|Apr/May 1999 Book Reviews|
Chatto & Windus, Random House, 1998 435pp
ISBN: 0 7011 6593 6
"This Book", says Marina Warner disarmingly in her Introduction, "began with the problem of men". She never quite explains which problem, but this book is not a feminist text. She does explain that she originally intended to look at the male role in fairytales and myths, rather than the female, which she examined in From the Beast to the Blonde.
In fact, there are ogres, and ogresses, and monsters of mixed or indeterminate sex throughout the book. And its focus (thanks be to whatever gods or fates intervened) became "a cultural exploration of fear, its vehicles, and its ambiguous charges of pleasure and pain", rather than "an historical study of gender".
The subject turns out to be huge. And this is a beautiful book - beautifully written, beautifully illustrated, and beautifully presented - but it is not light reading. Marina Warner has researched her material thoroughly and she presents an erudite and interesting picture of the horrors with which we entertain, frighten and (so she suggests) protect ourselves and our children. In the process, she makes connections between magic and psychology, art, literature, religion, sociology, the rational and the irrational, which are intriguing and thought-provoking.
Why do mothers sing their babies to sleep with stories of disaster and death?
When the wind blows the cradle will fall, Down will come baby, cradle and all.
"Odd as it may seem", writes Warner, "lullabies obsessively spell out dangers". Are mothers "singing against the dark" or is there some other reason for this?
In her attempt to answer this and other related questions, Warner ranges through many centuries and many countries. From the nightingale in Ovid's horrific myth of Philomela in the _Metamorphoses_; via the art of the early monasteries, of Hogarth and Goya and Giuseppi Arcimboldo and of modern comics and computer games; to cradle songs in Old Norse and recordings of lullabies bought by modern mums. Her taste is eclectic: her knowledge enviable.
The purpose of nursery horrors, Warner suggests, may be fear, frustration, the development of a child's language skills, play, child-control or a combination of these and many other factors. She offers plausible explanations and leaves us to make our own decisions. As with lullabies, so too with ogres, ogresses, monsters, bogeymen, chimeras, aliens, nonsense and mockery. She examines, demonstrates and discusses all of these entertainingly and with a good deal of common sense and humour.
I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Odysseus and his encounter with Scylla; and Warner's 'Reflection' on "The Nymphaeum of the Emperor Tiberius," in which she describes huge ancient sculptures of Scylla and Polyphemos which have recently been restored from the fragments left by iconoclastic monks who smashed them in AD 511. There are similar 'Reflections' scattered through the book covering Goya's painting, 'Saturn Devouring His Child'; The Patum festival of Berga, Catalonia; Caravaggio 'The Rest on the Flight into Egypt'; Louis Desprez's 'The Chimera'; and Albert Eckhout's 'Eight Brazilian Portraits'.
Curiosities abound in the text, just as grilli decorate many of the pages. And the myth of Gryllus, and the porcine origin of the word 'grilli' for the grotesque creatures which decorate old manuscripts, is just one example of the many delightful snippets of knowledge that Warner weaves into the book.
Anyone who, like me, loves a magpie collection of imaginative facts (I choose the oxymoron deliberately), especially when they concern human behaviour, will love this book. And anyone who has ever wondered why mothers playfully pretend to gobble up their babies; why children and the Kiwi All Blacks poke out their tongues to threaten and provoke their opponents; why trolls and Teletubbies and Maurice Sendack's Wild Things are so appealing to children, will find plenty to keep them engrossed.
This is a handsome book which contains a treasury of facts, and many people will want to add it to their reference shelf. It would make a wonderful gift for anyone seriously studying human nature. And it has good source notes, referenced by page-number (as seems to be the latest reader-friendly practice) so that no reference marks are needed in the text. Sadly, its index lets it down. A random search for, say, 'Charybdis', turns up a page number which does not exist. An attempt to use the index to return to a discussion on the Erlking sent me to a relevant picture, but also to a page where there was no mention of the subject: it did not mention at all the pages on which the Erlking is discussed.
However, such faults seem minor when I remember, for example, the delight of contemplating Odysseus's wiles and story-telling skills, as Warner suggests we should. Did he embroider the facts to fit his heroic status? What did Penelope's errant husband exaggerate, distort or leave out of his accounts of the various female monsters he met? I must now go and read The Odyssey again from a new perspective.
And I really want to go to The Patum festival and enjoy being scared half to death.