From the beast to the blonde : on fairy tales and their tellers

by Marina Warner

Paperback, 1996




New York : Noonday Press, 1996.


Marina Warner looks at storytelling, at its practitioners and images in art, legend, and history - from the prophesying enchantresses who lure men to a false paradise to jolly Mother Goose, with her masqueraders in the real world, from sibyls and the Queen of Sheba to Angela Carter. The storytellers are frequently women (or were until men like Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, and Hans Christian Andersen started writing down the women's stories), and Marina Warner asks how changing prejudices about women affect the status of fairy tales: are they sources of wisdom and moral guidance, or temptations encouraging indulgence in romantic and vengeful fantasies? From the Beast to the Blonde considers old wives' tales in all their luxuriant detail and with a strong sense of the historical contexts in which they developed. Ms. Warner's fresh new interpretations show us how the real-life themes in these famous stories evolved: rivalry and hatred between women ("Cinderella" and "The Sleeping Beauty"), the ways of men and marriage ("Bluebeard" and "Beauty and the Beast"), not to mention neglect, incest, death in childbirth, murder, and racial prejudice. As she suggests in her superb closing chapter, happy endings come only after stumbles and falls; yet in some sense the story of tale-telling is never done.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member deliriumslibrarian
This book probably defined more of my thinking that any other. It was like someone turned a light on in my brain. Suddenly, it was cool to be a nerd who wondered things like, but where did Cinderella come from? And will learning Latin help me find out? Capacious, capricious and wonderful, this book
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is the thinking reader's Disneyland ride.
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LibraryThing member thorold
Marina Warner's classic account of the cultural history of the fairy-tale, definitely not just a book for the Women's Studies course, but something that should be of great interest to anyone who is interested in the way narratives operate in human societies. It's fascinating to see the ways in
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which particular families of stories and the images and characters in them merge and split, and are put to use by different generations of storytellers and writers in quite different ways.

I have to admit that it took me a couple of years to read this, but that has more to do with the weight of the book than anything else. With it being printed (to the credit of Vintage!) on high-quality glossy paper throughout, you need pretty hefty muscles to manage this in your lap or in bed, but the paperback is too floppy to sit comfortably on a lectern. Still, it's worth that minor inconvenience for the many illustrations, which are unusually well integrated into the text.
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LibraryThing member keristars
Marina Warner has put together a fascinating look at fairy tales across time, how they are subversive and inherently feminist while still representing and supporting the patriarchal and oppressive societies from when - and where - the stories are told.

Her focus is almost exclusively on the Western
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traditions, beginning with the Greeks and studying the evolution of both culture and the tales that depict the culture in Europe through the middle ages through the modern era. She discusses the context of fairy tales (and nursery rhymes) - who would be telling them, where they are being told, what kinds of stories are told when - as well as the way these contexts change and the acceptability or otherwise of the tales and tellers and the role that the tales may have had in the changing contexts - for example, the trio of the Sibyl, St Anne, and St Helena (Constantine's mother) who are all storytellers in folkloric tradition, foretelling the coming of Christ or establishment of Christianity.

As fascinating as I find From the Beast to the Blonde, though, I do have plenty of criticism for the book. It is big and attempts to be all-encompassing, but that makes it dense and difficult to read. While it can be a little too academic in parts, the biggest detraction was Warner's burying of each section's thesis. The book is arranged thematically, which is often also chronological, but the result is long chapters that wander here and there without a lot of cohesion, and there might be one or two paragraphs scattered throughout but buried that tie the entire section together. It was frustrating, because while the subject was interesting, I couldn't always figure out on my own what one thing had to do with another until many pages later, and then I had to go back and read again with the unifying thesis in mind - this caused the book to take quite a long time to get through, and it's already fairly long.

The book is organized in two parts - the first is about "Tellers" and looks at the history of storytelling and fairy tales from the Greeks and the Sibyl tradition through the respectable recording of tales by Perrault or the Grimms. The second part looks at certain elements of the stories and what they reveal about the context of when they were told. While great in theory, I found that the delineation of the two parts was very fuzzy and resulted in covering the same ground multiple times. The chronological history of fairy tales also seemed to progress without being divided into two, so that many of the later chapters discuss modern interpretations and contexts of specific fairy tale elements without looking at the earlier examples, though they didn't arise only in modern times (surely there are elements of The Little Mermaid, the focus of the last chapter, long before Andersen wrote his version!). This odd chronological progression also means that nearly all of the last couple chapters are hyper-focused on sexual interpretations of fairy tales, which seems to be the most popular literary criticism this century, though I'm not sure it is always the best.

Just like the wrangling of the fairy tale elements to fit the sexual interpretations of recent literary criticism, though it isn't necessarily the best reading, Warner tends to force most of the context and facts to fit her personal theories throughout the book. I don't find this a problem, and in fact think a lot of what she has to say is interesting or at least worth considering, except that she ignores aspects of folklore or tradition that don't fit. I noticed that when she talks about storks in nursery rhymes and what they what they represent to the societies that created them, she has a very limited view and doesn't even mention several other major things the storks symbolize. When she talks about the hagiography of saints like Bridget or Genevieve in later chapters, she presents very narrow interpretations that don't fit very well with everything I know of them, as someone who grew up on saint stories in a Catholic household. There is also a point where she talks about "monsters" and attributes an etymology to the word which is outright incorrect and is a bit of an overreach in any case.

Because it was obvious to me in several places that Warner has either a very narrow interpretation, or else allows her pov to be too broad, I am skeptical about many of her other claims. But I don't think she's outright wrong, and I do find her history and interpretation of fairy tales (and their tellers) to be worth considering and reading. I just wish it were differently organized with more acknowledgments of where Warner is being loose with what she presents or where she is neglecting alternate and equally - or more - valid interpretations.
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LibraryThing member Priory
This brilliant and timely study looks beyond the Freudian interpretation of fairy tales, to the tellers of the tales, and to the social and cutural contexts in which the tales are told and re-told through the centuries, from the ancient sibyls to the eighteenth-century SALONIERES, from Angela
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Carter to Disney. The value and enduring popularity of folk and fairy tales derives not only from their mythic significance but, crucially, from the fact that their concerns are rooted in the material world. Lively, provocative and ground-breaking, FROM THE BEAST TO THE BLONDE is Marina Warner's first major work of non-fiction since the acclaimed MONUMENTS AND MAIDENS.
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LibraryThing member CassandraT
Another reviewer called this book "fact soup", and I'm going to adopt her phrase. Marina Warner has created a very dense history of stories that, so far, is western focused. I can't read it, as I'm not academic in the arts. I can skim it. It's not a book for the average fairy tale lover to read
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cover-to-cover. But it's more of an occassional reference, skim, or short story for one interested in the role of women in folk lore. The structure is difficult because it is much too fluid. Fact soup just pours out of the author's pen.
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Mythopoeic Awards (Finalist — Myth and Fantasy Studies — 1996)



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