Jul/Aug 2000 Book Reviews

From the Beast to the Blonde

Marina Warner
Vintage, Random House (1995) 458 pages
ISBN: 0 09 947951 6

reviewed by Ann Skea

What goes in hard and comes out soft?

This is a popular riddle with Italian children, so the answer, of course, is macaroni. But the joke, as Marina Warner points out, is in trapping the listener into dirty thoughts. It has been thus with riddles ever since literature began and the surprising thing is that there are strong links between such riddles and the prophetic Sibyls of myth and of Christianity, who are themselves linked with Saint Anne and also with Mother Goose.

Warner traces these links in detail, drawing on a huge range of English and European sources in literature, art, folk tale, history, religion, and, even, cathedral sculpture. She is an erudite, scholarly, and persuasive writer and there are many surprising and delightful bits of information in this book, but it is in no sense a light read.

Not only does it require concentration to follow Warner through the fascinating and labyrinthine history of fairy tales and their tellers, but the book itself is so heavy that simply holding it up to read it becomes a test of strength and endurance. Yet the reason for this weight is also one of the delights of the book, for it is richly illustrated on smooth, glossy (but heavy) paper.

Just to look at the pictures and read their captions is an education in itself. And for anyone interested inhuman nature the story of fairy tales, from the beast to the blonde, is very revealing.

Warner deals mostly, in this book, with the female role in preserving and transmitting fairy tales and with the role of women within the tales themselves. The place of women in society, the importance of women's networks, gossip and tales in passing on knowledge to other women, and the fear that this engenders in men, are very much part of her story. The word 'gossips' itself once denoted the women present at the christening of a child - the mother's circle of women helpers. And it was the gossips who kept the secrets of fertility, abortion and childbirth and usually kept such secrets away from men. Women's talk was therefore discouraged by men and gossips denigrated. "A good woman is a silent woman," became the dictum, and silence was the main attribute of the virtue, Prudence. So, from so-called "idle" gossip to fantastic fairy tales is an easily understood progress.

Not all the progressions are as straightforward as this and some of the links Warner makes as she traces the history of fairy tales are surprising, but she is scrupulous in documenting and illustrating all her points. Too scrupulous, at times, for the casual reader, who would be better advised to dip into the book for details wherever the illustrations catch their attention. But those who enjoy a deeper and more challenging exploration will appreciate Warner's care, and this book is a superb resource for scholars in a wide range of fields. It complements her later book, No Go the Bogeyman, which looks at the male role in fairy tales.

So, are you ready for another riddle?

What did King Solomon think that the Queen of Sheba hid under her skirt?

You will have to buy the book to find out if you were right.


Previous Piece go to forums Next Piece

What did you think?