In ten succinct chapters, Marina Warner guides us through the rich world of fairy tale, from Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel to Snow White and Pan's Labyrinth. Exploring pervasive themes of folklore, myth, the supernatural, imagination, and fantasy, Warner highlights the impact of the genre on human understanding, history, and culture.
If you're looking for a brief yet thorough overview of the history of fairy tales, you've come to the right place. Rather than sticking to a strictly chronological history, Warner (Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights) offers a series of chapters focused on different themes associated with fairy tales. For example, "Voices on the Page: Tales, Tellers & Translators" examines the oral tradition, narrative speakers like Mother Goose, and the (sometimes radical) revisions of translators. "Childish Things: Pictures & Conversations" maps the evolution of fairy tale illustrations, while "On Stage & Screen: States of Illusion" highlights new methods of retelling fairy tales, from early-19th-century ballets to 20th- and 21st-century feature films. Warner argues that fairy tales "try to find the truth and give us glimpses of the greater things," not only conveying cultural values and providing clues to possible real-life events, but also allowing us to probe the psyches of previous generations. The thematic organization of chapters gives structure to Warner's arguments, but they feel out of order nevertheless, particularly because the first two chapters are the densest. As a result, the average reader may put the book down before getting to the good stuff. But anyone interested in reading about the history of tales they first encountered in childhood will be edified and entertained.