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Marina Warner on Fairy Tales

Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner

Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale
by Marina Warner


‘It’s a long time since ogres have seemed so absolutely real,’ says Marina Warner, author and long-time scholar of fairy tales. Which makes now as good a time as any to immerse ourselves in the twisted truths of the fairy tale realm, with Warner's selection of the best books of, or about, other-worldly tales of mischief and subversion, dreams and laughter, ‘hope against hope’

Interview by Thea Lenarduzzi

Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner

Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale
by Marina Warner

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“Once upon a time” must be the first thing people think when they think of fairy tales. It must be the most recognisable and universal of literary lines. Why is it so powerful?

The essence of fairy tales is that they can look at and confront very difficult situations but they distance them into the realm of art and imagination to do so. They create what I think of as a sanctuary – a place of safety – by saying “once upon a time” because it makes it a very long time ago and as the locution itself is archaic, it actually displaces it in space, too. And I think that’s a very important move. It’s a move that’s very resisted, of course, by much contemporary and modern literature, which seeks for maximum truth in realism and naturalism.

Fairytale offers a countervailing tradition that says that the artifice of art is the way to talk about truth and to make it something that is tolerable. This is so that you can listen to it or read it and absorb it and, as it were, know it, but it doesn’t totally undermine or horrify you because it’s in this other place: once upon a time.

And interestingly, in a number of the books that we’ll talk about today, that “once upon a time” disappears from the form in a way. You’re not being transported to a safer place; the worlds kind of intermingle with each other, don’t they? I’m thinking in particular of Kirsty Logan.

Yes, they do. With some of the greatest writers that’s exactly what they do. They take a traditional form – not always a fairy tale but other literary forms – and then their work is to bring it into owning up to recognizable realities and experience.

“Fairytale offers a countervailing tradition that says that the artifice of art is the way to talk about truth and to make it something that is tolerable”

But I think the fairytale tradition also does something that is not entirely caught by “once upon a time”, that is, it remains in the realm of metaphor. Even when you have things that are not fanciful – no pumpkin coaches or anything like that – you still stay in a realm where the writing does not present a mirror image but definitely a concocted thing.

What were the first fairy tales? Who devised them and in what context were they told?

For a very long time, the fairy tale form was disparaged as a popular – usually female – kind of entertainment. So, you even get smears in Plato. You get a lot of discouragement in the 18th century when they were dismissed as silly old wives’ tales. They had that tinge from the start, although there was a lot of working in the opposite direction from the start, too.

The first really famous collector of fairy tales – Charles Perrault – published his collection at the end of the 17th century, Histoires ou contes du temps passé (History of Olden Time) or Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose Tales). He frames them as nonsense that he’s heard from nurses and nannies. But nevertheless, although he pooh-poohs them, he says he’s going to set them down. And he does it with tremendous courtly elegance, rather giving the lie to whatever else he says about them. His is the canonical western collection, giving us Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood.

The Grimms come over a hundred years later. They start collecting in the early 1800s, and publish the first edition of their Children’s and Household Tales 1812, in Germany. There had been a trace already in Perrault of a nationalist strand – you know, “these are French tales, national tales”, popular tales not classical ones with gods and goddesses,- a home-grown literature – but this tendency grows very much stronger in the early 19th century. The Grimms’ collection is exemplary in that – emphasising the local,native born culture, communicated in the vernacular and sometimes even in dialect. Not High German – that was a key part of the project.

But most of the stories were available elsewhere in the world and that is the mystery of fairy tales, how widely distributed a particular plot and character can be.

When people think of fairy tales they do tend to think of mammoth compendiums like the Grimms’ or Perrault’s, or E T A Hoffmann’s.

The impulse to collect came at different times in different places. The Italian ones collected by Italo Calvino were published only in 1956, for instance. Calvino did for the Italians what the Grimms had done for the Germans, 150 years later. Calvino used ethnographers and combed the regional libraries and then made the crucial decision to rewrite them – something that the Grimms hadn’t done, or claimed they hadn’t done. (They claimed to have written them down exactly as they heard them, but in fact they did rewrite a great deal. We know that now from their manuscripts.)

Calvino, though, decided to combine and revision the originals. He sensed that they wouldn’t work on the page, and he was right about that. Oral transcriptions are pretty lifeless on the page so you need a prose stylist like him to come along and turn them into a wonderful, elegant book.

It’s worth noting too that the ethnography movement was Europe-wide, starting in the 18th century and stretching on through the 19th century. I think the word “folklore” in English dates from 1856, which gives you a kind of clue. And so ethnographers in Romania, Bulgaria – you name it – were all absorbed in this work. It was the fashion. Britain was slow to catch on.

Is that a key moment in the life of the fairy tale – the move from oral to written form? Did it change who and what they were for?

I don’t believe that there is a standoff between the oral and the written in any culture that has had written texts for a long time. It’s slightly different in cultures where there hasn’t been a history of written texts. In the whole of the world, from China to Ireland, we have had writing for a very long time, and what you have there is a constant backwards and forwards movement between written and oral forms, in various media.

For example, I think we’ve overlooked the importance of music – songs and ballads. There’s a lot of remembering and retelling of the same stories across different forms and in different media. And of course you get people hugely embroidering, or taking certain motifs and elaborately conjugating them and carrying them along trade routes and pilgrimage roots, with the tales constantly moving from voice to page to voice to page…

Generally, the illiterate received the stories orally, while the literate had their pick of the forms. And then you get lots of cross-fertilizations, of course. For example, Catholic hagiography is actually full of fairy tale motifs, and fairy tales themselves were almost certainly coloured by Catholic hagiography.

Presumably the nature of the teller changed as the form shifted from the feminine art of oral storytelling to a more historically male work of venturing, collecting, cataloguing and editing.

Yes, I’ve become increasingly captivated by the idea first put forward by James Simpson, the historian of the Bible, who said that far from the arrival of the Bible in print being an emancipation of the people, it actually imprisoned them in the imprimatur, in the idea of a canonical text.

I think the same is true of canonical literature. The advent of a supposedly definitive text – as the Grimms’ aimed to be – acted as a brake on the exuberance of invention, on the infidelity of all the translators who were working not necessarily from one language to another but from one medium to another.

So there is something about established writers being male – of course you’re right, it is highly gendered as to who is establishing the canon. Hans Christian Andersen is another example. For a while women became less prominent in the fairytale tradition, having been very prominent in, say, medieval times.

Like Marie de France?

Exactly, in the late 12th century. And they were prominent in the 15th century, too, as well as in Perrault’s time. When Perrault was working there was a group of them, and many of them – friends and colleagues – were women.

Even within an individual collector’s career span mutations occurred, didn’t they? The Grimms’ tales became increasingly sanitized through subsequent editions.

With the Grimms, one of them was busy working on the huge German dictionary and the other continued to work on the tales, growing worried about their content. I mean, they are pretty lurid in parts! Even now people worry about the content and how it relates to different values, which change over time and in different places. The new Beauty and the Beast film, for example [dir. Bill Condon], which I haven’t seen, isn’t sticking to the old Disney cartoon because there are bits of it that we just can’t take anymore – I don’t think that’s wrong.

I don’t think the argument about changing stories should be over whether it’s right or wrong, but over what the values are that we, as a group, as a society, wish to hold. So actually, I think that it’s right that on the whole, unless you have the Complete Grimm, you don’t have the anti-Semitic stories like “The Jew In The Bush”, which is an extremely unpleasant bit of anti-Semitic, atavistic horror. And I think that’s right – it should be dropped. I don’t think we owe it to literature to continue its life.

In a sense, that flies in the face of what happens in literature – literature is at some points a collective expression as a well as an individual act and collective expression can be a force of such enormous good. Remember that many of the worst things in our history were ended because writers wrote about them – slavery for instance. Slave narratives, encouraged by the missionaries, are eloquent and terrifying testimonials but they are also essential literature, playing their part in the drive towards abolition. I don’t believe in art for arts sake.

Apparently there was outcry over a gay kiss in the new Beauty and the Beast – well I say “Hurrah!”

Didn’t George Cruikshank rewrite a few tales in the mid 1800s, tailoring them to work as propaganda for the temperance movement?

Oh, yes, the fountains flow with lemonade at Cinderella’s wedding! Fairy tales are very vulnerable to politically correct uses, it’s true. Jack Zipes – a friend of mine and a colleague to whom I owe a tremendous amount, as anyone interested in fairy tales does – is really against instrumentalization of any kind. He purports only to like things that are manifestly subversive and rebellious. I struggle with that approach – I find it too harsh, too individualistic, subjective and American for my liking. I like to look in terms of broader movements of thought.

“One of the features of the Arabian Nights is that there are so many strong heroines – a lot of passionate, strong creative women having every sort of adventure”

I’m especially preoccupied with this at the moment because I really feel like it’s the only thing we have now, against the various trends that are happening in the world. The best chance we have is to build a consensus of counter opinion – but I really don’t know how we’re going to do it.

Where Zipes argues that individual subversion is essential, you argue that it’s about the tales ability to cohere and say something as a group.

I suppose the reason I’m no longer speaking up for subversion is because we’ve actually seen a lot of very subversive radicalism of the Right. So I don’t think subversion needs encouraging – especially if it leads to giving permission to racism. I mean, both Donald Trump and Nigel Farage are subversives, and now they’ve both met and succeeded. They play that card.

It’s extremely complicated, how I feel about it. There are many ways that metaphor – the ability to imagine another world – can be used for good. Think of Miroslav Holub who showed how Czech tales played their part in the Prague Spring, and think of the work of Ursula Le Guin. Fairy tales can be good when it comes to resistance, like in Kurt Schwitters’ Lucky Hans and Other Merz Fairy Tales [ed. Jack Zipes, 2009].

Those tales were written as a response to the Nazis’ co-opting of traditional German fairy tales. How does resistance manifest itself in the tales?

There are plenty of small, wee creatures that do well; there’s plenty of being on the side of the downtrodden and that kind of attitude. It’s humorous and mischievous, and full of charm.

He’s interested in the idea of ordinary happiness, rather than great heroic success and happiness. That is the underlying momentum. Walter Benjamin liked the fairy tale for many reasons but one was that it was a vernacular form of survival, people telling each other tales of survival against adversity – of happy endings, of the possibility of escape, and redress.

OK, let’s move on to your books, proceeding along a chronological breadcrumb trail. First up, tell us about the Arabian Nights.

Well, the first thing to say is that we don’t know who wrote them. They first came into print in France in the 18th century, in French translation. They didn’t appear in Arabic print publication until much later. There’s not much we can say about their oral circulation before the French texts – but the stories and the motifs surface in other works so we know that people knew them.

The Arabian Nights was a collection of popular, vernacular tales that was actually rather despised by scholars – the Arabic apparently is quite rough, compared to the elegance of the Farsi used in the much better known, more established and highly valued Persian romances of the time. The Arabian Nights tales were considered trifles and not looked after – the same has happened with a lot of early children’s literature. We don’t have a lot of it because no one saw fit to preserve it.

There are 22 partial manuscripts of the Arabian Nights. The one that was used for the 18th-century French translation, now in the Bibliothèque Nationale, is missing a volume, and there’s been a lot of work especially recently to put together the complete version. There’s a contest between the 13-and-a-half-tale version in the Bibliothèque Nationale and versions that have 200+ tales.

Personally, I find it specious to plump for the French edition because it’s clear that we’re talking about a rattle bag of popular tales which were shaped by some people, by a group of people, we’re not sure who, in the 15th century – we’re not sure about that either, it might have been earlier.

What did Europeans make of them when they first arrived in the 18th century?

They caused an absolute furore on both sides of the Channel. The English instantly pirated the French edition and translated it, again anonymously. That English “Grub Street’ version came out in 1705, just a year after the French, so it was all very, very quick, although an awful lot of effort did go into it. And there were many other versions too – I mean, there was a real enthusiasm for it all.

“One of the important things about making up stories and writing things down is that you create a record of all the possible human expressions and emotions so you can understand their calibrations, subtleties and complexities”

It also became the fashion to imitate the tales in a mocking way, and that’s one of the key things about fairy tales: there’s not only the humour of unexpected or outrageous events, but there’s also a kind of humour against itself, a self-aware humour. From the very earliest times, even in the second century, there’s the knowledge that this is all a bit ridiculous and silly. The Arabian Nights is full of that.

How did the European’s repackage this?

Well, one of the things that happened was that Voltaire decided to imitate them and so he moved from writing tragedies and so on, to the Contes philosophique, which were contes orientales by another name – Zadig was the first but Candide is perhaps the best known – in which he imitated the sudden twists and hyperbole and people being resurrected and so on that he picked up from the tales. He found this particular language that he could use to express some of his most subversive ideas. So it was a cloak but a very transparent one.

There was that kind of imitation but there were also more elegant imitations – a lot of women, for example, wrote harem stories. One of the features of the Arabian Nights is that there are so many strong heroines – a lot of passionate, strong creative women having every sort of adventure.

Like the frame narrative?

Yes, exactly. Scheherazade is an example, but it’s a complicated book and this is a complicated issue. Scheherazade is also a kind of misogynist trope in that here you have a clever women beguiling a man and therefore getting her way. But what’s interesting about the overall effect is that while it seems to have taken up the theme of ‘the wiles of women’– an absolutely basic, fundamental theme running thorough all of literature – it also shows that this can be changed into something that does expand the mind of a tyrant. The overall effect of Scheherazade’s stories is to deepen and enrich the tyrant’s understanding of people’s behaviour. There is no white wash, nothing PC about her stories – what her stories do is honour the complexities of life, so that his brutal and swift solutions – i.e. if he doesn’t like a woman, he’ll kill her – is shown to be not a proper way to behave. So there’s that not simply merciful but also philosophical depth to the book.

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I think that’s part of what accounts for the tales’ tremendous popularity. Quite a lot of the plot structures expressed the new realities of the world in the early 18th century. One of them, which I really think is very important for our own times, is that money in the Arabian Nights is an omnipresent goal and desire. But money is fantasmic. Money comes and money vanishes; it comes out of a genie-inhabited bottle; it comes out of the ground. And it disappears with no explanation… This is interesting because we’re talking about a period when, for European readers, paper money was more or less invented – it’s the first time in modernity, since the Ming Dynasty’s failed experiments, that money became unpinned from real value.

Money became, at the time when readers were so enthusiastically receiving the Arabian Nights, a simply contractual affair, and a shared fantasy. And this new reality is reflected throughout the Arabian Nights. There had not been fiction before the translations of the Arabian Nights that spoke to this development for European readers. There are so many aspects of the new modernity that were somehow recognized unconsciously within these stories. It’s a similar thing to when people say Dracula is really about the property market.

What about editions? There have been a number of new editions in the past ten years or so and the extended list you sent me before we whittled it down suggested you were torn between (at least) two: a two-volume edition translated by Husain Haddawy, published by Norton in 2008, and a three-volume translation by Malcolm Lyons, edited by Robert Irwin and published by Penguin in 2010. How do they differ?

The Husain Haddawy is much more useable – in part because it’s only the first 13 stories in the first volume, he doesn’t do the others; and then in the second volume, he brings us a selection. His English is plain and elegant.

The Lyons edition – unless Penguin has re-edited it recently – is much less useable because it has no running heads with the titles of stories so you never know where you are. There’s no proper index, which is a real problem in a volume with more than 200 stories. It’s so poorly organized that when I was teaching from it I had to make an index for my students!

I feel like there’s an “and yet…” coming…

And yet, it’s complete, which is great. It’s the one that has taken up and worked from the full complete Arabic manuscripts, going back to the dirty vernacular with all its crude language and jokes. It’s much raunchier.

Unsurprisingly, fairytales vary wildly from continent to continent, country to county. Your next book comes from Italy: Italo Calvino’s Italian Folk Tales (l956), translated by George Martin (published by Penguin in l980). In 2000 it became a Penguin Classic. It’s interesting, in light of what you were saying earlier, that it was commissioned by the publisher to answer the question, ‘Is there an Italian equivalent of the Brothers Grimm?’

As a communist, Calvino himself realised I think that the kind of realist literature he had been writing didn’t really appeal very much to the people he wanted to reach – Pier Paolo Pasolino made the same move in his trilogy of films that included one on the Canterbury Tales. The literature of working people, the people who the communists wanted to include in culture rather than separate from it, was steeped in the exuberant fairy tale, and Calvino wanted to see that culture recognised. But when he looked around he couldn’t see a book that did that and so he decided to do it himself.

He writes in his introduction about how he became so completely and deeply absorbed by it all – he says at one point that he would have given the whole of Proust just to find another variation on the tale of the donkey that shat gold.

Italy’s regions vary so much as we move up, down and across the peninsula, not to mention the effects of different immigrant cultures which must have influenced story-telling. What was Calvino’s methodology?

He collected the tales from the ethnographers around the country, who had already gathered them up – including a brilliant Sicilian, Giuseppe Pitrè, who was a doctor in Palermo in the nineteenth-century, who collected them from his patients. He’s a very important figure in all of this.

In Italy the ethnographers had been very, very busy right through the 18th and 19th centuries, gathering up these fragments in pursuit of the idea of italianità. They were finding out about the many streams feeding this extraordinarily rich and varied culture.

And so Calvino went to all the local libraries collecting them, and one of the reasons he decided to translate them all into his own prose was because there were just so many of them.

This has all been very much in my mind because I’ve been involved in this project in Palermo – a refugee storytelling project for ‘minorenni’, aged l8 and under. We’ve been trying to create a space for refugees to tell stories from their own culture, or to invent stories out of their own culture rather than tell stories of their own often tragic circumstances. It is called Stories in Transit and we are currently building the website,, where we’ll archive the work – the plays and songs etc of the young people.

They have an educational purpose, don’t they? ‘Lose your temper and you lose your bet’, ‘The science of laziness’, ‘Dauntless young John’….

I see the telling of stories as an opportunity for mischief and defiance, dreams and laughter – hope against hope.

Calvino was following the lead of Russian scholars. How does his edition compare with, say, the next book on your list, Russian Magic Tales, edited by Robert Chandler?

Oh, the Chandler volume is simply wonderful. The Russian tradition is very interesting because some of the things I was saying before don’t quite apply – the tradition does seem to be sui generis in some respects. I remember reading somewhere that there are more unique fairytales in Alexander Afanasyev’s collection, published in Russian in the 19th century, than there are in any of the other comparable collections. Some scholars do this “tale type” classification – which I’m not too keen on – by which, for example, “Sleeping Beauty” is listed as “AT-134”, but what this work does build to show is thatb the Russians have the most single stories of any of the cultures studied. That’s partly to do, probably, with the isolation of certain districts. Around the Pole, you get a lot of similar tales circulating – from the Finns, the Lapps, and the Japanese – there are echoes across the Polar region; but there are still some truly isolated pockets in Russia, with tales that are found nowhere else.

You also get some very, very, very unusual ones in Iceland.

You’re going to have to give us an example.

Oh, there are some very strange tales indeed in Iceland. There’s one that, in fact, Angela Carter included in her Virago Book of Fairytales (1992), and it features a relationship that to my knowledge is unique: an Eskimo hunter goes off hunting, leaving behind his new bride with his mother. The two women are alone and so isolated that, after a while, the mother-in-law starts to look at her charge differently. She’s very pretty, she finds…. She falls in love with her. I think not even the Greek myths got round to that one.

Which brings us neatly to Angela Carter, whose work also brings us closer to home. The next few books on your list – from Carter and Lesley Nneka Arimah (and you’ve snuck in an extra one, by Kirsty Logan) – shift the gear a bit. The stories become tougher, more pointed – sexual politics come to the fore.

One of the things I like about the genre is that it is a common language so that people can pick it up and use it – it’s like a tune, like “Greensleeves”; you may recognize it as “Greensleeves” at the same time as recognizing that it’s a completely different, new way of doing “Greensleeves” – one with a jazz riff, or something. Some of the classic jazz numbers are really in themselves something that surpasses the original, in a way. I’d put Carter’s “The Werewolf”, based on “Little Red Riding Hood”, in that category. The same with her “Beauty and the Beast” – she’s created unsurpassed variations that have become standards in their own right.

Carter is a kind of fairy godmother for the fairytale genre.

Yes, and interestingly she changed a lot in her career. She moved away from subversion. Some of the tales in The Bloody Chamber are just full of an absolute spit-in-your-eye kind of rebel tough-talk as well as sexual delinquency with a very specific feminist agenda, and I wonder what she would have made of that herself now. What has happened to sexuality and to young women, and attitudes around pornography and how one might use it in this way or that, is considerable and one wonders what she would have thought of it all.

I would love to know, for instance, what she thought of Fifty Shades of Grey – for her it would have been like looking in a horribly distorted mirror. Quite apart from the fact that the writing in that book is terrible, the S & M relationship is one that Carter had herself investigated a lot. She does stage escapes, of course, so that Carter’s relationships never resolve into submission. That’s an important point.

“There are still some truly isolated pockets in Russia, with tales that are found nowhere else – and you get some very, very, very unusual ones in Iceland”

But, as I said, she moved away from subversion and over the arc of her writing life she moved on to the idea that you could mobilize a story to create something more than that. Certainly her last two novels, Nights at the Circus (1984) and Wise Children (1991), use folk motifs to talk about common culture, tolerance, the new multiculturalism, and the new multi-ethnic culture.

There is humour in them, too, but the resolve at the end of Nights at the Circus, in which there is this emphatic resolution of love between the heroine, “Fevvers” and the journalist Jack Walser – that’s not the old subversive Carter.

Burning Your Boats: The Collected Short Stories, published posthumously in 1995, spans that career and so tracks that change. Is there one story in it you’re particularly fond of?

I absolutely love her last “Cinderella” – “Ashputtle or The Mother’s Ghost” [which first appeared in 1993, in American Ghosts and Old World Wonders] – in which she takes the Grimms’ motif of the mother returning to help her daughter. She combs her hair and says ‘you’ve worn out my nails’ and says to her ‘now you’re strong and ready to go out into the world on your own’. And so she sends her into the world strong and happy. I think that’s a really beautiful story.

Carter lived in Japan, the United States and Australia – how did those countries’ traditions influence her writing?

Japan certainly did. She went there because she liked Japanese cinema. She liked the films of Akira Kurosawa, which were a blend of realism and fantasy and fairytale – so that was a strong pull on her. And she liked Japanese ghosts stories. In the 1960s there were more of those around – now they have the Studio Ghibli, of course, which is wonderful, but there was a rich scene in Carter’s time too. That’s what drew her there.

And she loved Yukio Mishima, too.

With all of that influence fizzing around her, how out of the blue was what she was doing in the UK? Who had inspired her? I know, for example, you’ve recently written an introduction to a collection of stories by Leonora Carrington – was she an influence?

Someone told me that Carter did know “The Debutante” [Carrington’s most famous short story; re-published in a new edition earlier this year]. It was discovered in her library.

Carter came across Carrington through Surrealism, which was an important influence on her – French Surrealism was very much the milieu of her earlier work especially. It wasn’t so much the fairytale aspects of Carrington that drew Carter to her; I think it was the Surrealist coordinates of communism, sexual liberation, delinquency, foul-mouthedness, blasphemy. She was very interested in blasphemy as a method of shaking up thought.

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Fairytale is good at that, too, because it’s part of looking at the unspeakable things that people do, perhaps using blasphemy to challenge and take down tyrants.

I don’t think she was interested by Australia particularly, although she loved the birds – the parrots!

The US, she went to to teach. At the time she was lucky enough to go there it was a different place. The Americans have always had a great cult of literature and specifically of the short story. That was important. There was a great interest in her work over there, which hadn’t yet happened in the UK. She never had an easy time in the UK. She never won a prize, or anything.

There’s been a revival of interest in her work in the UK recently. There’s Edmund Gordon’s excellent biography, for example. How do you explain this revival? Why now?

Hugely renewed interest, yes, and very much in academe, too. It’s because she’s an absolutely extraordinarily good writer. People are recognizing it – her writing is just astonishingly lively, and rich, and her thought hasn’t aged. She’s very fresh and agile in her thinking. She was a tremendous freethinker in the best possible way.

Is it fair to say that Kirsty Logan is Carter’s inheritor? One thinks of her collection The Rental Heart and Other Fairy Tales (2014). They’re stories full of crimes of passion and obsessive desires; the title story imagines a world in which broken hearts can be traded in for new ones.

Logan is very imaginative and very fertile. She’s the kind of congenial spirit that one likes to be with as a reader. But her work is much gentler than Carter’s, much more tender and touching and poignant.

Because she is a lesbian and many of her stories are allegories of lesbian love, she is very much what I was saying earlier: this is literature that creates a realm of understanding and mutual feeling that can build something. This may not explicitly be Logan’s intention – although I expect it is.

Tell us about A Portable Shelter (2015).

A Portable Shelter is not a collection of fairytales but a novel with fairytales interpolated. It’s actually about telling fairytales to a baby, and creating a safe place for the baby in the process.

There’s a kind of dystopian vision hanging over it, some kind of apocalypse coming. There’s a Noah’s Ark feel to it. And this couple has a baby and they are keeping it safe by telling these stories.

Before we move on to your final book, Naomi Mitchison is another key figure we should mention. The Fourth Pig, first published in 1936, being her best-known work. How important is she to the genre and its modern mutations?

Mitchison is a bit of a forgotten figure and yet she had a great spirit and led an amazing life. The best place to start with her is her play Kate Crackernuts, which she wrote for children to perform. It’s a traditional fairy tale – its name comes from the Scottish tradition. It’s the same story as Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”, except here it is a man who is saved from the goblins who would steal him away into the underworld. And although he loves being there with the fairies and the fairy queen, the woman who loves him back on earth fights, fights, fights the goblins and fairies to bring the earthling back to safety.

Mitchison married a Scotsman and they lived on the beautiful Mull of Kintyre. And she had a Scottish nationalist period in her life and she fought for fishing rights and all manner of things. She came from the Oxford intelligentsia-aristocracy.

Do you see her influence on Logan, a fellow Scot?

Yes, I do, but the person who really thinks highly of Mitchison is Ali Smith. So I think in Scotland she does have a kind of aura, which she doesn’t have down South.

Let’s move on to your last book, Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When a Man Falls from The Sky. It’s not out in the UK until August. Tell us what to expect?

I really think very, very highly of it.

One of its stories, “Who Will Greet You at Home”, appeared in the New Yorker a couple of years ago.

That’s a really brilliant story.

Something we should touch on which we haven’t yet is that the idea of projecting into another time or space belongs to science fiction or to utopian fiction, too. That’s why, when Angela Carter was first published, she was classified under science fiction, which wasn’t strictly correct.

Now, What It Means When a Man Falls from The Sky brings up the same difficulties around classification. There are some rather good realist stories in this collection, but I’m most interested in where she uses fantasy in order to edge towards apocalypse and dystopia. That’s what we see her doing in “Who Will Greet You at Home”, where we find a world of designer babies in a nightmare form.

“The story is a poignant nightmare. It’s a horrendous story. I had terrible dreams after reading it, all about babies and death. She got very deep down into my psyche”

It’s also a critique of the pressures on women to be fertile and to be mothers. Apparently this is very strong in Nigeria where she has roots. She seems to know the culture very well although she now lives in the US. She was born in the UK, though.

The story is a poignant nightmare. It’s a horrendous story. I had terrible dreams after reading it, all about babies and death. She got very deep down into my psyche.

The collection’s title story is set in a post-apocalyptic flooded world, rife with class struggle, in which experts have discovered how to “fix the equation of a person”. It feels deeply unsettling and a very cutting critique of – I presume – America, where Nneka Arimah now lives?

It’s a very interesting reflection on the inability of systems to crush human emotion, which, I think, literature expresses. So one of the important things about making up stories and writing things down is that you create a record of all the possible human expressions and emotions and you understand their calibrations and subtleties and their complexities. I wouldn’t know half of what I know if I didn’t read about it – I’m not that good at noticing myself. I need other people to notice for me. Fiction can do that. It’s an amazing seismograph. When I first started reading the Brontës or George Eliot, for instance, I learnt so much about how people interact.

Lesley Nneka Arimah is good on that?

Absolutely. We have this shiny and horrible sort of brave new world, with mathematicians having found this code – “the equation of a person” – that runs everything perfectly. But of course it doesn’t run everything perfectly and passion breaks though.

In this world, the narrator’s role is to be a Grief Eater. These particular gifted children – gifted because they have the right mathematical code –are seemingly capable of absorbing or removing grief from the world. But it turns out that that doesn’t add up. Grief is overwhelming. Grief can’t be “eaten” by a code; computers can’t process grief.

The fairy tale genre – taken as a rough whole – seems like a very female one now, which sort of returns us to where it started.

Yes, and it’s also the case in the visual arts – Paula Rego and Kiki Smith. A lot of women artists are drawing on fairy-tale.

I think its partly to do with this idea of a common language, a way of looking through a lens that will be shared by someone else so that one can have a shared joke, one can have a shared transgression. It’s a way of reaching out through a common vernacular, tapping the reader or the viewer and letting them feel they’re in on the game.

There’s a very good collection we haven’t had time to discuss called Caught in a Story: Contemporary Fairytales and Fables [1992; edited by Caroline Heaton and Christine Park]. It has a number of these witchy reversals of well-known fairy tales. There’s a particularly good one – with a very 1960s feel of asserting independence – by Ruth Fainlight, which I’ll leave your readers to discover for themselves if they don’t already know it.

Are things becoming progressively darker, fiercer and weirder?

They are, yes, and I think that’s a case of the genre keeping in step with the rest of the world. It’s a long time since ogres have seemed so absolutely real. That’s the thing: ogres often come across as a little bit foolish but they are very, very dangerous.

Interview by Thea Lenarduzzi

July 27, 2017

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Marina Warner

Marina Warner

Marina Warner writes fiction and cultural history. Her books include From the Beast to the Blonde (l994), the novels Indigo (l992) and The Leto Bundle (2000), and Stranger Magic: Charmed States and The Arabian Nights (2011). She has curated exhibitions, including The Inner Eye (l996), Metamorphing (2002-3) and Only Make-Believe: Ways of Playing (2005). Her essays on art will be collected in Art & Enchantment (forthcoming). In 2015, she was awarded the Holberg Prize in the Arts and Humanities. She is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Birkbeck College, a Fellow of the British Academy and President of the Royal Society of Literature.

Marina Warner

Marina Warner

Marina Warner writes fiction and cultural history. Her books include From the Beast to the Blonde (l994), the novels Indigo (l992) and The Leto Bundle (2000), and Stranger Magic: Charmed States and The Arabian Nights (2011). She has curated exhibitions, including The Inner Eye (l996), Metamorphing (2002-3) and Only Make-Believe: Ways of Playing (2005). Her essays on art will be collected in Art & Enchantment (forthcoming). In 2015, she was awarded the Holberg Prize in the Arts and Humanities. She is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Birkbeck College, a Fellow of the British Academy and President of the Royal Society of Literature.