Marina Warner speaks to TMO about fairy tales, the paradox of the female voice and why we can never experience the picture of a fairy tale from its text.
It was with a mixture of trepidation and a kind of amazed star shock that I approach Marina Warner. Along with being a novelist, critic and short-story writer, she also happens to be Professor in the Department of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex in which she teaches an undergraduate course on the Transformation of Fairytale as well as an MA courses in Creative Writing, one on The Tale, and another on psycho-geographical writing, Memory Maps. She has been elected a fellow of the British Academy in 2005, and was made a CBE for services to literature in 2008. She has been President of the British Comparative Literature Association (BCLA) since 2010 and was elected for a two-year Fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford in 2013. She is currently a trustee of The National Portrait Gallery and patron of Hosking Houses Trust, Reprieve, The Society for Storytelling and Bloodaxe Poetry Books. She gave the BBC’s Reith Lectures in 1994; her Clarendon Lectures (2000) are published as Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds.
Warner is, to say the very least, prolific and in addition to her many roles, has also found time (from god knows where) to agree to chair the Man Booker International Prize in 2015. She is currently working on her novel (working title, Inventory of a Life Mislaid), a story inspired by her father’s bookshop in the 1950s in Cairo. She is, perhaps, best-known for her non-fiction work on decoding the fairy tale and unravelling myths – some of her most well-known works being From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers and her award-winning study Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights.
TMO: You describe yourself as a mythographer. What exactly is a mythographer and how did you come to it?
MW: Well the funny thing is this really began with the search engines. When I first had a website the designer said “you can’t just call yourself a ‘writer’ because that’s just too general a term! What kind of writing do you do? “I said I write about fairy tales and myths and I said (half-jokingly really) that the professional word would be ‘mythographer’. He said “perfect! The search engines will find that!” It sounds to me very pompous.
TMO and yet the idea of myth and mythography as a serious subject has become more popular. Is this true?
after the war, in spite of people like Calvino, there was a turn against fairy tale . We were all meant to be realists and to grapple with experience – not to have recourse to this supposedly superannuated form and its backward morals and ideas.
MW: The word mythographer seems to have rather caught people’s imagination, I have to say – people ask me about it and describe me as that quite often. It is descriptive of the area I inquire into and to some extent my fictional writing is also very rooted in myth. So it’s a handle that can be useful. I have also fought a campaign all my life that myth’s presence should be accepted as an active force. It’s a question of saying that myth works on us much more deeply than we recognise. I don’t only mean the psychoanalytic argument that we can recognise ourselves in archetypes. I mean something quite practical in terms of political choices. We tend to discount it – I say “we” because our culture tends to denigrate irrationality, and myth belongs to that area of the human mind- like the weird dynastic arrangements of the gods in Greek mythology and the extraordinary ferocity of fairy tales and so forth. They are born out of the wilder depths of our minds. It’s a paradox, but unless one accepts its presence and power, one is much more likely to be subject to its influence.
So in a sense my work belongs to the enterprise that people think of as the Enlightenment – you look at things and discuss them and test them and so forth. But of course the effect is that I’ve given great value and still attach great value to these products that are not the products of reasonable deduction but of the unconscious imagination at its most vigorous.
TMO you talk about myths and political choices. Collections of fairy tales have, of course been used for political motivation. In terms of right-wing ideologies such as Nazism, do you see a parallel today?
MW: I think they are. They are not only a-moral in their ethical character, the traditional fairy tales. Of course, many people have taken up the traditional fairy tale to write them with their own ethical attitude embedded and that would be identified with someone from the left, such as Karel Čapek – a Czech fabulist who invented the idea of the robot. He was a utopian socialist who was carted off – he died actually before the Nazis were coming for him but he died of natural causes oddly enough – he was saved from the camps. His brother, I think did die in the camps, but the Čapeks were targeted by the Nazis in Czechoslovakia. They are one of numerous examples of people who have written twists on fairy tales to emancipate, illuminate and to set free the mind. The tales are used for moral ends but are morally neutral in themselves. On the whole, the heroes of fairy tales of the dispossessed rise to riches. Famine is a recurring theme, children, poverty- these were very marked in the early modern period when fairy tales were formed and they’ve survived because these are perennial human dangers and threats.
Then there are currents which happen-shifts that take place. In the 19th century, they were really collected by almost every culture in the world. This was a great craze in the 19thc and the 20thc all over the world. They were then used for nationalist purposes very strongly in the communist world and in the fascist world. Stalin loved Russian fairy tales; Hitler loved Grimm and so forth. In Italy we have the great figure of Italo Calvino who collected fairy tales much later, in the 50’s. He takes on this great project of consolidating all the folklore collectors of the 19th Century. He was a member of the communist party until the invasion of Hungary and he remained an Italian Marxist all of his life.
TMO: with Italy, there was of course a strong pull toward the defining of national identity- particularly in the 50’s. Calvino’s interest was certainly no accident.
MW: Yes. The magical realism in his own writing borrowed from the motifs of the fabulist literature that he had been excavating for his anthology, Italian Fairy Tales (1956); he was steeped in the tradition. But at the same time, as you rightly pointed out earlier, that folklore project had became strongly identified with atavistic, ethnic nationalism and purity of race and very many appalling and sinister things of that kind. That was the reason that after the war, in spite of people like Calvino, there was a turn against fairy tale . We were all meant to be realists and to grapple with experience – not to have recourse to this supposedly superannuated form and its backward lmorals and ideas. You can make parallels with the Middle East, where The Arabian Nights was also despised as ignorant literature, highly coloured, lurid- full of revenge and simply not to be imitated
TMO: You have cited Philip Pullman quite a lot in your work. In From the Beast to the Blonde in particular, you discuss the tellers of fairy tales in relation to the tales themselves. How do you feel about his re-telling of the Grimm tales?
MW: I am a huge admirer of His Dark Materials and of Philip in general.I was a bit sorry that he decided to be so faithful to the Grimms’ versions when he made his translations because he’s such a wonderful, vigorous writer himself . It seemed to me that he’d reined himself in. He did make some interventions, he couldn’t help himself, but he tried to achieve a tone that was as “licked clean” , as he put it, as the originals. That didn’t suit his own dramatic gift – he began writing plays for the children he was teaching, and he’s got a tremendous dramatic gift for unfolding a story. Regarding the Grimms, he was a bit hamstrung by his own reverence.
TMO He does, however, seem to have made a rather definite and deliberate decision as to the distinction between fairy tales and ‘literature’. He talks about their essential lack of interiority and how pictorial representations done by the likes of Arthur Rackham et al don’t actually marry with the essentially two-dimensional nature of fairy tales. He argues that they are much better represented by puppet show silhouettes.
MW: Yes, illustrators – and animators – supply a huge amount and are hugely important, providing the way that most adults and children remember and experience fairy tales- certainly in my case.
I’ve just written a tiny book called Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale which is for the Oxford University Press, commissioned as a Very Short Introduction to Fairy Tale for that series. It took me ages- 7 years – to write it, because writing a short book when you have been immersed in a subject for so long is frightfully difficult. I eventually got it reduced to this ‘capsule’ which they are going to publish in hardback.
MW: I’m very, very pleased about it. The artist Su Blackwell – she’s done a lot of wonderful fairy tale illustrations – has let us use an image of a cottage in a forest on the cover. The book’s coming out in October.
I’m also trying at the moment to publish the short stories that I’ve been writing since my last collection – about ten years’ worth of short stories. A lot of them are rewritings of fairy tales. That’s why it would be logical to bring the two books out close together.