Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale - Marina Warner

--"Ever After", Into the Woods (1990)


Once Upon A Time:

A Short History of the Fairy Tale

by Marina Warner


When I saw the title, Once Upon a Time: A Short History of the Fairy Tale, I knew I had to give the book a try. I had recently finished Jack Zipes’ translation of the 1812/1215 Grimms’ Fairy Tales and had been very intrigued by the forward, in which Zipes detailed the origins and histories of the Grimms’ tales and the reason for the stories’ evolution. Because this book calls itself a history, I rather expected an expansion of this theme, a history detailing the stories’ transcriptions and an attempt to trace the evolution of the fairy tale archetypes. Unfortunately, I think the title is somewhat misleading: this book is less a history than a literary analysis.


Warner’s definition of “fairy tale” is not the same as mine. Her focus is almost entirely on Western fairy tales (the only real exception is the Western retellings of world fairy tales) and spends just as much on present-day “fairy tales” as on the original stories, from Angela Carter to Philip Pullman to movies like Maleficent and Brave. In my opinion, most of the book is made up of literary criticism rather than ethnography or history.


Although I’m not particularly fond of literary analysis, some of the aspects that Warner discusses, such as Bettelheim’s psychoanalytical analyses of the stories, was quite interesting. However, while I know this is more of an indictment of me than the genre, I tend to dislike the way that literary criticism tends to bolster claims with anecdotes rather than fact. For example, Warner claims that

“Bluebeard’s afterlife in literature and other media divides sharply along gender lines: male writers see themselves in the role, with varying degrees of self-scrutiny and complacency, whereas for women, the Bluebeard figure often embodies contradictory feelings about male sexuality, and consequently presents a challenge, a challenge that they meet in a variety of ways.”

Given the provocative nature of this statement, I would have expected that it would be backed up by some sort of census of stories, or at least a collection of examples in which male authors use the tropes that Warner claims for them. Instead, the only “evidence” is an example from one of Angela Carter’s stories and a rather fanciful interpretation of the low-budget, female-directed art house film Barbe-bleue (2009).

Warner also makes other similar statements such as

“Female protagonists are mutilated more often than male heroes.”

“Females dominate fairytale evil,”


“The Latin Americans, broadly speaking, do not undermine the structure of the magic they create, whereas the North Americans and Europeans make a show of their scepticism (superiority).”

I don’t necessarily doubt these rather sensational claims, but given that both are quantitative statements, both could be demonstrated in absolute terms. Warner doesn’t even try. This pattern of grandiose claims backed by at most a few anecdotes is a general trend in the book.


Warner makes her preference for “literary” fairy tales--and Victorian phrasing-- quite clear in her praise of the heavily edited and adulterated 1857 version of the Grimms’ fairy tales:

“Comparison of the 1812 versions with the fuller, patterned 1857 final, now standard, edition shows that Wilhem had a fine sense of narrative dynamics, and that the tales benefited hugely from his multiple interferences.”

Personally, I disagree completely, but given Warner’s own writing style, I’m not precisely surprised by her attitude. The book’s structure is overblown, with the sentences often lasting a half a Kindle page or more. A randomly-chosen example sentence:

“Scholars who refute popular, unlettered participants in the tales’ history are staking too much on the literary record; the latter is interwoven in the dissemination of the story, in manuscript and print, and helps crystallize its features, but the case for the invention of an entire story, ab ovo, by an individual writer, flies in the face of evidence--Plato mentions old women going down to the harbour to comfort the victims bound for the Minotaur’s table by telling them stories, and Apuleius places his marvellous ‘Tale of Cupid and Psyche’ on the lips of an old and disreputable bawd.”

Maybe it's just me, but I thought that Warner injected rather too many personal details into her descriptions. I don’t really care that The Bloody Chamber gave Warner “new, vital carnal knowledge” or about her early fearful memories of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations.


I have a certain amount of difficulty determining the target audience for the book. If you know much of anything about fairy tales, you’ll already know most or all of the history and theories that Warner describes. However, if you aren’t familiar with the tales, the arbitrary examples that Warner pulls to support her arguments will be difficult to comprehend. Maybe it simply shows my lack of scholarly interest, but I found Sondheim's Into the Woods an equally acute exploration of the nature of the fairy tale. At the same time, there were still a few interesting details that I hadn’t encountered before. For example, Warner briefly details the life of Mother Bunch, the first author to describe her stories as “fairy tales.” Some sections of the book did meet my original expectations, such as the interlude in which Warner describes the theory that Gilles de Rais was the inspiration for Bluebeard, or that Snow White’s story can be attributed to the life of either Saint Ludmila or Margarete von Waldeck. Warner also details how the French Bete de Gevaudan became intertwined with the story of Red Riding Hood, and the ways that dictators such as Hitler and Stalin harnessed the fairy tale to inspire a sense of national identity. Overall, while I don’t precisely regret reading the collection, I think it would be better served by a subtitle that described it as a literary analysis rather than a history.

Note: The quotes in this review are taken from an ARC provided to me by the publishers and may not be reflected in the final version. It is also worth noting that in my ARC, the entire text of the book was actually provided twice in a row. I skimmed the second iteration and the versions looked identical to me, but I only read the first instance of the book, so it is possible that some of my complaints don’t apply to the second copy.


~~I received this ebook through NetGalley from the publisher, Oxford University Press, in exchange for my honest review. ~~