In 1947, J R R Tolkien published a celebrated essay on fairy tales in which he insisted that their association with childhood was recent and unfortunate; it misled us into thinking that the genre was not worth serious analysis, not something to “think with”. Marina Warner’s wide-ranging and handsomely produced book Once Upon a Time will reinforce Tolkien’s insistence that these stories are very far from being a simple style of narrative to be outgrown. She surveys the literary history of the fairy tale, from the elegant fables of 17th-century French aristocrats to Angela Carter and beyond, discusses the feminist move to reclaim women’s agency from generations of patronising images of languishing princesses, and offers a partiÂcularly interesting analysis of recent film treatments of the classic tales. Her conclusion is that “fairy tales are gradually turning into myths”: paradoxically, in our day, it is adults who seem most to need and use them, because they are just about the only stories we have in common with which to think through deep dilemmas and to keep alive registers of emotion and imagination otherwise being eroded. The fairy tale now has to carry an unprecedented burden of significance, and it is not surprising that modern versions ”“ retellings or radical rewritings, like those of Angela Carter ”“ produce a darker, more complex, less resolved narrative environment than hitherto.
The point is that myths don’t need happy endings; they are not ways of resolving the unfairness of our experience or the frustration of our emotions. They provide a framework for imagining our human situation overall. But the fairy tale has its roots in a mixture of what Warner calls “honest harshness” and “wishful hoping”, depicting the hardest challenges we face as human beings and the possibility of “alternative plot lines”, ways out or through. But when we become culturally more suspicious of ways out, something changes: stories have to be coloured with a tragic palette, a recognition of what can’t be wished away.
This is fair comment up to a point, but there is a bit more to it….