Once Upon a Time – By Marina Warner

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Goodreads Synopsis: From wicked queens, beautiful princesses, elves, monsters, and goblins to giants, glass slippers, poisoned apples, magic keys, and mirrors, the characters and images of fairy tales have cast a spell over readers and audiences, both adults and children, for centuries. These fantastic stories have travelled across cultural borders, and been passed down from generation to generation, ever-changing, renewed with each re-telling. Few forms of literature have greater power to enchant us and rekindle our imagination than a fairy tale.

But what is a fairy tale? Where do they come from and what do they mean? What do they try and communicate to us about morality, sexuality, and society? The range of fairy tales stretches across great distances and time; their history is entangled with folklore and myth, and their inspiration draws on ideas about nature and the supernatural, imagination and fantasy, psychoanalysis, and feminism.

Marina Warner has loved fairy tales over her long writing career, and she explores here a multitude of tales through the ages, their different manifestations on the page, the stage, and the screen. From the phenomenal rise of Victorian and Edwardian literature to contemporary children’s stories, Warner unfolds a glittering array of examples, from classics such as Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and The Sleeping Beauty, the Grimm Brothers’ Hansel and Gretel, and Hans Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, to modern-day realizations including Walt Disney’s Snow White and gothic interpretations such as Pan’s Labyrinth.

In ten succinct chapters, Marina Warner digs into a rich collection of fairy tales in their brilliant and fantastical variations, in order to define a genre and evaluate a literary form that keeps shifting through time and history. She makes a persuasive case for fairy tale as a crucial repository of human understanding and culture.

Find on Goodreads and Book Depository.

“A real fairy tale, a tale in it’s true functions, is a tale within a circle of listeners.”

After being introduced to the work of Marina Warner in my Literature and Gender Class last term I immediately went on a hunt for more books by her.  Fairy tales are a new fascination of mine, with all the YA retellings coming out and so many variations of the same stories, and so it was interesting to look at them through Warner’s unique lens.

Once Upon a Time looks at various Western fairy tales throughout history, the intersections of feminism and retellings and how fairy tales have come to be what we know now.  She talks about the Grimm brothers and Charles Perrult and other collectors of fairy tales, about how they acquired their stories and more.  I loved Warner’s note on the Grimm tales being not for children, but instead a look into local culture and folklore. Which makes so much more sense!

I definitely think this is a book I want to own someday so that I can go back and reread and reference it in some of my work. Once Upon a Time really brought home for me what Warner talks about in her short introduction at Google, (you can find a link to this video below) which is this idea about fairy tales being stories women told each other about the world.  A sort of warning and promise of hope at the end given from grandmothers to daughters and granddaughters.  And I really love the idea of this circle of women speaking and listening to each other.

In the end I gave this book four stars on Goodreads and I highly recommend you all check it out!

Link to Marina Warner’s Talk. 


  1. Fascinating! Looks like I’ll have to check this book out. I love books that explore the origins of fairy-tales. Some people don’t realize that there are many versions of some tales. Snow White for example was quite different in its first Grimm publication than what we normally see now in fairy tale books. Great post!

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