Marina Warner on the history of the fairy-tale

The following is an excerpt from ‘Potato Soup’, a chapter in Once Upon a Time, by Marina Warner

Princes and queens, palaces and castles dominate the foreground of a fairy tale, but through the gold and glitter, the depth of the scene is filled with vivid and familiar circumstances, as the fantastic faculties engage with the world of experience. Realism of content also embraces precise observation of detail, and contrasts between earthiness and preposterous fancy sharpen the entertaining effect. Perrault tells us, for example, that the cruel sisters have dressmakers’ pins from England, the most fashionable and most coveted article at the time. In the Grimms’ ‘The Three Golden Hairs’, the Devil himself is the adversary, and hell is a kitchen much like any ordinary kitchen where his granny sits by the stove. When the brave hero appears, a poor lad who’s been set an impossible task by the proud princess to fetch her the trophy (the hairs in the title), Granny is kind to him, and turns the boy into an ant to keep him safe. She hides him in the folds of her apron until she has herself pulled out the three hairs, shushing the Devil as she does so. She then turns our hero back again into human form and sends him back to the world above to marry the princess.

It is emblematic that the Devil’s kind old granny can pull out the required hairs because she is busy de-lousing him, something that’s comforting even in Hell. Each of the three hairs then brings about a blessing that makes a joke of the story’s roots in toil and hunger: with the first, the Devil reveals that a spring has dried up because an old toad is squatting on a stone that’s blocking it; with the second that an apple tree no longer bears fruit because a mouse is nibbling through its roots; and with the third that the ferryman who’s working day in and day out, poling passengers across the river need only put his pole in the hands of one of his passengers to be free.

Many fairy tales about golden-haired princesses with tiny feet still address the difficulty, in an era of arranged marriage and often meagre resources, of choosing a beloved and being allowed to live with him or her. Many explore other threats all too familiar to the stories’ receivers: the loss of a mother in childbirth is a familiar, melancholy opening to many favourites.

Behind their gorgeous surfaces you can glimpse an entire history of childhood and the family: the oppression of landowners and rulers, foundlings, drowned or abandoned children, the ragamuffin orphan surviving by his wits, the maltreated child who wants a day off from unending toil, or the likely lad who has his eye on a girl who’s from a better class than himself, the dependence of old people, the rivalries between competitors for love and other sustenance. Unlike myths, which are about gods and superheroes, fairytale protagonists are recognizably ordinary working people, toiling at ordinary occupations over a long period of history, before industrialization and mass literacy. In the Arabian Nights the protagonists belong to more urban settings, and practise trades and commerce. Some are abducted and then sold into slavery, many are cruelly driven by their masters — and mistresses. In the European material, the drudgery is more rural, the enslavement unofficial and more personal in its cruelty. It is fair to say that fairytale heroines are frequently skivvies who take on the housework uncomplainingly, and that this kind of story won favour in the Victorian era and later, at the cost of eclipsing lively rebel protagonists, tricksters like Finette (Finessa in English translation), who turns the tables on her sisters’ seducers, or Marjana the slave girl who pours boiling oil on the Forty Thieves.

Direct and shared experiences of material circumstances — of the measures that sociologists use to establish the wellbeing of a given society — are taken up by fairy tales as a matter of course: when the mother dies giving birth, that child will have to survive without her love and protection, and that is a grim sentence. The pot of porridge that is never empty speaks volumes about a world where hunger and want and dreadful toil are the lot of the majority, whose expectations are rather modest by contemporary standards. ‘A fairy tale’, Angela Carter once remarked, ‘is a story in which one king goes to another king to borrow a cup of sugar.’

Once Upon a Time, by Marina Warner (Oxford University Press, 2014)

Marina Warner’s award-winning studies of mythology and fairy tales include Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (1976; re-issued 2013), Stranger Magic: Charmed States & the Arabian Nights (2012), From the Beast to the Blonde — on Fairy Tales and their Tellers (1994), Monuments & Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form (1985), and No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling and Making Mock (1998). Her Clarendon Lectures Fantastic Metamorphoses; Other Worlds were published in 2001; her essays on literature and culture were collected in Signs & Wonders (2000), and Phantasmagoria, a study of spirits and technology, appeared in 2006. In 2013 she was awarded a Sheykh Zayed Prize and the Truman Capote Award. She was awarded a CBE for services to Literature in 2008. She is a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, an Honorary Fellow of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the British Academy.

Want to read more about fairy-tales? Why not see who the staff at Oxford University Press picked as their favourite fairy-tale characters or join in the fun of #fairytalesexplainedbadly on Twitter.

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