Once Upon a Time

A Short History of the Fairy Tale

By Marina Warner

Published by Oxford University Press

Once Upon a Time - A Short History of the Fairy Tale. Marina Warner is a Professor of Literature and a Fellow of All Souls College Oxford and if she brings the leaden touch of academia to the magical world of the fairytale it is hardly noticeable. Because it is obvious she likes them, as well as finding them highly significant works of folk culture. Which means, really, our culture; just as much as Stonehenge and Salisbury cathedral are our culture.

Fairy stories, we now know, thanks to ground breaking research at the University of Durham in 2016, are much older than previously thought. Indeed for many years academics persisted in dating all fairy stories from their first appearance in print- this despite the widely held knowledge that such stories had been told orally for centuries.

Professor Warner sets out to define the fairy tale while admitting at the outset this is a perilous task. They are short narratives- shorter than novels at least. They are familiar stories- either because of ubiquity, or because they have been passed down for millenia (the research alluded to above suggests Beauty and the Beast, for example, is upwards of 3500 years old).

Her next definition is rather interesting: ‘the accumulated wisdom of the past has been deposited in them.’ But then she loses her nerve a little and adds: ‘at least, that is the feeling a fairy tale radiates and the claim the form has made since the first collections.’ She states there is a kind of fairy tale world which makes recognising what is and isn’t a fairy tale quite easy. It is a world of princesses, kingdoms, evil creatures and of course magic.

In the Arne-Thompson index of folk tales, fairy tales come squarely under section 2A- Tales of Magic. Warner then notes that the language of fairy tales is also different to that of other narratives- perhaps from the very beginning- with the necessary introduction of ‘Once upon a Time’ to set the right tone. The author observes that officially fairy tales are one dimensional, depthless, abstract and sparse. But then the rest of Once Upon a Time reveals this isn’t quite the case.

The relationship between fairy tales and psychology

One of the more interesting chapters concerns the relationship between fairy tales and psychology. She of course mentions Bruno Bettelheim’s groundbreaking The Uses of Enchantment, and though Bettelheim has taken something of a beating recently (lying about his credentials, mistreating students and plagiarising Julius E Heuscher’s A psychiatric study of fairy tales) this book has been extremely influential in over-turning the previously simplistic idea that fairy tales were one dimensional narratives. Bettelheim, it is noted, showed that the caves, forests and seas of fairy tales might actually stand for something else. He also made the connection that the fairy tale and the dream have a lot in common.

No one can ignore the way cinema- the great art form of the masses- has used fairy tales as a resource since its inception. The world’s first and arguably most impressive animated feature was Disney’s Snow White. And in 2017 Disney Studios made a musical version of Beauty and the Beast- a very much photographed story. Warner points out that the majority of fairy tale films have a female protagonist- who will end up as, if she isn’t already, a princess. There are multiple interpretations for what the Princess character stands for- ranging from childish wish fulfillment to an analogy for the truth knowing part of the soul. It is this sheer variety of possible reading that gives these films their vitality and appeal to both parents and children.


In summary Warner writes, ‘Fairy tales are stories that try to find the truth and give us glimpses of the greater things- this is the principle that underlies their growing presence in writing, art, cinema, dance and song.’ Interestingly Warner insists that modern versions and interpretations of fairy tales are no longer sunny and cloud free and she sees in this the migration from fairy tale into myth; myths being narratives ‘held in common about our deepest dilemmas’. But perhaps this process has always been going on.

When pessimists get their hands on a fairy tale they insist on one interpretation- a ‘serious’ one, instead of the many interpretations that are possible. This paring down of the interpretive potential of a story turns it into something academics mostly prefer- a good solid myth. Yet wouldn’t it be interesting if myths were actually degenerate fairy tales, and that the tales themselves were our oldest cultural possession?

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