, I'm sure.) The book was a few years old at the time and it was a wondrous discovery in my new found enthusiasm for everything fairy tale. Up to that point, most of my fairy tale studies had been in the psychological bent, thanks to Bettelheim and company during my undergraduate schooling. Finding this book at my local Borders during grad school was a revelation, a good one, never mind that it had nothing to do with my studies. Even the initial HTML project wasn't about fairy tales, it was about programming HTML. I could have used a paper written for another class. I wanted to do a fairy tale instead. I spent more time on the ungraded content than the HTML, obviously. At least I got an A...

This book also qualifies as one of the most often recommended books on SurLaLune, not just by me. Reader comments and users on the SurLaLune Discussion Board often sing its praises. If you are wanting to read about women and fairy tales, this book is a must, an essential. Leaving it out of a bibliography is a mistake.

Book description from the publisher:

In this landmark study of the history and meaning of fairy tales, the celebrated cultural critic Marina Warner looks at storytelling in art and legend-from the prophesying enchantress who lures men to a false paradise, to jolly Mother Goose with her masqueraders in the real world. Why are storytellers so often women, and how does that affect the status of fairy tales? Are they a source of wisdom or a misleading temptation to indulge in romancing?

Some reviews that explain it better:

From Publishers Weekly:

Notwithstanding the prominence of the Grimm Brothers and Charles Perrault, most narrators of fairy tales, asserts Warner, have been women--nannies, grannies, 18th-century literary ladies, sibyls of antiquity. In this richly illustrated, erudite, digressive feminist study, cultural historian Warner (Alone of All Her Sex) argues that instead of seeking psychoanalytic meanings in fairy tales, we must first understand them in their social and emotional context. In her analysis, "Bluebeard" and "Beauty and the Beast" reflect girls' realistic fears of marrige in an era when women married young, had multiple children and often died in childbirth. Her delightfully subversive inquiry profiles reluctant brides, silent daughters, crones, witches, fates, muses, sirens, Saint Anne (image of the old wise woman), the biblical Queen of Sheba and Saint Uncumber, who grew a beard to avoid marriage but was crucified for her rebellion. Angela Carter's fiction, surrealist Leonora Carrington's comic fairy tales, Walt Disney movies and French aristocratic fairy tales of veiled protofeminist protest by Marie-Jeanne L'Heritier and Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy provide grist for her mill.

From Library Journal:

In this scholarly, original, and insightful study, Warner (Alone of Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary, 1983) explores the relationship between fairy tales and their historical and social contexts. She persuasively demonstrates that the teller of the tale-whether a prophesying enchantress luring knights to their doom or the jolly old beldame, Mother Goose-inevitably reflects the prevailing social prejudices for and against women. Warner first traces the "layered character of the traditional narrator" and the interconnections between storytellers and heterodox forms of knowledge. In the second half of the book, Warner takes up a sampling of tales and demonstrates in them such adult themes as the presense of painful rivalry and hatred between women (Cinderella). Finally, she explores the association of blondeness in the heroine with preciousness and desirability. Highly recommended for all readers who wish a deeper understanding of the fairy tales and cultural icons that have shaped us. Marie L. Lally, Alabama Sch. of Mathematics & Science, Mobile

Reading this will get you thinking about the meaning behind fairy tales, the feminine perspective, historical and gender interpretations of the tales. It is not light reading, but it is highly readable. And it is definitely a library essential. I don't reread it very often now for I have absorbed much of it although I have been contemplating a reread in the near future since it has been several years since I've done more than go straight to the index and look up a direct point or browse through my margin notes. I don't often write margin notes in my books, but this book required it.

I just wish this one was available as an ebook to make its text even more searchable. The index is excellent, but a search function would be even better.


  1. It seems this book is more critical analysis than straight re-printing of stories. Currently, I'm using The Great Fairy Tale Tradition, Norton Critical Edition for most referential work on Notion City.

    Have you ever read this edition? If so, how do you find the two compare?

    I may need to search the local B&N for From the Beast to the Blonde.

  2. Lovely coincidence! I'm reading this at the moment; so interesting. The points she make seem so blindingly obvious, I wonder that I never made the connections myself *sigh*. Just about to start the chapter on the Queen of Sheba.

    This is my second Marina Warner book, the first being 'Six Myths of Our Time'; I find her a brilliant writer. And so agree with your comments that even though the book isn't a light read, it is highly readable.