…is a place that we have all known and loved, but does this magical world of princesses, knights and girls in little red capes have a place in the 21st Century? I talk to Marina Warner, one of our very own professors and pick her brain about the undeniable renewed interest in stories that allow our increasingly cynical world to believe in happily ever after.
Words by Camela Cuison
Recently there has been a strong fairytale revival in popular culture (Grimm, Ever After, two Snow White films this summer, to name but a few). Why do you think characters we are all very familiar with are suddenly a strong point of interest again?
My sense is that the tensions and uncertainties of the times are contributing to a return to fantasy of all kinds, from allegory and myth in poetry and on the stage, to fairytale re-interpretations or re-visionings in the cinema. Alongside the interplay between dark times and the need for hope and consolation, other contributing factors are global networks, which need to speak in a common language, which fairytales provide, and a general rise in the value of genre in literature – gothic, horror, the paranormal, and pornography are all increasing in readership and stature – a strong matter for debate!
In my lifetime fairytales started off as bedtime stories and Disney films, but more recently have been aimed more towards teenagers and adults; why do you think this transition to an older audience has occurred?
The history of criticism, psychoanalytic and feminist, has strongly directed interest towards the latent, complex, ‘adult’ meanings of the tales. Angela Carter is a dominant voice in this development, but there are others: Anne Sexton in U.S., Jeanette Winterson and Sara Maitland here.
When The Guardian was reviewing the new collection of fairytales by Philip Pullman, he admitted that “The characters are conventional, the imagery obvious and there’s very little description – but the stories are irresistible.” What fresh aspect has Philip Pullman brought to this new collection? Furthermore, do you think these stories need to be re-written?
I have mixed feelings – I would have liked him to revision them completely, not render them so scrupulously in a form of translation, as he has done.
Fairytales have previously been accused of being politically incorrect, females are portrayed as two-dimensional, often swinging between a black and white moral binary. With new revivals such as the Philip Pullman collection and Angela Carter’s beautiful anthology, do you think that some intrinsic magic and mystique has been lost by snooping around the psychology of our most beloved childhood characters?
No. I think the process of telling and re-telling involves constant transformation, and writers and storytellers have always responded to the needs of their audiences as well as expressing their own vision. There are aspects of the fairytales which are unacceptable to us for good reason now, but of course values change. Also, there is no true original of the famous stories – Perrault is one of the first, the Grimms collected many that had never survived in manuscript or print before, but they weren’t ‘new’. They were streamlets from the vast current flowing out of the ocean of stories!
Following on from the last question, if you had the choice to encourage the classic fairytales or perhaps the more “politically correct” recent ones to a younger generation, which ones would you pick?
For children, I’d go for the new retellings by authors who have them in mind – for example, Brian Alderson did a Grimms a while ago with illustrations – and it is captivating. For over 15s I’d recommend the revisionings by writers like Angela Carter, but expect them to read the founding collections, Perrault, Grimm, Anderson as well.
I am aware that at the moment you are working on a Grimm series; could you give me some more details about your project?
It’s a series of ten programmes, 15 minutes each, taking a story at a time and opening it out into questions such as: Where do the stories come from? What are the psychoanalytical lines of inquiry? How did Socialist and Communist regimes interpret them?, etc. They will be going out on Radio 4 from December 17th through the 28th.
Follow Marina Warner’s work at www.marinawarner.com.