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

<i> 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)</i>

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.)

The first section of Warner’s book is about the tellers. It deals engagingly with those who collected, rewrote and concocted such stories, from Marie-Jeanne L’Heritier to Perrault, to the studious Grimm brothers and the melancholy Hans Anderson. But also, even more entertainingly, it considers the imagined teller-of-tales, she (and it is mostly a “she”) from whom story itself was perceived to flow. Who would have suspected that the Mother Goose whose comical portrait adorned so many early collections had such an ancient and august lineage? The cackly voiced bird-woman, it appears, goes all the way back to the feather-bodied sirens. The sibyl figures in her genealogy too, as does the Queen of Sheba, who was thought by medieval artists to have a bird’s foot. So do such disparate figures as the hard-pressed but cool Scheherazade, the pious and instructive Saint Anne, and a bevy of raucous crones, who, like Juliet’s nurse, are vulgar in their speech and erotic in their interests.

But the more women as a group were misprized by society, the greater the level of disguise required by any who dared to break silence. In times of oppression, wisdom of certain kinds can safely be spoken only through the mouths of those playing the fool. Thus the goose-face.

The second part of the book deals with the tales themselves--not only in their verbal forms, but also as they feature in plays, operas, films and pictures. Warner focuses on stories with female protagonists--beanstalk Jack and his bravely bladed brethren get short shrift, while maiden-devouring ogres, demon lovers and incest-inclined fathers are bathed in the lurid spotlight--but then, this book does not pretend to be an encyclopedia. Nor are all the girls in it goody-goodies: Unpleasant females such as ugly sisters, bad fairies and wicked stepmothers get a thorough going-over, with the caveat that stepmothers in our changed socioeconomic times need no longer be wicked. (I was relieved to hear that, being one.)

Why so many dead mothers? Why so many blond heroines? Why indeed a chapter called, enticingly, “The Language of Hair”? From which Rapunzel-like German hair-water ad did the Dadaists pinch their name? Only list, Dear Reader--Warner herself is a dab hand at lists--and you shall know all. Or if not all, at least a good deal more than you did when you came in.

At times, you may feel you’re at risk of falling into a charmed sleep, having pricked your finger on one spinster too many, but that just means you’ve been reading too fast. This is a complex tapestry woven of many yarns, and you shouldn’t try to unravel all of its threads at once.

Although Warner is entranced by the vitality and metamorphic properties of the fairy tale as form, she does not try to make a case for it as at all times politically appropriate. She recognizes “the contrary directions of the genre,” which pull it “toward acquiescence on one hand and rebellion on the other.” Because a story--any story, but especially one that exists in such a vernacular domain--is a negotiation between teller and audience, the listeners are accomplices. The aim of the tale may well be to instruct, but if it does not also delight, it will play to empty houses. As Warner says, “Fairystorytellers know that a tale, if it is to enthrall, must move the listeners to pleasure, laughter or tears. . . . The sultan is always there, half asleep, but quite awake enough to rouse himself and remember that death sentence he threatened.”

We the audience are the collective sultan. If we want insipid heroines, that’s what we’ll get, and ditto for bigotries and prejudices and superheated shoes. But not forever: As Warner also says, “What is applauded and who sets the terms of the recognition and acceptance are always in question.” We need not content ourselves with limp compliance or sullen revenge: The creative retelling, the utopian dream, the mischievous reversal, the rightly-chosen wish, and the renewed sense of wonder may instead be ours.

This is a happy ending--and Warner knows her genre far too well not to give us one--but it is also a challenge. The uses of enchantment, it seems, are in our hands.