Marina Warner is surely one of the best authors who could have tackled the topic of a history of fairytales; in her acknowledgements, she states that for the last decade, she has taught courses on fairytales, and written many articles about them. From the outset, one gets the feeling that she is incredibly in control of her subject.
Throughout Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale, Warner charts the territories in which fairytales enjoyed a strong oral tradition, from Russia to East Asia: ‘If you could turn this fictive atlas into an advent calendar and open windows in the scenery, you would then see scores of storytellers and inventors gathering, interpreting, revisioning the material’. Warner writes beautifully, particularly in her introduction: ‘Stories slipped across frontiers of culture and language as freely as birds in the air as soon as they first began appearing; fairy tales migrate on soft feet, for borders are invisible for them’.
In her book, Warner discusses so many elements of importance within the history of fairytales. She writes of such things as the similarities and differences between fairytales and folklore; the way in which fairytale’s scope is ‘made by language’ – ‘its building blocks include certain kinds of characters (stepmothers and princesses, elves and giants) and certain recurrent motifs (keys, apples, mirrors, rings and toads)’; the notion of fairies themselves in world cultures; the use of fairytales in creating a sense of national identity; mythology and the inspiration which it gave; and the way in which fairytales have adapted with the passing of time.
Once Upon a Time contains quotes from others who write within the fairytale tradition, or who echo the style – for example, A.S. Byatt, J.R.R. Tolkien and Angela Carter. The examples which Warner cites in order to build upon the points which she makes are as far reaching as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the fairy books of Andrew Lang, to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and some of Maurice Sendak’s stories.
One Upon a Time contains sixteen different illustrations taken from a wealth of different sources, which range from books to film stills, and which are wonderful additions to the text. Warner’s book is absolutely fascinating and far-reaching, and she has seamlessly blended history with literary criticism. The whole has been split into essay-length sections, all of which deal with a particular topic or element. Warner’s writing is intelligent and well-researched, and the pacing is sublime; one idea marvellously links into the next, and the whole is therefore eminently readable. Once Upon a Time is engrossing, and a true delight to read.