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Not So Grimm : The Staying Power of Fairy Tales : FROM THE BEAST TO THE BLONDE: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, By Marina Warner (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $35; 463 pp.)

October 29, 1995|Margaret Atwood | Margaret Atwood is the author of, most recently, "The Robber Bride" (novel), "Morning in the Burned House" (poems) and "Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut" (fairy tale)

The accomplished British novelist Marina Warner is also the author of several intriguing works of nonfiction, including "Alone of All Her Sex," an examination of the Virgin Mary cult, and "Monuments and Maidens," an analysis of female allegorical figures. Her new book inhabits roughly the same territory--the widespread icon, the popular image, the much-told tale--but is even more ambitious in scope.

"From the Beast to the Blonde" is what its subtitle proclaims: a book about fairy tales and also about those who have told them. As befits its subject, it is a thing of splendor--marvelous, bizarre, exotic--but at the same time familiar as porridge. It's crammed full of goodies--stick your thumb into it anywhere, and out comes a plum--and profusely illustrated. It is also simply essential reading for anyone concerned, not only with fairy tales, myths and legends, but also with how stories of all kinds get told.

Like many children, I devoured fairy tales. Having cut my milk teeth on the unexpurgated Grimms'--despite my parents' fears that the red-hot shoes and poked-out eyeballs might be too much for a 6-year-old--I went on to the Andrew Lang collections, the "Arabian Nights," and anything else I could get my hands on--if eerily illustrated by Arthur Rackham or Edmund Dulac, so much the better. By the time I hit college I was well-prepared for the more Jungian of my professors, who, in those myth-oriented days of the late '50s, referred casually to such fairy-tale denizens as WOMs (Wise Old Men) and WOWs (Wise Old Women).

Fairy tales were said to contain universal archetypes, and to teach deep and timeless psychic lessons. Of course, a WOM could just as easily be a Wandering Old Molester and a WOW, a Wicked Old Witch, and if encountered in the forest, or, say, the corner drugstore, a girl was hard-pressed to know whether to give them her crust of bread or a very wide berth. Still, there was a definite mystique.

Then fairy tales fell on hard times. Despite such thoughtful studies as Bruno Bettelheim's "The Uses of Enchantment," they were prettied up and weeded--adventurous heroines as well as grisly doings were downplayed, and the prone or Sleeping Beauty position was favored. After that, the tales were--understandably--attacked by feminists as brainwashing devices, aimed at turning women into beautiful, dutiful automatons, at extolling the phallic power of sword-sporting princes, and at slandering non-biological parental units and the chronologically enhanced. Like corsets, they were designed to confine, and as such were reprehensibly outmoded.

But now Marina Warner rides to the rescue. Fiddle-dee-dee, says she, in true Wise Woman fashion, as she rolls up her sleeves and sets to work salvaging things from the closet of discards. Look! Not musty old straw at all, she proclaims. Real gold! You just have to know how to spin it. And quicker than you can say Rumpelstiltskin backward, out the window goes the theory of timeless archetypes, as well as the Volkish idea that these stories were authentic, indigenous, preliterate, out-of-the-soul-of-the-soil emanations. (Her impressive collection of sources and variants puts paid to that.)

Away, too, goes the recent school of disparagement. If you want a feminist heroine, she suggests, how about Mother Goose? Reconsider the beaky nose, the funny bonnet, and the nursery pinafore. Mother Goose dresses like a featherbrain for the same reason that female "tourists" are favored as espionage couriers: Both disarm suspicion. But underneath, what surprises! Disguise! Ambiguity! Subversion!

Warner's theory of narrative, once put forth, is eminently sensible: For any tale told, there is a teller, but also a tellee. Also a social context, which changes over time: "Historical realism" is a term she favors. Even when the narrative events themselves remain constant, the moral spin put on them may not, for both the tellers and the tellees have their own fluctuating agendas.

Is it a coincidence that "old wives' tales" about the advisability of being nice to elderly women were once told by elderly women, who needed all the help they could get? Or that Bluebeard stories about young girls being married off to murderous husbands should have peaked during a reaction against made-for-money forced nuptials? Or that the beastliness of the fur-bearing Beast, he of Beauty-and-the, should once have been held against him, but in these green times is seen as a plus? (This book surely contains the definitive in-depth analysis of the Disney film of the tale, if "in-depth" here is not oxymoronic.)

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