Tuesday, November 11, 2014

New Book: Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner

Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner is officially released on December 15th, so it wasn't on my radar for posting about quite yet. But a copy of it arrived on my doorstep over the weekend--not a review copy, but one I had preordered and paid for at Amazon--so the book is shipping now from retailers. I imagine this early US release is thanks to the UK release date of 10/23/14: Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale (UK edition).

I haven't had the chance to read it yet--it is short at just 226 pages in a small book. It's not much bigger than an ebook reader in size--but I have been busy and traveling the last few days. That small size also translates to a very affordable price. That's a boon since Warner is on my autobuy list along with some other influential names in the field.


  • A lively and engaging exploration of fairy tales and their meaning
  • Considers fairy tale as both a genre and a literary form
  • Explores an array of classic and contemporary examples including Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and The Sleeping Beauty,
  • Looks at the cultural, social, and political influence of fairy tales
  • Reveals how fairy tales use the characteristics of fantasy and the imagination
  • Highlights questions of gender, feminism, and psychoanalysis in the fairy tale tradition
  • Considers a number of visual interpretations on stage and screen

Book description:

From wicked queens, beautiful princesses, elves, monsters, and goblins to giants, glass slippers, poisoned apples, magic keys, and mirrors, the characters and images of fairy tales have cast a spell over readers and audiences, both adults and children, for centuries. These fantastic stories have travelled across cultural borders, and been passed down from generation to generation, ever-changing, renewed with each re-telling. Few forms of literature have greater power to enchant us and rekindle our imagination than a fairy tale.

But what is a fairy tale? Where do they come from and what do they mean? What do they try and communicate to us about morality, sexuality, and society? The range of fairy tales stretches across great distances and time; their history is entangled with folklore and myth, and their inspiration draws on ideas about nature and the supernatural, imagination and fantasy, psychoanalysis, and feminism.

Marina Warner has loved fairy tales over her long writing career, and she explores here a multitude of tales through the ages, their different manifestations on the page, the stage, and the screen. From the phenomenal rise of Victorian and Edwardian literature to contemporary children's stories, Warner unfolds a glittering array of examples, from classics such as Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and The Sleeping Beauty, the Grimm Brothers' Hansel and Gretel, and Hans Andersen's The Little Mermaid, to modern-day realizations including Walt Disney's Snow White and gothic interpretations such as Pan's Labyrinth.

In ten succinct chapters, Marina Warner digs into a rich collection of fairy tales in their brilliant and fantastical variations, in order to define a genre and evaluate a literary form that keeps shifting through time and history. She makes a persuasive case for fairy tale as a crucial repository of human understanding and culture.

Table of Contents:

1. The Worlds of Faery: Far Away and Down Below
2. With a Stroke of Her Wand: Magic and Metamorphosis
3. Voices on the Page: Tales, Tellers, and Translators
4. Potato Soup: True Stories/Real Life
5. Childish Things: Pictures and Conversations
6. On the Couch: House Training the Id
7. In the Dock: Don't Bet on the Prince
8. Double Vision: The Dream of Reason
9. On Stage and Screen: States of Illusion

Warner also wrote two blog posts for Oxford University Press, the publisher:

Once upon a time, part 1, Posted on October 23, 2014

I'm writing from Palermo where I’ve been teaching a course on the legacy of Troy. Myths and fairy tales lie on all sides in this old island. It’s a landscape of stories and the past here runs a live wire into the present day. Within the same hour, I saw an amulet from Egypt from nearly 3000 years ago, and passed a young, passionate balladeer giving full voice in the street to a ballad about a young woman – la baronessa Laura di Carini – who was killed by her father in 1538. He and her husband had come upon her alone with a man whom they suspected to be her lover. As she fell under her father’s stabbing, she clung to the wall, and her hand made a bloody print that can still be seen in the castle at Carini – or so I was told. The cantastorie – the ballad singer – was giving the song his all. He was sincere and funny at the same time as he knelt and frowned, mimed and lamented. Read the full blog post

Once upon a time, part 2, Posted on October 25, 2014

There is a quarrel inside me about fairies, and the form of literature their presence helps to define. I have never tried to see a fairy, or at least not since I was five years old. The interest of Casimiro Piccolo reveals how attitudes to folklore belong to their time: he was affected by the scientific inquiry into the paranormal which flourished – in highly intellectual circles – from the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth. But he also presents a test case, I feel, for the questions that hang around fairies and fairy tales in the twenty-first century. What is the point of them? What are the uses of such enchantments today? Read the full blog post

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