Fairy tales for grown ups

Marina Warner, author of From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers and Fairy Tales: A Very Short Introduction, writes that the shape – the archetypal plot – of fairy tales are vital to their function; that, in fact, “the structures are a form of language… an Esperanto of the imagination.” Esperanto, the (supposedly) collective language, because while responsive to specific cultural differences, they also extend across languages and cultural groups, appearing in similar forms in very different geographical regions. 

Freud believed that fairy tales function as a kind of mass subconscious, the shared traffic of psychosexual life, and the idea that many of the most popular fairy tales (in the West, at least) function as allegories typically for female sexual development has become so widespread as to become practically uncontroversial. But fairy tales retain their bite – particularly, as Warner notes, when understood as art forms which arise from networks of female communication and interaction and often describe women dealing with violence and danger. These forms of (oral-derived) storytelling speak to the importance of narrative shape, as well as content, which firstly describe reality as it is experienced, and secondly describe how alternative modes are possible – the children outwitting the witch, the bone pipe singing of a murder. Instead of functioning simply as fantasy, fairy tales are an example of the utmost relevance of art to social organisation. As Warner says, “The frameworks of narrative through which we work are more important than we perhaps allow. It's not a frivolous, out-to-the-side activity. It's very central to human thought.”

Watch Marina Warner speaking on fairy tales, hosted by Oxford University Press, here.